How to train for strength and endurance simultaneously

Must the performance elements of strength and endurance ALWAYS be at odds?

For most people they are. Endurance athletes avoid strength training because they believe it slows them down. Strength athletes avoid endurance training because they think it inhibits their progress in further development. This belief exists for good reason – it follows the rule of “specificity.” If you want to be good at shooting free throws then you need to shoot free throws.

For most people they are. Endurance athletes avoid strength training because they believe it slows them down. Strength athletes avoid endurance training because they think it inhibits their progress in further development. This belief exists for good reason – it follows the rule of “specificity.” If you want to be good at shooting free throws then you need to shoot free throws.

For most people they are. Endurance athletes avoid strength training because they believe it slows them down. Strength athletes avoid endurance training because they think it inhibits their progress in further development. This belief exists for good reason – it follows the rule of “specificity.” If you want to be good at shooting free throws then you need to shoot free throws.

Most people have no idea that there are ways to train for both so that each complements the other – and if done right it can be synergistic. If we want to be balanced humans then we need to understand how to integrate these seemingly disparate physical abilities. This is a delicate balance but a well thought out approach will improve your performance while simultaneously giving you a physique worthy of an Action Hero.

I have always emphasized the importance of prioritizing strength – especially if your goal is fat loss. And if you just want to get as strong as possible or be totally shredded, heavy lifting and sprints (strength training and HIIT) are highly effective ways to get there.

But the reality is that a lot of people just want to be strong enough, lean enough to be sexy, and have the ability to perform well in a pick up game or play tag with their kids without embarrassing themselves. In fact, many people prefer training for endurance goals rather than for strength.

The difficulty with training for strength and endurance simultaneously is that there’s a well documented “interference” phenomenon in which people who lift weights and do endurance exercise simply don’t see the strength or muscle gains they’d expect.

While many on the scientific side have been looking for the “holy grail” of combinations in exercises and periodization for simultaneously training for strength and endurance, many on the “practical” side have found ways to blend both.

Here is what the science has found:

  • Concurrent training doesn’t compromise endurance performance. But it does improve speed and work capacity (because it IS Volume after all) while lessening the development of strength and power (and thus muscle size).
  • High-intensity concurrent training (heavy loads and sprint intervals) is most effective for reducing body fat in both endurance and strength athletes. Sprints specifically have shown a propensity to increase the activity of an enzyme that enhances the rate of fat burning. This is likely true of any HIIT that makes your lungs burn just as much as drop sets make your muscles burn. These are two different types of discomfort and you need to seek them BOTH out in your training.
  • Sprint-endurance training doesn’t harm muscle mass but does increase metabolic rate after exercise to a degree that corresponds with the intensity of the training.
  • Muscle hypertrophy is compromised with endurance training that is performed more than three times a week for more than 20 minutes.  So if size is your goal keep this part of your training limited to 20 minutes 3 times per week.
  • Concurrent training significantly decreases power and the decrement corresponds to the length of the endurance exercise. Power is the variable most compromised by endurance exercise.
  • It appears that women recover faster than men (4 hours in women vs 48 in men in one particular study).

Since the science says it is difficult to near impossible to train for both strength and endurance are the experiences of trainers, coaches, and athletes instructive on the practical side? Well, we asked a few of our Tier 1 performers, each with different goals, and here is how they approached it.

Tactical Athlete #1: Get Strong, Reduce Body Fat & Get Faster

Working with my coach we discussed a series of studies on elite endurance athletes showing that performing heavy load strength training can improve performance by reducing body fat and building type II muscle fiber strength. The result is greater speed and the ability to sustain higher work rates with more efficient oxygen use.

I know that the endurance component of concurrent training provides an “atrophy” stimulus that blunts the muscle growth response in the muscles that are engaged in endurance exercise. Muscle growth is not inhibited in muscles that aren’t performing repetitive training.

Therefore, if you’re an endurance runner or cyclist, you should be able to gain more muscle in the upper than the lower body if you do upper body lifting. A swimmer or rower might not see such growth.

Regardless, strength training is beneficial in all endurance competitors because it builds neuromuscular strength and greater motor unit recruitment.

