© 2020 by Nat Ballenberg

What I Learned From Strongman and Marathon Training

Updated: Dec 27, 2019

About ten or eleven years ago, I met a guy from my gym who was training to compete in a strongman competition. He was a big dude and a nice guy, so on the day of the competition I decided to head over to the event site to check it out and see what kind of crazy stuff this guy could lift.


The competition was only a few miles away from my house, and I decided that instead of driving, I'd just run over. (Or my car was broken and I was too poor to fix it. Who can remember.)


The event was amazing. I was pretty strong at the time and felt that with a little training I could get out there, try really hard, move some weight, have some fun, and place somewhere near the bottom of the lightweight division.


And then I ran home.


By that night I had created my first truly long term, bucket-listeque goal: At some point in my life, I wanted to compete in a strongman competition and run a marathon within 6 months and 10lbs of each other.


This June I competed in the Novice Lightweight class of Rituals of Strength 2 in Rochester, NY.


And four Sundays ago I ran the Philly Marathon.


It was a great two years of training. Here are a few of the things I learned:

The strength of the foundation determines the strength of the house.

Underlying strengths are huge. My biggest asset in strongman was core control. In marathoning it was strength.


The ability to control my core with 600lbs on my back allowed me to walk with 600lbs on my back. While many people in the competition were much stronger than me and could certainly lift much heavier weights than I could, I was able to walk with any weight that I could get off the ground.



In marathoning they tell you to go easy down the hills because it's taxing on your quads. Well, if you have a decent base level of quad strength, running fast down the hills can really improve your time. And powerful glutes allow you to continue to drive up a hill. So where did I pass an extremely high percentage of those I passed? You guessed it: on the hills.


So while specific training is vital, there are always underlying abilities that lay the foundation for a skill.


For example, the best way to throw faster is to try to throw faster. Yet there exists many strength, mobility, and coordinative components that can limit pitch velocity. Failing to address these is failing to build a foundation.


Having a specific goal for each training day works.

Speaking of specific training, I ran only 3 times per week during my marathon training, but each of those days served a specific purpose.


Day 1 was at or just faster than anticipated marathon pace. It got me used to cruising speed.


Day 2 was 800 meter repeats with a slow jog recovery. This jacked my heartrate up, gave my body some exposure to a higher level of force production, and accustomed my tissues and energy systems to running while wildly fatigued and out of breath.


Day 3 was a long run, prescribed to keep me on my feet for an extended period of time. This allowed my cardiac system, muscles, tendons, and joints to adapt to the rigors of running for an extended period.


Despite training just three days per week, this plan prepared me completely for the marathon and got me thinking about ways in which some of my previous training may have gone astray. It's easy to get caught up in the minutiae of a training plan and lose sight of it's ultimate goal. I have certainly made this mistake in the past, trying to chase strength, speed, rotational power, mobility, and technical mastery of a sport in a single day.


My marathon training, on the other hand, reminds me of Westside's conjugate method. For those unfamiliar, Westside training sessions always have a focus. They attack either maximum strength through a Maximum Effort day, or explosiveness via a Dynamic Effort day. The only other focus of the program is on volume, or the Repetition Method, which simply supports the Maximum and Dynamic Effort work.



Trying to figure out how this line of thinking could work to develop a baseball player can be a bit tricky. When the goal you are chasing is not just the weight on the bar or a time in a race, the relationship between the inputs and the outputs can get a little fuzzy.


Like I mentioned before, aspects of strength, speed, rotational power, and mobility certainly build the foundation for the execution of a specific sporting movement like throwing, so training them concurrently may be necessary. But organizing the training into specific time periods or days blocked out with different priorities may be the most efficient path to growth.

Attempting to work on several mechanical changes in the pitching delivery, for example, is a recipe for... nothing. You'll likely get lost in the lack of specificity.


But can we focus on one movement goal, one strength goal, one rotational power goal, and one mechanical goal in a single day? I think we can. I can imagine a workout that begins with a focus on movement enhancement, flows into a rotational power component, seamlessly blends into the mechanical work, and finishes with a strength focus.


I think the key is to not get lost chasing too many movement goals, too many mechanical fixes, or too many types of physical improvements in one session.


Moving forward I'm going to work to disprove the assumption that each training session should be developed with a singular goal in mind for each specific area of focus. I’ll keep you posted with what I learn.

Having a goal makes a task more enjoyable.

