How Nell Rojas Builds the Strength Needed to Take on Marathons

Heavy weightlifting and mobility work always have a place on her training plan.

nell rojas strength workout
Derek Call

Nell Rojas—two-time top American finisher at the Boston Marathon—isn’t afraid to lift heavy. When she’s not in the middle of a 26.2 training cycle, like the one that led her to a 2:25:57 PR and 10th place overall finish just last month, she’s in the weight room four days a week. (When her miles pick up, she drops it down to one to two days a week.)

“I love feeling strong,” Rojas tells Runner’s World. “When I’m running, I love having a really strong posture and structure. It really opens up my hips after a long run, for example, so I feel more fluid. And I feel like I’m almost bulletproof when I’m really consistent in the gym, and then it really opens up what I can do in running because I’m confident that I won’t get injured.”

A certified weightlifting coach and functional movement specialist, Rojas not only dedicates her own workouts to building a powerful, resilient body, but coaches other runners to do the same.

To find out exactly what gets her strong enough to bound down Boylston at a nearly 5:30 per mile average pace, we asked Rojas exactly why strength training is so important for runners (for any weightlifting naysayers out there), plus all her tips for how to get the most out of your weight training—and your running.

Why should runners strength train?

“I would say the number-one reason [to strength train] is that it’ll keep you running consistently. Because you need to load your skeleton, so that you can handle all of those miles,” Rojas says. Running is such a forward-moving sport that keeps you in a narrow range of motion, she explains, but strength training can open up that range, getting you out of your typical movement pattern and creating all-over power and resiliency. This is what will keep you healthy, she says.

The number-two reason to make sure strength is on your training plan: It helps add power to every step. “It gives runners the competence to surge up a hill,” she says. “It also plays a huge part in being able to kick at the end of a race—you can recruit more muscle fibers and you have more of that anaerobic reserve that you wouldn’t have, had you not done strength training.”

So if you’re looking for an edge that will help you break a new personal record, strength training could be your ticket to a faster finish.

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6 Tips From Rojas on Creating a Powerful Strength-Training Plan

Focus on the lower body

Rojas’s four days in the gym include heavy lifting, with a focus on different parts of the lower body, including the lower leg (like the calves), hip strength, rotational strength (check out her IG post for a few moves), and quad strength.

When asked about her go-to moves, she says she does “a lot” of deadlifts, in a few different forms, plus a few other heavy leg-focused exercises:

Sumo Deadlift: Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Holding a barbell or heavy dumbbell in each hand down in front of body, palms facing you, hinge at the hips by sending the butt straight back and bending knees slightly. Keep back flat and core engaged. Drive through feet to stand back up, extending hips. Repeat.

Romanian Deadlift: Standing with feet hip-width apart, toes pointing forward. Holding a barbell or heavy dumbbell in each hand down in front of body, palms facing you, hinge at the hips by sending the butt straight back, creating a micro-bend in the knees. (Knees stay straighter than in the traditional or sumo deadlift.) Keep back flat and core engaged. Drive through feet to stand back up, extending hips. Repeat.

Split Squats: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a heavy dumbbell in each hand or with a barbell racked across the shoulders, behind the head. Take a big step back with right foot. This is your starting position. Bend both knees (they should hit about 90 degrees), left knee lowering toward the floor. Right knee should stay tracking over toes. Lower until left knee is just above the floor, then drive through feet to return to starting position. Repeat. Then switch sides.

Reverse Deficit Lunges: Start standing on a box or step. Hold a heavy dumbbell in each hand down by sides. Step left foot back, keeping right foot on top of box or step, and lower into a lunge, both knees bending 90 degrees. Keep chest tall and core tight. Drive through right foot to stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.

Leg Press: Start on a leg press machine, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees bent. With control, press the machine away from you until legs are straight, but knees soft. Slowly re-bend knees. Repeat. (Don’t have a leg press machine? Go for a heavy squat.)

