Strength and Muscle for Endurance: How to Make it Work for You
Strength and Endurance aren’t enemies and if you think they’re incompatible, you’ve been had.
The dominant ideas about strength and endurance over the past few decades break down into two cheesy phrases:
“Cardio kills gains”, and
“Muscle is a waste for endurance”
If you’ve said either of these, you’re forgiven because you’re reading this article – which will, conveniently, teach you why they’re very wrong. Sure, you can ruin your training by going too hard on one of the two, but for most people there are significant benefits up until a certain threshold.
We’re going to look at the myths around endurance and strength, bust them, and tell you how to be strong and conditioned. Read on if you want to get better at everything.
Misconceptions about Strength and Endurance
The idea that you can’t train strength and endurance together just doesn’t make sense. The body is able to improve these two systems concurrently all but the most elite athletes in either field.
Anyone who says that you can’t gain both at once is only 25% right: it’s more difficult to train them together than to make maximal progress in one field. You aren’t always going to be able to make maximal progress with both at once, but often it’s necessary to develop both.
At a physiological level, improving your muscular strength/quality and improving cardiorespiratory health do not conflict. In fact, strength training has even been shown to be a useful training method – at an aerobic level – for beginners.
Strength doesn’t reduce your endurance all by itself: it’s when it’s used instead of, or to the detriment of, your training for endurance. The main challenges are overcoming the recovery demands and training structure (how you train) of the two styles.
After all, you can only recover from so much exercise and you only have so much time to train.
Muscle Fiber adaptations to training
Muscle fibres will respond to how you train and the development of slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibres.
However, this isn’t a huge issue for endurance, since your muscles are always going to be a mix of different fiber types. All that happens if you don’t train strength is that your fast-twitch fibres are underdeveloped and less effective.
This is even more important in running, where most of the effort comes from connective tissues. An endurance race is not a single speed, treadmill-style pace – it involves acceleration and climbing most of the time.
Stronger muscles and connective tissues mean better performance. You’re not going to ruin your muscular endurance by getting stronger – quite the opposite.
The dietary requirements are something we’re going to discuss a little more. However, the requirements for endurance and strength training aren’t tremendously different: your diet just needs to provide the calories to support both and the protein to recover from both.
You’re just going to need to be willing and disciplined enough to eat more. It’s really that simple.
Muscle mass – a metabolic burden?
The addition of muscle mass can be a problem for metabolic demands. If you’re adding 60lbs of pure muscle, you’re going to need more oxygen and energy to support it. Duh.
However, resistance training doesn’t always need to add weight and you’re not going to accidentally gain 60lbs of muscle. More often, endurance athletes are below “optimal” weight and strength for the pace they want, or even for reducing injury risk.
You’re likely to gain a few lbs of muscle through the addition of strength training which isn’t going to be a significant burden – especially given the benefits it brings.
Fat is also metabolically and mechanically burdensome without the benefits muscle brings, so Recomping to support lower bodyfat and higher muscle mass is going to be a NET gain. Resistance training helps to preserve muscle mass and increase the proportion of weight lost as fat.
This is also important because the neural side of gaining strength doesn’t add any muscle mass by itself but contributes to “changing gears” and overall power output.
There’s an upper limit to how much you want to gain but “muscle just slows me down” is usually an excuse from lazy beginners who don’t want to do their due diligence with S&C.
Recovering from Endurance and Strength Training
Rest days and structuring training
You’re going to need to balance the intensity and volume of your two types of training.
This is totally normal: you probably aren’t going to be able to (or even want to) increase your mileage or pace along with your strength work. It’s possible, but maintenance and gentle increases are the way to go.
For example, instead of following the 10% mileage rule, it might be time to cut to 2.5 – 5% increases weekly to save energy for strength gains and ensure joint health. In the long-term, your work capacity and injury resilience will improve as a result. It’s just an investment in the future.
Ensure proper rest days, adequate sleep (8-9hrs per day/night), and be sure to stay on top of your mobility work. Muscle soreness is quite likely during early strength work, but it is best treated with diet, sleep, mobility, and regular light training days.
The first thing you need to consider is that endurance increases your calorie needs. If you’re looking to get bigger, stronger, and improve stamina all at once. You’ll need to keep up with this to maintain strength and muscle.
This also means a significant protein intake. This is key for supporting muscles and connective tissues after exercise – either cardio or resistance training. This will be necessary for supporting the recovery demands of these two kinds of exercise.
Carb intake is also going to be essential for better performance in both types of training. They both involve significant energy demands, but also require carbs to stimulate growth and counter-act the significant risks of losing muscle or recovering poorly from workouts.
