Endurance training and strength sports- not two things that typically go together. Most of the strongest people you know probably aren’t out there running marathons— and for good reason. The training required to excel at either end of the spectrum is only part of the reason; there’s also the issue of body type, the fact that running and lifting tend to appeal to very different sorts of reward centers in the brain (“I love that runner’s high that kicks in around mile 20!” Said no powerlifter, ever,) not to mention that fundamentally strength and endurance athletes tend to not have much in common, other than arguments over whether or not a squat suit and Chuck Taylors look any more or less ridiculous than men’s neon booty shorts and black and yellow Kayanos.But there are plenty of reasons that some of you strength focused folks may be interested in distance running (which will be the example for cardio I’m using in this article). There may be the heart health aspect. You may want to be able to climb up a few flights of stairs without feeling quite so winded. You may need to run a certain distance at a certain speed for your job as part of a physical. Your coach may want you to, if you’re a stick and ball type of athlete. Or you may just be completely bat**** crazy and so alpha that you can’t tolerate not being any good at something. Regardless, the purpose of this article is to show you there’s hope- you can serve two masters and improve your cardiovascular fitness without compromising strength. It just takes careful planning and a working understanding of the physical adaptations you’re going for.
When I started marathon training a number of years ago, I watched my 700 pound deadlift plummet- my recovery just wasn’t there. I lost muscle, I was sore 24/7, I got stress fractures and shin splints… and I still wasn’t a very good runner. Fast forward to now, in the next six months I’ve got an Ironman, an ultramarathon, and at least one powerlifting competition planned, and I can safely say I’m on pace to smash PRs at all of them. What did I change? Nothing earth shattering, I just stopped pretending to be superhuman and realized that just working harder wasn’t the answer- with less room for error, I needed to, well, make fewer errors.
What’s your goal?
This is the most important question to ask yourself- what is it you’re trying to achieve by incorporating running or some sort of serious cardio into your routine? Is it just to improve aerobic capacity? If so, are you looking for sports-specific aerobic capacity? Developing the ability to run long distances won’t help you in the farmer’s walk, so make sure that you understand what it is you’re trying to achieve. Building local muscle endurance is something else entirely outside the scope of this article- read on if your goal is to build overall aerobic capacity, be a better runner, and/or achieve some particular time or distance goal, be it for the military, police force, or even just running a fast 5k (or marathon).
This being said, say you are a powerlifter and at this point you’re thinking “If I want to build overall aerobic capacity, aren’t I better off doing tire flips or some sort of general metabolic conditioning?” The answer is a resounding NO. The best way to serve two masters is to keep their needs as separate as possible (just leave that statement alone, please) by understanding your recovery and energy systems.
Understanding your recovery and energy systems.
No, I am not about to launch into a poorly worded explanation of glycolysis, the electron transport chain, the Krebs cycle, or any other such first year bio class presentation that seems to be mandatory in fitness writing. I won’t insult your intelligence or underestimate your ability to use Google and Wikipedia. Just understand the order in which energy substrates are used by the body: ATP and creatine phosphate during short, intense bursts of activity (5-15 seconds of actual activity), glucose for medium duration activity (20 seconds to a minute or two), and fat stores once effort is extended out beyond that. Important to remember is that this is a continuum- technically, all of these systems are being used at all times, the degree of each is all that changes.
More relevant is that glucose levels are NOT a limiting factor during heavy lifting. Maximum effort work is rarely restricted by low levels of glycogen- this energy system is simply not utilized. If you are glycogen depleted, you can still lift quite heavy- you will just need to take longer breaks to allow your body to resynthesize short term energy substrates at a slower rate than a well-carbed athlete. This is an important fact to remember if you’re contemplating how you can do a long run one day and lift heavy the next. It’s not really the lack of energy that will hinder your lifting the next day so much as actual muscle and mental fatigue, which has more to do with microtrauma/extended time under tension than energy substrates. Understand this key point as you begin to construct your routine.
Adaptation is the primary sticking point for most folks- running makes you smaller and weaker, which conflicts with the entire point of your lifting, right? This is true, to an extent. One of the body’s adaptations to aerobic exercise is actually size REDUCTION of certain muscle fibers, which makes them proportionately more efficient (by increasing relative blood flow, among other things). There are two caveats, however. First, the reduction in size occurs in type I fibers only, which are not doing most of the heavy lifting. Second, this can actually be PREVENTED with even a small amount of resistance training in runners.