I believe if you focus on recovery by training diverse modes on separate days and get adequate nutrition you can successfully implement concurrent training. Recovery is largely under our control, requiring protein for sustained muscle repair, carbohydrates to replenish glycogen, and micronutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, and sodium for oxidative stress and cortisol management.

Tactical Athlete#2: The Endurance Competitor Who Lifts Heavy To Improve Work Economy & Speed

A common error for endurance competitors is to ignore the importance of strength and power for performance. Endurance athletes often do muscular endurance resistance training programs with light loads and high reps, which has little to no benefit on performance.

Instead, heavy load training for low reps will increase muscle work efficiency so that athletes can sustain faster speeds for longer. I need that during certain portions of my races, and certainly it gives me those extra few gears at the end to finish strong.

Maximal strength produces a superior work economy by reducing the degree of type II muscle fiber exhaustion. Lactate threshold is increased and neuromuscular coordination is enhanced.

Since my goal is endurance competition, I perform three or fewer lifts per week with my coach. During the off-season when my goal changes to strength, four lifts and three or fewer short (less than 30 minutes) steady-state endurance workouts is generally indicated. Additional interval workouts can be used.

Tactical Athlete #3: The All-Purpose Guy (loves CrossFit) focuses on Power, Endurance & Muscle Size and Strength

CrossFit provides a unique model for training for strength and endurance at the same time. Although, the all-purpose athlete may require distinct skills from a CrossFitter, a recent study by the Human Performance Lab at Arkansas State University provides data for us to consider the best methods for getting powerful, strong, and aerobically fit all at once.

A recent study recruited two groups of young recreational athletes that included both men and women: One of CrossFitters and one of traditional strength trainees. Then they had them do a 1.5 mile run, two anaerobic step tests for power, and body composition assessments.

Results showed that the CrossFitters had significantly greater average power in the step test and the difference was most pronounced in the men. Endurance performance in the 1.5 mile run was much faster in the female CrossFitters than the traditional strength trainees. In males 1.5-mile time was nearly equal.

Body fat in the male CrossFitters was 13 percent compared to 10 percent in the traditional strength trainees, and 18 percent in the female CrossFitters compared to 17 percent in the traditional trainees.

CrossFit training led to greater power ability, particularly because endurance capacity was also high, and the two do not go together. Remember that power is the performance variable that is compromised the most by endurance exercise.

camp bagram workout 1For CrossFit, make sure you are doing a periodized program that trains your weaknesses and focuses on technique. Opt for an “intensity approach” that favors training for speed and strength over marathon-like repetition.

But always remember that no number of 135 power cleans will equal one at 315 pounds. You’ll still be getting endurance training out of it, but you’ll be powerful, fast, and strong.

As a general rule, scientists believe that strength training to failure is not necessary for performance gains. However, it can produce superior results in more advanced athletes when done for a short training phase with moderate volume and adequate rest.

Ideally, strength training to failure and endurance workouts should be done on separate days, with recovery maximized.

When not training to failure but doing two workouts a day, try to get 6 to 8 hours between workouts and focus on refueling and recovery. A guideline that is most applicable to recreational competitors is to train the most challenging mode according to your chronobiology.

For example, if you like to do endurance training and you are a “morning” person, lift in the morning (the harder training mode) and do the endurance workout later when you are less motivated. Flip it around if you are an “evening” person and feel most motivated then. Naturally, you can mix it up based on primary goals and scheduling needs.

Be aware that under-recovery may the primary impediment to results with concurrent training. This doesn’t just mean time between workouts, but is influenced by a myriad of other factors.

Bottom line-

If you have the time and train 5-6 days per week, split the days between strength and endurance training – particularly if you plan on pushing yourself to failure.

For 3 or 4 days/week tack on a 20 minute HIIT session at the end of 3 of those workouts and/or use the 4th day for a longer, less intense session of aerobic training (45 minute run, 30 minute swim, etc).

If endurance is your prime goal focus on that programatically and throw in a few sets of fundamental barbell lifts that are relatively heavy and lower in reps prior to your endurance training.

Best,

Lanny Littlejohn, MD

 

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