We’ve heard that doing cardio will destroy all possibility of strength and muscle gains, but how much truth is behind this statement? Can we incorporate powerlifting and running successfully in a training plan?
Should you incorporate both powerlifting and running? Yes, if your goal is to increase overall health and fitness. However, if your goal is to maximize your strength and muscular growth, running may limit your ability to do so, as it may affect your muscle fiber composition, ability to recover, and increase the risk of overtraining compared to powerlifting alone.
Although there are more considerations for implementing running and powerlifting together in a program, it can be done incorporated in a way that minimizes interference effects. In this article I will discuss the pros and cons to concurrent training, as well as provide sample training blocks for practical application.
Can You Do Powerlifting And Running At The Same Time?
Yes, you can do powerlifting and running at the same time, but it depends on how specific we need or want to be with our powerlifting training.
If gaining the most amount of muscle and strength is our current priority, or we are peaking to compete, we may want to minimize the amount of running we engage in.
On the other hand, if we’re content with our current strength levels, and our goal is to prioritize cardiovascular fitness for the added health benefits, and are satisfied with low-to-moderate gains in strength, we can incorporate more metabolic training.
Our level of specificity may also change over time – there may be times when we focus more on building up our metabolic capacities, and times when the focus is to build our muscular capacities.
Concurrent training (combining strength training and metabolic training) has a reputation for “destroying our gains” but the research shows that when metabolic training is done with the right frequency and volumes, we can still make strength and muscle gains.
However, the research also suggests that we will not build as much strength/muscle over time with concurrent training as we would with strength training alone.
3 Reasons To Run While Powerlifting
There are 3 reasons to run while powerlifting:
- To Recover Faster Between Sets
- Increased Health Benefits
To Recover Faster Between Sets
Running leads to increases in VO2max, which represents the maximum amount of oxygen we can uptake during intense exercise, and it is commonly used to assess an individual’s aerobic fitness.
Increasing our aerobic fitness helps to replenish phosphocreatine at a faster rate, which is important for powerlifting because the energy system we rely on is primarily the ATP-PCr system.
What does this mean in lay terms?
The ability to replenish phosphocreatine at a faster rate, means that we will be able to recover faster between sets and sessions when powerlifting.
The better we are able to recover between sets, the better we are able to perform each set and accomplish more high-quality work while training, which ultimately leads to greater returns in strength and size.
Increased Health Benefits
Most lifters choose to implement cardio into their strength training program because it can lead to better overall health by:
- Increasing caloric expenditure
- Enhancing metabolic capacity
- Improving muscular capacity (compared to endurance training alone)
- Decreasing the risk for some chronic illnesses
- Better sleep and stress management.
Oftentimes when powerlifting alone, we miss out on the positive effects of metabolic training and its role in improving our quality of life and decreasing our risk of illness.
There are a number of powerlifters who can lift impressive amounts of weight, but struggle to climb stairs or take their dogs for a walk.
Although they are strong, they are not “healthy”, which can hinder their training long-term as they may suffer from more serious issues (metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease) down the road.
Incorporating realistic amounts of cardio can help us to attain the health benefits of metabolic training, without severely compromising our muscular growth and strength goals.
If running is something that we genuinely enjoy, we should incorporate it into our training.
Although we’ve discussed that running can limit strength levels and muscular growth, including running with reasonable volume and frequency could help us to avoid “burnout” in powerlifting by keeping training fresh and exciting.
As long as we follow certain principles while incorporating running into our program, to minimize the interference effects of concurrent training, we can add in a few running sessions per week without ruining our strength and hypertrophy aspirations.
4 Reasons Not To Run While Powerlifting
There are 4 reasons not to run while powerlifting:
- Time Requirements
- Increased Risk Of Overtraining
- Muscle Fiber Adaptations
- Reductions In Strength Development
The time requirements of running and powerlifting at the same time may result in less available time to train optimally for both disciplines especially for individuals who have demanding work hours.