I’ve never been a big fan of running. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those baseball guys who hates running. I came up in the days of poles and flush runs, so rest assured I’ve run my fair share of 5 milers. And I’ve certainly continued to run sprints several times per week for the past decade or so, mixing in the occasional shuttle run and a mostly once per week 2-3 miler.


But during marathon training I actually came to like it. It's amazing what having something to work towards can do for motivation. Every time I went out to run 19 miles or power through a 10x800 workout, I had marathon day in mind. It was what drove me. And during the training I thought I might actually be learning to love running. I’d find myself lost in thought on a long run, completely relaxed. At times it was wonderful.


Yet 2 weeks after the race I was back to my old self. Running is fine. I’d rather sprint. And anything over 3 miles feels like a lifetime.


James Clear wrote, "Goals are at odds with long-term progress." And this makes sense. If you work with the goal in mind, the goal becomes the thing. But if you work with the work in mind, the work becomes the thing.


If I had gone into the marathon with the intention of becoming a runner, maybe I'd still love running, because…

Doing something because you love it makes it sustainable.

I'll keep lifting forever because I really enjoy the act of lifting. Goal or no goal it is the best part of my day. Training for Strongman was hard and time consuming, but the only real change in my intent was the focus I had on my sleep and recovery.



I continued to lift while training for my marathon, not only because I wanted to maintain strength for the race, but because I love lifting. The gym is my happy place. It's where I find sanity. The moments of and surrounding big sets are some of the truest moments of my life. I am never more present than when under the bar.


So I will always lift. And because of this I will most certainly always be a better lifter than runner.


This parallels well with my outlook on work. It really doesn't matter how good you are when you start or how much knowledge you begin with. If you love what you do you will do it with passion, but you will also do it with consistency. And in time that's what matters. Years and years of volume lead to tremendous results.

Slowly build soft tissue integrity and resilience.

Speaking towards the specific adaptations previously mentioned, my legs never felt better than when I was logging my longest weeks. 39 miles in week 17 felt infinitely less taxing on my structures than 15 miles felt on week 1.


This is why it's important to build up when throwing and to not get too worried if it feels a little stiff early on.


Or better yet, this is a reason to grease the groove and never really stop throwing. While the industry standard is to take 8-12 weeks off of throwing per year to allow the body and mind to recover from the grind of the season, more and more pitchers are ditching the conventional wisdom.


The concept of monitoring an acute to chronic workload ratio is beginning to take the place of generic shutdown and on-ramps, with cheap, portable technology like the motusTHROW easily measuring these metrics.


Starting from a complete shutdown and building up to a safe level of arm fitness for competition takes a long time, and most pitchers have trouble sticking to specified intent levels, leaving them more prone to injury as the season starts than at any other time of the year.


Armed with this knowledge, pitchers like Max Scherzer are throwing year round, (even if it is only tossing a tennis ball with their dog) and coaches like Alan Jaeger are pushing for more gradual off-ramps and on-ramps.



This all makes total sense. Not only did my legs feel their best when spending weeks and months building up to high volume, but that's also when my arm has felt its best. The best I ever pitched was at the end of 11 months of continuous baseball.


On a stupid note, I did a full sprint session 10 days after my marathon. My calves were sore for 6 days. When I told my good friend, former ‘boss’, and respected colleague Cory Walts about this, he asked me if I’d have my pitchers throw at max intent after 6 months of easy catch play. I wouldn’t.


So when you begin training for something new, or return to something you've been away from for awhile, start slowly, build gradually, layer intensity, and let the body adapt.

Without context we know nothing.

I always used to judge people performing crappy rows with way too much weight. Then I started training for strongman and learned that Kroc Rows are amazing at building grip and back strength. I now find it much harder to comment on the training of others, which is a good thing.


If you don't know the whole story you can't judge the behavior. A 'bad driver' might be in a rush to get to the hospital for the birth of a child. A bitter co-worker may be going through a nasty break up. An obese stranger may have a thyroid disease. And a partial depth squatter may have arthritic knees.


Similarly, you can't expect to emotionally understand someone the first day you meet them. Nor can you expect to be a good friend or coach before investing the time to get to know the person, including their needs, goals, and motivations. Let's judge less and communicate more.



And now it's on to the next goal. I've begun training to throw 85mph at the 2020 Haverford College Baseball alumni game.


Feel free to follow along on my new Instagram. I'll be trying out all sorts of fun things!