One of the things that I find frustrates people when it comes to health and fitness is deciding how to exercise. We know exercise is good and that we should be doing it, but how should we construct that exercise routine? How much aerobic exercise should we do and what modality is the best? Should we be strength training? If we do too much aerobic exercise will it negatively affect our strength training? If we do too much strength training will it negatively affect our aerobic exercise? Which one is best for fat loss? How many days a week? What intensity should it be at?
Yeah, there is a lot to answer when it comes to exercise.
Luckily I have outlined a basic template you can use to construct an ideal exercise routine in this blog post. That takes care of most of the above questions.
However, one common question still lingers for a lot of people, is should I be doing both aerobic training and strength training simultaneously, or will doing that cause me to to make zero progress in either direction?
It has long been touted by “bros” and “endurance junkies” that trying to make improvements in both strength and aerobic capacity will send mixed signals to the body. These mixed signals result in what has been referred to as the “interference effect” and result in your making limited progress in both modalities.
Lets take a look at why this might be.
Say you are trying to add muscle while simultaneously training for a trail half marathon with 4000 ft of elevation gain. The half marathon is going to not only require you to be able to run 13.1 miles, but the elevation gain is going to add the need for some training on hilly terrain, and being able to push uphill and deal with the eccentric load of running downhill (if you have never run downhill, it is far more damaging to the muscles than running uphill, trust me!).
From a muscle building perspective, you decide to focus on the exercises that are going to give you the “biggest bang for your buck”, the squat, the deadlift, the bench press, and the overhead press, plus some additional core work.
Since you want to equally focus on both goals, you decide to do three days of strength training, and three days of running. Your seventh day is a rest day.
This all sounds ideal, so what is the potential problem in this scenario?
From a training perspective it seems quite elegant, alternating modalities throughout the week seems to make sense. What happens though when you strength train on one day and really push the weights and you end up pretty sore the next day?
Normally, without the goal of having to run the next day, you would rest. However, in this case you don’t have a choice, you need to run and if walking is hard for you, how are you expecting to run on hilly terrain?
It’s probably not going to feel very good.
Is there a time and place to train on tired and sore legs?
Should it be done multiple times a week, on consecutive weeks?
What if we flip it around? Say you run on day 1, really push your run, hammer the uphills, fly down the downhills. The next day you have to squat or deadlift, but your legs are beat up from the run the day before. Again, without the strength goal, you might do some mobility, or hop on the bike and just spin for a while, giving the legs a break.
The other problem with trying to maximize both strength training and aerobic performance are those pesky mixed signals we talked about before. On the one hand you are putting the body under load with strength training so you are sending the signal to the body to build more muscle to better handle that load the next time you train. On the other hand, when you are training for endurance as in the case above, you are telling the body to be as efficient as possible because you need it to go long distances. Having to carry more muscle over that distance is expensive so it is not going to want to add muscle in that case.
Finally there is the problem of calories. Building muscle and strength requires extra calories, and aerobic and endurance training burn a large amount of calories far more than strength training. Essentially by tacking on a large amount of aerobic training on top of your strength training you are making it hard to be in the caloric surplus you need to add the muscle you want. Given most endurance athletes have a hard enough time eating enough food, this makes things quite challenging from a strength and muscle perspective.
Clearly trying to maximize both strength training and aerobic performance at the same time is not going to work out so well. When you want to try to perform at your highest level in either area you are going to have to prioritize one over the other. More on this later.
Most people though are not trying to maximize either strength or aerobic performance, they are not competing in a sport, they are just looking to get healthy and look good. For that goal you most certainly can train both at the same time. In fact, to a certain extent the two will compliment each other nicely.
From an ancestral perspective, humans were very good at aerobic conditioning. Hunting and gathering required long days being on our feet moving from one place to the next. When we made a kill or gathered our food we had to then carry our bounty back to the camp, requiring enough strength to both carry the load and the endurance to travel under that load.
When it comes to health and vanity goals, training your aerobic system and adding in strength training is completely aligned with what our bodys expect from an ancestral perspective and you will find both incorporated in my post on how to construct an ideal training wheel.
When it comes to trying to go beyond the goals of being healthy and looking good, is it possible to add muscle and say, compete at a decent level in a race or a strength competition. I think so…at least to a degree.
This is where we need to have a clearly defined and realistic goal. If the goal is a half marathon, make that the priority, it doesn’t mean you can’t strength train and add muscle, but running will have to take priority for a while.
If the goal is a powerlifting competition, then the same logic applies, make strength training the priority, it doesn’t mean you can’t get better aerobically, it just means your strength workouts will take priority.
A word of caution on goal setting…I don’t think it would be a good idea to make a powerlifting competition and a half marathon the goal in a short period of time. In other words don’t expect to be able to do your best at a powerlifting competition and a half marathon in the same month, trying to peak for both events is going to be nearly impossible for almost everyone. Does it mean you can’t run a half marathon after doing a powerlifting competition?
It just means don’t expect to be at your best for both events.
OK back to prioritizing the goal…
Once you know the priority, strength or aerobic training, build your training week around that. If you are looking to build strength, you might deadlift one Monday, do upper body on Tuesday, run on Wednesday, rest Thursday, squat on Friday, bench press on Saturday, run again on Sunday.
With this model you are keeping those lower body strength workouts away from the running workouts as much as possible so not to interfere with each other. Sunday’s run should be somewhat easy so you don’t fatigue your legs for Monday’s deadlift session. Another thing to consider is including other forms of aerobic training that are not running. Cycling, rowing, swimming, all provide an aerobic workout without the impact on your legs that running has. This lessens the chance of your aerobic training impacting your strength training.
If running is your priority then your runs should be the priority, the same formula can be used, the key is just to space out the strength workouts that would potentially interfere with your running.
Knowing your priority is also important when it comes to deciding what to sacrifice when you need an extra rest day, or life gets in the way and you need to sacrifice a training day. When running is the priority you should sacrifice a strength workout, when strength is the priority you should sacrifice a running workout.
What about the whole calorie problem? There are no secret hacks to this problem, you are just going to need to EAT! When you are this active, it’s not going to be the time to be restrictive with the types of foods or the amounts of food. This likely means diets that eliminate any particular macronutrient is not going to make your life any easier. In addition, extended fasting windows are probably going to be hard to do while eating enough food. Basically the formula is prioritize protein as normal and then any whole foods you can tolerate are fair game.
To summarize, training for both strength and aerobic performance is certainly doable, just don’t expect to be able to maximize both at the same time. You can probably peak for one or the other twice in a year. Pick what you want to prioritize and make that the focus. If you then want to switch priorities at some point later in the year to maximize the opposite goal that is fine. Regardless of the priority you are going to need to eat, and eat a lot in order to train for both modalities, any and all whole foods are fair game. So while trying to maximize both strength and aerobic performance at the same time is going to end in one compromising the other, you can be smart about how you construct your training week in order to allow you to train both and prioritize one or the other modality.
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