If time is a limiting factor, we may not be able to space out our lifting and running sessions far enough apart to limit the interference effect; therefore, it is more likely that we will compromise our ability to achieve the desired adaptations.
In addition, with the added time requirements of running, we may not realistically be able to achieve the required amounts of volume and/or intensity with our powerlifting training to make progress in our competition lifts.
Overall, we are likely dedicating less time training specifically for powerlifting, and therefore concurrent training is not recommended if our goal is to be a high-to-elite level powerlifter.
Increased Risk Of Overtraining
When we train for running and powerlifting at the same time, we limit our body’s ability to recover from the amount of work we are asking it to perform.
When recovery is limited due to increased training frequency, volume, and load, we increase our risk of overtraining. Overtraining occurs when the body has been pushed past its limit and can no longer adapt to the imposed demands, leading to decrements in performance, long-lasting fatigue, and compromised immunity.
To minimize our risk of developing overtraining syndrome, we should aim to prioritize recovery through proper programming that includes: days off, deloads, and variation in training days where the goal is technique instead of constantly pushing our limits with volume and weight.
Muscle Fiber Adaptations
Our body is designed to adapt to the imposed demands; with an increased frequency and volume of running, our body adapts by increasing the amount of Type I fibers (slow-twitch, low force production, high endurance). In contrast, powerlifting favors Type IIa fibers (fast-twitch, high force, more easily fatigued).
Our muscle fiber composition will affect our abilities to run long distances and lift heavy weights. The reason for this is that Type I fibers do not have the force-generating capacities required for powerlifting, and Type II fibers do not have the fatigue-resistant qualities for endurance running.
It is important to take these adaptations into consideration when designing a training program around running and powerlifting, as we want to make sure we are giving our body the correct stimulus to adapt to, based on our overall goals.
Reductions In Strength Development
Concurrent training research has shown that strength athletes will reap less strength and muscle gains over time, than strength training alone. Training for running and powerlifting may lead to similar gains in strength initially, but over time (6 weeks) strength and muscle adaptations returns will be diminished.
One explanation for this is that after resistance training there is an increase in muscle protein synthesis, which facilitates muscle growth with the right circumstances; however, after endurance exercise, there is a significant decrease in muscle protein synthesis. This tells us that these modalities have opposing adaptations.
If our goal with running is only to increase caloric expenditure, and we are not attached to running itself, it is better to consider cycling instead. Cycling has been shown to have less of an interference effect with strength training than running but will still work to increase caloric expenditure.
Read my other article where I discuss the science behind Does Powerlifting Make You Fat?
8 Principles To Follow When Powerlifting And Running
These principles are to be followed when your primary focus is powerlifting, with only a secondary focus on running:
- Keep Runs And Training Sessions On Separate Days
- Avoid Endurance Runs Within 24 Hours Of A Squat Workout
- Aim For 6 Hours Between Sessions If You Must Run and Train The Same Day
- Always Strength Train First If You Must Train And Run The Same Day
- Have At Least 1 Full Rest Day A Week
- Train For Running With Moderate-Intensity Workouts When Possible
- Eat To Accommodate Increased Activity
- Recognize Signs Of Overtraining
1. Try To Keep Runs And Training Sessions On Separate Days
To encourage the best performance in both training and running, it is best to perform them on separate days to allow for recovery between bouts of exertion. It is important to give our body time to replenish glycogen stores and allow fatigue to dissipate to ensure higher quality training in both running and powerlifting.
2. No Endurance Runs Within 24 Hours Of A Squat Workout
It is recommended to avoid endurance running (long-distance) for 24 hours before a squat workout, especially if it is a heavy squat day. Endurance running fatigues the lower body musculature and requires 24 hours for sufficient recovery.
Because squats significantly rely on leg musculature, if we ran too close to the workout we would be fatigued from the running effort and it would compromise our quality of lifting, affect our ability to recover between sets, and delay recovery after the session.
