Can Strength and Endurance Coexist?

Nowadays the quest for both strength and endurance mastery is becoming a more common goal. People love the idea of being able to be good at everything.

But can you actually do it?

Wouldn’t all of your hours spent training in one domain end up hurting your progress in the other. Is getting big going to hurt your endurance training? Is getting leaner going to hurt your strength training? It just doesn’t seem like they should mix.

But then again, maybe you’ve seen Nick Bare (bodybuilder) complete the Iron Man Triathlon (A 140.6 mile race). Maybe you were watching the crossfit games and saw an athlete clean 400lbs one day, only to fall face first into a grueling aerobic based WOD the next day. There’s even videos popping up right now on YouTube of athletes taking on a 500lb squat and a sub 5 min mile in the same day.

This training goal while sparking a lot of interest for athletes tends to come with a laundry list of questions and concerns.

With this being my main training goal right now both strength training and running (I’m a former cross country runner who’s fallen in love with strongman) I want to help answer some of these questions. I also want to setup realistic expectations for what will work when it comes to combining these two disciplines and what is going to be either A. Impossible or B. A waste of your time/energy.

(Need some training motivation? Check out this article!)

Jack of All Trades, Master of None:

Let’s get right to the hard truth.

If you are looking to be a champion power lifter and dominate triathlete at the same time. It’s not going to happen.

I’m not trying to crush all your hopes and dreams. I’m just being downright honest with you as a coach. You will never be able to split yourself between these two disciplines and magically be better than someone who dedicates all of their time and energy to just one of the them.

On a base level this should make sense right? Say you wanted to be a high level power lifter. Any amount of time and energy spent dabbling with endurance training would just equate to wasted time that could have been spent with more power lifting specific work. All those lifters that spent their time doing solely power lifting specific work (all other variables being equal) are going to be better prepared for power lifting than you.

Same thing for endurance. While you were dabbling around in the gym crushing some heavy squats the other guy was out getting more miles in on the track, or the bike, or in the water. They are going to be better prepared.

From a strictly competitive viewpoint, it’s wasted time and energy.

On a more physiological level you are also creating conflicting adaptations in your body trying to train both at the same time.

You are working with two different energy systems here, with almost completely opposite adaptation needs. Strength training being dominated by anaerobic (without oxygen) adaptations and endurance obviously by aerobic (with oxygen) adaptations.

On a general level the bigger and more muscular you are the more potential you’ll have for strength training and the harder endurance is going to be. The lighter and leaner you are the easier it is going to be to trek some miles but it’ll take some serious technical skill to get that 600lb deadlift up.

Likewise the more you train strength the more you are training your muscles for type II muscle fiber adaptations (high force production over a short period of time without the use of oxygen). The more you train endurance the more you prioritize those type I muscle fiber adaptations (lower force production for long periods of time with greater oxygen efficiency).

This isn’t to say that strength can’t benefit from some endurance work, or endurance can’t benefit from some strength work (in fact solid programs for both will include both) but in the grand scheme of things it ends up being a very small percentage of training.

At the end of the day it will always be more optimal to only be focusing on one discipline at a time.

Challenging Not “Optimal”:

Okay…so if I haven’t completely shot down your hopes and dreams here’s why I think this is still a worthy goal.

While this may not be the most optimal way to train for most people…I don’t think it really matters.

It is an incredibly small portion of the population that has a shot at being the best of the best in a given sport discipline and it’s only really those people that should worry about having every little detail of their training fully optimized.

If you aren’t that person then at the end of the day the main purpose of your training should be that it’s A. keeping you healthy and B. Fulfilling to you.

That’s exactly what I think the goal of combining strength and endurance is, fulfilling. You have to start with that acceptance that this isn’t the perfect way to progress in either area but once you do you can actually have some fun. When you are less worried about being perfect at either discipline you are free to push yourself to see where the breaking point is.

I think that’s where the fun of this goal lies is to find out what that point is. How deep can you can actually push yourself training both disciplines at the same time. How strong and how conditioned can you possibly be. It’s something you can’t really answer unless you do it, and it truly ends up being a challenge between you and yourself and nothing else.

Prioritize:

So how would I recommend doing this?

Prioritize. 

Before you just dive head first into both be very clear with yourself.

Do you care more about strength than endurance? Do you care more about endurance than strength? Or do you want to be in the middle of both?

For me personally, I came to the decision that I still care more about my strength progress than endurance. My programming reflects this in that I have a very fleshed out 4 days a week strength program designed for higher performance in strongman. I take it extremely seriously.

My running on the other hand is 2-3 days a week on my off days, and it’s very loose and informal. I have time limits on how long the sessions can be and I even try to keep it towards a higher intensity level hoping on some level this assists my strength work and asks as conditioning.

You need to do this with your training. 

There simply is not enough time in the day nor does your body have enough energy to have a fully fleshed out strength program running alongside a fully fleshed out endurance training program.

Pick what’s most important to you and program from there.

Nutrition “Bigger or Leaner?”

Once you prioritize your training this question should be easier to answer.

If you are leaning more towards the strength side, then yes you are going to want to lean towards being bigger and more muscular. Don’t worry about how this effects your endurance training, and don’t try and hold yourself to a certain body weight. You prioritized for a reason, stick with it.

Same deal with endurance training. Very simply, the leaner you are the easier most aerobic sports will be. You’ll have less weight that you need to carry around, and a smaller overall body that needs slightly less fuel and oxygen to be happy. Likewise, don’t worry how this effects your strength training. Again, you prioritized for a reason.

Regardless of where your priorities lie (whether you are shooting for bigger or leaner) prioritize proper nutrition.

You are going to be putting in a lot of work if you are doing both strength and endurance give your body the proper fuel it needs with a well balanced diet, and consider tracking your protein intake to ensure your recovery will be as good as it can be.

Get Specific:

In addition to prioritizing what’s most important to you, it’s also a good idea to get very specific with your training goals.

Having the general idea of “I wanna be strong and conditioned” isn’t going to fly.

You want to know exactly what you are training for/what type of training needs to be done for your goals.

For example, I like strongman. My strength training is heavily specific to the dead lift and overhead press as those will make me better at the sport overall. Likewise my programming is geared in towards strength specifically and I won’t spend all that much time doing bodybuilding/hypertrophy (except for the explicit use of increasing strength down the line).

I even got specific with my running. I want to be good at running a 400m, 800m, and mile (Middle distance). I don’t currently training marathon style training, or triathlon style. My running workouts are geared in to be on the shorter and more intense side. Less of the extremely long mileage workouts you’d see prepping for a long distance race.

You’re Gonna Need Time:

Finally, this is not the goal to take on if you are already strapped for training time.

I’m a strength coach so training time has never really been an issue for me (hell sometimes I end up getting thrown into workouts by accident).

For me, doing some type of physical activity 7 days a week, usually with multiple hours involved just doesn’t get in the way, it’s just part of my job. For a lot of other individuals this is a HUGE time drain.

Definitely consider the fact that training both strength and endurance is probably going to add training days to your week and additional training hours. Also consider that while strength training can be effectively shortened, endurance generally speaking cannot. It is almost demanded of that discipline to have longer training hours.

This is something I would recommend only for those that truly enjoy the process and find fulfillment in those training hours. If not, that’s all good find something that you do enjoy and get to work on that.

(Check out this video for strength training and running workout ideas!)

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.