So, how do you avoid these unwanted adaptions? Number one is to start your recovery at the table. Running burns up a lot of your energy, there’s no way around this. You may notice that your lifting seems to suffer almost immediately. This is NOT muscle atrophy, as mentioned earlier- this is a combination of local fatigue and a lack of energy substrates. How to avoid this? EAT. Eat to replenish, and eat to recover. Do not ever run for weight loss if you’re looking to maintain muscle- you need to be taking in enough calories to compensate for the cardio workouts, at the very least. While on the topic, this “anabolic window” people talk about that leads them to pound protein shakes and carbs after lifting… vastly overstated. Ridiculously so. However, in the case of running, this IS in fact key, not for growth purposes, but to make sure you’re topping up your glycogen stores (which will be as depleted after 15 minutes of running as they are after two hours of lifting- you’re welcome to do the math on caloric burn yourself) and returning your body to an anabolic state in time for your next workout.
Structure your routine to allow for maximum recovery, which is the key behind this entire concept. More on this in the sample routine below, but long story short, you need to understand what TYPES of running hinder your lifting the most (hint: mostly sprints and hill climbs- those runs that heavily engage your type II muscle fibers), and plan accordingly. Which also means, yes, do not sprint unless you have to. If you are a serious strength athlete, sprinting will NOT build leg strength. Period, full stop. The force exerted by even an Olympic level sprinter during acceleration do not remotely compare to the forces exerted during heavy squats or snatches. You may see articles telling people to do “speed work” to improve your explosiveness. If you’re a lifter who already incorporates dynamic effort work of any sort, you are getting plenty of this. The real benefit to this sort of work would be in improving overall speed and pace during the run, but as a strength athlete, you need to approach this with care, since being too aggressive here will not help you. For the most part, the less you ‘re demanding of your type II muscle fibers during your running, the more they’ll be in top shape for your lifting.
This loops back to why tire flips are a waste of time unless you’re training for, well, tire flips. In this example, you’re fatiguing your upper body musculature, which negatively impacts your strength, with little or no incremental benefit to your aerobic conditioning. Yes, it’s hard, but if you’re hell bent on pain just for its own sake, head down to your local Crossfit box and run through Murph. Twice. Then take a sledgehammer and use it to break your toes. Better yet, do that in reverse order. If you want to improve your work capacity on the bench, then bench. If you want to be better at running, then run. Be specific. Your body certainly is. Again, if your chosen sport requires similar motor recruitment patterns and performance patterns similar to tire flips, then do them. (Football O. line? Sure. Muay Thai competitor? Not so much. Unless you want to improve your ability to pick your opponent up off the mat and hand him to the medics)
So what sort of routines should you do?
For lifting, my preferred system for maintaining or building strength while engaged in any sort of serious cardio is a Westside based complex/parallel program. (Note: Westside somewhat incorrectly is referred to as “conjugate” periodization, which technically it is not- at least not exclusively. The old Eastern “conjugate sequence” system I typically refer to is more akin to block periodization, where separate aspects of athleticism are built at distinct times during the training macrocycle, and varying specific strength exercises are used in conjunction with the technical (sports-specific) movements to build technique. “Conjugate” as applied to Westside refers to, essentially, rotation of maximum effort. This may seem nit-picky, but is often a MAJOR point of misunderstanding!).
There are two chief, relevant advantages to Westside’s method: The first is that it allows for daily adjustments to movements- other systems like 5/3/1 and standard linear progression systems do not allow for rotating recovery. Having the option to rotate your max effort lifts while incorporating speed work into the gym reduces the chance of developing overuse injuries or glaring imbalances that you may have if you were, say, squatting moderately heavy twice a week (every week) while running. You are already going to be engaged in repetitive activity, and having a program tailored towards eliminating weak links week after week while avoiding overuse is a major advantage. The second is that it is structured on the premise that you are juggling multiple types of training and attempting to blend these into one big constant training cycle- which is precisely what we’re trying to do here.
For running, I’ve adopted a somewhat minimalist approach based on block periodization- understanding that for heavier folks running is a VERY technical exercise. A decent, well-practiced stride can pay huge dividends in energy expenditure and energy prevention. The gist of it- start out with your basic long distance, low intensity aerobic conditioning on one end of the spectrum and pure form drills on the other, and as you progress begin to combine the two into moderate-distance runs, culminating with race pace training.
By minimalist, incidentally, I mean that my overall running volume is relatively low compared to most athletes- I usually manage this by reducing “junk” miles. Every run should have a purpose, just like every gym session. You should be going out there with a goal in mind- something that you haven’t reached before. Is it to run a greater distance than last time? Is it to practice eating while running (useful for longer distance runners)? Is it to set a new PR on pacing for your first mile? Is it to do your entire warm up with picture perfect form? Don’t just say “I’m going out for a mile or two”- think about what you’re going out to do that will make you a better runner. Each and every time. And, honestly, if you’re not feeling it, decide if it’s better to push through it or just go home and hit it twice as hard the next time. You folks know about intuitive training in the gym- know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em- this is no different.