3. Aim For 6 Hours Between Sessions If You Must Run and Train The Same Day
If our schedule doesn’t allow for us to run and train on different days, it is recommended to wait for at least 6 hours between the strength session and running session to promote recovery and minimize fatigue.
Between sessions we should be focused on replenishing glycogen stores and resting, to limit the interference effect and encourage better quality training.
4. Always Strength Train First If You Must Run And Train The Same Day
Strength training first, when training more than once a day, is important because we need to be recovered in order to perform our best and achieve the desired stimulus from our powerlifting training.
When powerlifting performance is the primary goal, it should be performed first to ensure the highest quality of work without fatigue. However, if running was the primary focus, we would run before training for the same reason.
5. Have At Least 1 Full Rest Day A Week
To promote recovery and to avoid overtraining or burnout, we should aim to have at least 1 full rest day a week. If training loads are high or our ability to recover is limited, we should consider taking more than 1 rest day a week.
When we are training for multiple disciplines we need to be more focused on our recovery methods, to promote injury prevention and avoid overtraining effects.
6. Train For Running With Moderate-Intensity Workouts When Possible
Although endurance running involves Type I fibers, sprinting and short-duration running intervals (mod-to-high intensity) activate similar energetic pathways (phosphocreatine & glycolytic energy systems) to powerlifting.
The energy systems are similar because powerlifting involves lifting maximally for a short amount of time (10-20 seconds) and is typically followed by a 2 to 5 minute recovery time, which would be more similar to interval-style conditioning.
For this reason, moderate-to-high-intensity intervals have less interference effects than endurance running (long-slow distance) as they will have similar neuromuscular requirements to powerlifting.
For this reason, more moderate-to-high intensity cardiovascular training is theoretically better when powerlifting. However, because high-intensity intervals are harder to recover from, it is more practical to train using moderate-intensity to encourage better recovery and limit excess fatigue.
7. Eat To Accommodate Increased Activity
Eating a sufficient amount of calories may minimize the interference effect of concurrent training and promote recovery, by ensuring adequate carbohydrate and protein intake to enhance glycogen replenishment and muscle protein synthesis.
However, if the reason for engaging in running is to create a deficit and lose weight, we should utilize nutrient timing strategies to ensure we have enough carbohydrates before each training session to encourage glycogen replenishment and minimize decrements in performance since caloric intake will be limited.
8. Recognize Signs Of Overtraining
When training for two disciplines we may have a harder time recovering and therefore we need to be more aware of the signs of overtraining so that we can address it before it leads to further complications and severely impacts our performance and health.
Initial signs of overtraining include: constant or frequent soreness, fatigue, weight loss, irritability, declines in performance, insomnia, and loss of motivation.
The amount of time it takes to recover from overtraining is different for everyone, but on average it can take between 2 weeks to 3 months before we are fully recovered.
Powerlifting And Running Program: How To Put It Together?
The following program shows a sample week from each block of a training program. Each of the training blocks would last 4-6 weeks and progress in weight, volume, or quality each week in order to promote continuous adaptation to the presented stimulus.
Runs of longer duration are kept further away from training sessions, to promote adequate recovery before the next session. Moderate-intensity running was also used most often as it is easier to recover from than high-intensity training.
The squat and the bench press are trained 2x/week, with one technique day and one day focusing on the current goal (volume, strength, peaking) to encourage recovery. For this same reason, deadlift was limited to 1x/week in the Hypertrophy and Strength Blocks as running frequency was still high.
Accessories were generalized as each individual lifter will benefit from accessories specific to their needs.
A percentage of our maximum heart rate (max HR = 220-age, for simplicity’s sake) was used to determine the intensity of the runs, as most individuals will not be familiar with VO2max measurements.
If we want to incorporate both powerlifting and running, we need to assess what our primary goal is and train accordingly. If strength and hypertrophy are the primary goal, we should limit running to a minimum. If overall health and fitness is the goal, we should try to minimize the interference effects but also realize that running and lifting isn’t as bad as we often make it out to be.
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