Calf Raises: Start standing with feet hip-width apart, holding a heavy dumbbell in each hand or a barbell racked on the shoulders, behind the head. Lift heels off the floor, coming onto the balls of your feet. With control, lower back down. Repeat.

Go for that heavier weight

Rojas most often trains with barbells, especially in moves like the deadlift. For these heavy lifts, she goes for a one-rep max—that’s the most weight you can lift for just one rep—or up to three reps. This form of training really focuses on building strength in the muscles, and considering the moves Rojas performs, it especially targets those key running muscles like the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Anything she performs with dumbbells, like the reverse deficit lunge, she’ll go for eight to 12 reps, but still with a heavy weight.

Doing these moves during the offseason, or before a marathon cycle, means she’s really pushing herself hard. “That’s where I get fatigued in the gym; I get sore in the gym,” she says. When she is training for a marathon, Rojas makes sure to put her heavy weight training day on the same day as a hard run workout. That way she has a full day of rest after.

Make sure you move well too

While lifting heavy and building strength is important, so too is making sure you can perform full-range-of-motion movements. That’s why it’s important to incorporate mobility into your routine, focusing on the spine, shoulders, and even your big toe. Working spine and shoulder mobility into your routine allows you to maintain that upright posture on the run, even in the later miles of a race like the marathon, while mobility in the big toe allows for a strong push-off through the gait cycle.

To focus on the spine, Rojas does rotational work. One of her favorites: spinal rotation on the GHD machine at the gym. (You’ll find it on the last slide of her IG post, which also includes breathing exercises.)

When it comes to her feet, Rojas pays special attention to the toe and creating strength through the arch of the foot. For that, she focuses on pails and rails, an isometric way of training that helps to improve range of motion. To do it, find a box or the side of a workout bench where you can extend your big toe up the side. Make sure the ball of the foot stays on the ground while the big toe lifts—you should feel tension from the toes through the heel. Stretch in different directions by bending the knee or rotating the hips. After stretching, press down through the big toe, creating tension to build strength.

Train areas that typically get injured

When planning her strength routines, Rojas focuses on what aspects of her body are prone to injury. “I’ve had Achilles problems; I’ve had neuromas; I’ve had plantar fasciitis; I have bunions. So, I need to make sure I get that foot strength and mobility,” she says. “I need to make sure that I hit the calves and make sure that they’re strong enough to withstand the marathon, that they have the right range of motion, and that they’re not tight.”

Another common spot that causes aches and pains: the hips. “A lot of injuries stem from not having enough hip strength,” Rojas says. “So you want to look at all movements of the hip and really hit that pretty hard.”

Moves like deadlifts, squats, and hip thrusts will hit the hips, but abduction (outer thigh and glute) and adduction (inner thigh) exercises are also key, as well as rotation. (Check out this single-leg deadlift variation with Rojas for exercise inspiration.)

Know the terrain you’re going to tackle

If you’re in the middle of a marathon cycle—or you know a race course you’ll be running in the fall, and you’re starting to weight train now—build strength and power for that specific course.

For Boston, Rojas tailored her strength routine to help her tackle the hills. She focused on eccentric quad work, with moves like walking lunges and reverse Nordic curls (moves one and two on this Instagram video from Rojas), as well as downhill strides. Focusing on the uphill was also in her routine, with moves like uphill bounds (a plyometric move that involves jumping up and forward an incline, on one or two feet) and uphill strides.

Stay consistent and continue to progress

To see strength and power gains from your workout, you have to train regularly—just like you do with your running. “The most important thing with strength is that you're consistent with it,” Rojas says.

You don’t have to spend an hour lifting weights and it doesn’t have to be that hard if you don’t want it to be. “It just needs to be a different stimulus,” she says. “And it needs to progress—whether that means more reps, more sets, or adding more weight.”

Progressive overload is what keeps your body from hitting a plateau so you continue to improve and become an overall well-rounded athlete. Plus, it makes strength work even more exciting.

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