So how does this look?
This is probably the main reason you came here. Assuming you’ve taken the above advice and adopted a Westside- style ME/DE upper/lower split, here’s one possible outline that I might suggest:
Day 1: ME upper body/bench, light recovery run
Day 2: REST
Day 3: ME lower body, speed/interval work
Day 4: Short race pace run
Day 5: DE upper body, running form drills
Day 6: DE lower body
Day 7: Long slow distance run
The rationale is as follows: Starting with day 1, your heavy upper body work will (clearly) not fatigue your lower body, and a light, relatively short distance slow pace run will be easily handled. These may seem like “junk miles” (running for the sake of running with no real benefit or goal in mind)- in reality, recovery runs are pretty critical. They are NOT meant to fatigue, they are just meant to shake out the tightness. Day 2 is pure rest- absolutely critical, as day 3 is your heaviest leg day of the week (where you want to be at your highest level of recovery). Note the speed/interval work directly afterwards. This may seem counterintuitive, since your legs are already smashed, but for all intents and purposes this workout will be taxing the same muscle fibers you just beat to hell- simply put, it is better to condense this into a single workout and not be destroying yourself twice a week.
Day 4 should be a very short run, focusing just on good form and solid pacing (and helping your legs loosen up after heavy lower body), leading into day 5, where you are combining upper body with running technique work. Running drills… these would include any sorts of exercises such as repeats, strides, pacing practice, even quick feet/high knee drills or other accessory work. These are CRITICAL- You NEED to be doing form work, particularly if you’re not a lifelong runner. Good form can make the difference between completing a marathon versus crapping out at mile ten with a stress fracture and leg cramps (more on this in a later article.) Day 6 is pure lower body speed work (the drills did not appreciably fatigue your nervous system), and day 7 is your PURE aerobic, long slow run of the week (This is where you increase your mileage the most as you progress).
Or, to sum up:
CNS= Central Nervous System fatigue- how momentarily taxing a workout is. The term CNS is used here as a convention- really, there are no absolute theories on WHAT fatigues your nervous system or how to measure it, but what we do know is that max or high percentage submaximal lifting can degrade your absolute power output, fine motor control, etc. without proper recovery. (Really there is a psychological component to this as well, but I want to differentiate “passive” focus from “active” focus.)Mental Focus= Degree of concentration and motivation needed to perform a workout well. High focus workouts must be used sparingly, as they are mentally exhausting.
Energy Substrates= ATP, CP, Glucose, etc. Essentially, this component is a measurement of how much energy will be burned during a workout, and therefore how much “feeding” and replenishment time is needed to return to maximum performance. Note that low energy substrate levels DO impact limit strength, but on a relatively localized level (barring low energy levels from extreme exercise or dieting), so a long run should not negatively impact your bench press all that much.
Trauma= Microtrauma, focusing primarily on type II fibers here- how much actual structural damage this workout is doing to your contractile tissue. More trauma = more recovery needed. Note that microtrauma does not have a great absolute (mechanical) impact on short term limit strength, though it will hinder your focus and make it nearly impossible to perform at your peak. (Lifting while sore is not easy).
Notice how the week is structured, with the week gradually shifting from “mental focus” (Heavy lifting) to “energy focus” (distance work), allowing you to fit all of these workouts in there but helping keep your level of motivation high and your recovery balanced.
Note this is just an example, but should give you some idea of how the thought process should go. This will return MUCH better results than simply going out and getting in a few miles every other day. Which brings up a final point- should you ask your runner friends (assuming you have any) what THEY do? My answer? Absolutely not. Most endurance coaches, no matter how outstanding they may be at coaching endurance athletes, understand only what is most effective for dedicated (i.e. dedicated to nothing but) endurance athletes- even those couch to 5k routines on the internet can result in actual overtraining or complete stagnation/regression in your strength.
In the next installment I will delve a bit more into the specifics of aerobic adaptation, and how to structure your combined routines over time to optimize results. I’ll also discuss running form for big people, and give some examples on ways to improve it.
Looking for more? Get your own custom plan, with the coaches who’ve developed this methodology (and improved it tremendously over the years) here.
Or, buy the Hybrid Athlete ebook and get all of this, and MUCH more here
Great article. Big fan of Alex and will be trying to incorporate his advise into my training.