Structuring Training for Strength and Endurance
Periodization is key
Periodization is just a fancier way of talking about how you plan your training. The idea is that different types of training have different adaptations which can be sequenced over time for better performance.
For example, the gains in hypertrophy and strength are less perishable than improvements to endurance. As a result, the best way to train is to spend some time building strength/muscle earlier on, after which you reduce the focus on this type of training and shift towards more endurance work.
The benefits of strength and hypertrophy training will be maintained while you focus on endurance, resulting in a stronger but well-conditioned result. A training program for strength and endurance should have some definable ‘blocks’, defined by their main goal:
- Gross endurance
- Goal-specific endurance/peaking
Obviously, you don’t just stop training your main thing. Rather, it’s about taking the time to prioritise other adaptations that will
When you’re training, especially during the earlier training blocks where strength is the main focus, you should perform your resistance training first.
This is for two reasons:
- Perform your top-priority work first in a workout wherever possible
- Your body’s energy systems are set up to perform higher-intensity work first, with progressively longer exercise afterwards
Maximising training effect will mean capitalising on this: performing strength training earlier on to improve the energetic and mechanical gains. This could lead to a short-term dip in endurance performance but you’re likely to adapt quite quickly – and training under fatigue can be useful.
Don’t do it WRONG
One of the simplest rules of doing strength and endurance together is to simply focus on what matters and not do ridiculous stuff. If you can simplify and triple down on the important movements/principles, you’re off to a good start.
Just avoiding fads and nonsense is all it takes. Focus should be placed on simple movements that are specific to your goals and to prevention of common injuries. This is all strength training needs to be in order to be amazingly effective, when performed consistently over time.
The value of an exercise when you’re training strength and endurance simultaneously is how much good it does without detracting from your preparedness and performance. This is your guiding principle: if there’s no clear reason for it, it could be a waste of your time.
Building a base and concurrent training methods
The most important aspect of strength for endurance is building a base of muscular and connective tissue strength. These are the most likely to carry over to better performance in running, cycling, swimming, or whatever else gets your heart rate up.
Greater strength and muscle size around a joint means two key advantages:
- Firstly, the joints themselves are less likely to be injured in response to repetitive movement/impact
- The strength of these structures – both actively and passively – contribute to your performance in repetitive, endurance-style training
You can do this through taking time to focus on strength while maintaining your aerobic work, or you can improve the two concurrently if you’re willing to take things slowly.
The overlap will also come from muscular endurance – which can be trained using resistance exercise. Developing strength in all rep ranges is good, but for endurance performance, you’ll want to be on the upper end – likely somewhere in the 8-20 rep ranges.
However, building strength is also useful for simply decreasing the relative effort of each stride/stroke. This can improve overall economy and reduce the mental and physical fatigue of that movement.
What would a strength and endurance session look like?
So, how do you put it all together? We’ve put together a simple sample session to give you an idea of the kind of thing you ought to be looking for. This is designed for an intermediate runner (middle-long distance).
RAMP Warm-Up (short rests, ~8-10 minutes):
5 minute row (work technique – somewhere in the 70% effort zone)
(Deep) rotating lunges: 3 lengths
Kosack squats with a pause: 6 each side
Spiderman stretch with rotation: 6 each side
Deadbugs + Bird-Dogs: 8 of each (each side)
Strength / Hypertrophy Work (~30 minutes):
Bulgarian Split Squat: 4 sets of 8 (each side)
Dumbbell Row (slow lowering): 4 sets of 10 (each side)
Death march: 4 sets of 1 length (6-8 steps each side)
Wood-chop: 3 sets of 8 (each side)
Regularly-programmed aerobic/endurance work (we’re not going to tell you how to do that bit)
The weights for a simple workout like this should be determined by how difficult the last rep of a given set is. The intention is to be working near failure, without failing reps. Try and keep a single rep ‘in the tank’ across the sets, and adjust your weights up or down accordingly on each set.
Strength and Endurance aren’t competing. They only ever compete for time and recovery – things you can control and adjust to make the best of your training.
We’re not saying that you should turn into a bodybuilder mass-monster, but additional strength and muscle mass can be a significant benefit. If you’re willing to invest the time and effort into your diet, there’s no reason you can’t gain significant benefits from improving your overall athleticism and strength.
Your favourite elite athlete is doing S&C alongside their races, you just don’t see that on a highlight reel. Take the time to prepare your body and build the athletic characteristics that make you look, feel, and perform better.