Cross-Training Running

Strength & Endurance: How to Build and Maintain Lean Muscle as a Distance Runner

“How do you maintain muscle with all the cardio you do?”

This is a question I’m often asked not only by fellow runners, but also by weightlifters. People are now more aware of the importance of cross-training, both endurance and strength, as key to long term health and optimal fitness.

Yet, the myth that distance running and bodybuilding are not compatible still prevails.


The truth is this: not only is it possible to maintain lean muscle mass integrity, you can also do this while continuing to train and compete in endurance sports, such as running. Together – endurance and strength – will make you a better athlete, providing you a solid foundation for physical health well into your later years.

Training Modification & Planning

The trick to maintaining high endurance and lean muscle mass requires modifying your physical fitness regimen to take into account the added taxation on your lower body muscles, in particular. To do this successfully, you need to train smarter – not harder.

You need a balance. You cannot expect to look totally ripped like Arnold Schwarzenegger and run speedy marathons like Shalane Flanagan. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just look at former elite runner Ryan Hall, who put on 25lbs of muscle and still manages an astonishing 5:20 per mile pace. For everyday athletes, though, most of us are aiming to achieve optimal fitness, marrying the best of both worlds.

My training regimen consists of two to four cardio days, along with three split weight training days. Although it’s a flexible schedule, it is a well-thought, comprehensive plan that understands timing and intensity are critical components to achieving optimal performance and lean muscle integrity.

For example, I generally avoid planning a long distance run within two days of a heavy leg training day. Reason: leg muscles need adequate time to rest, recover and rebuild muscle tissue from both exercises. Scheduling them too close together – timing-wise – risks losing gains on either end, both endurance and strength, not to mention poor performance.

With long distance running and leg training days anchoring my week, I then alternate upper body strength sessions with other cardio workouts and one-to-two non-negotiable rest days. Without adequate rest and recovery, you are merely wasting the valuable energy and effort you put into your training. See my most recent article on rest and recovery here.

A typical training week for me looks something like this:

MONDAY – Chest, Shoulders, Triceps and Abs
TUESDAY – Short Run or Intervals or HIIT
THURSDAY – Back, Biceps and Abs
FRIDAY – Short Run or HIIT or Plyometrics

This regimen is not set in stone. I take into consideration unexpected emergencies and life events – races, playdates with my kid, soccer practice, hikes, etc – and adjust accordingly. Likewise, if I’m feeling unwell or overly fatigued, I will take an extra rest day to amply recover before my next training session.

The Important Role of Food & Nutrient Timing

A common mistake athletes make is failing to modify their nutritional needs based on their training requirements. Traditionally, endurance athletes rely on a carbohydrate-heavy diet to fuel their long cardio sessions, whereas bodybuilders lean more towards a high protein, low-carb ratio to increase strength and lean muscle mass.

Both groups, however, require carbs, protein and fat to sufficiently build, repair and recover muscle tissue damaged during exercise.

The typical recommended ratio for endurance and strength sports is 4:1 carbs to protein, with a modification on strength training days that incorporates more protein and healthy fats. On days I distance run and perform HIIT (high-intensity interval training), I’ll eat more carbohydrates, especially before and after, to maintain ideal glycogen and glucose levels and to avoid excessive catabolism – the wasting of lean muscle tissue.

This is especially critical during that 30-45 minute post-run window. And, I do not perform “fasted cardio” under any circumstances. In my opinion, it’s unsafe, risking dangerously low blood sugar levels and muscle deterioration. Improper fueling is one of the main causes of poor performance, so be prepared, even if it’s eating a banana 20 minutes before your run!

Several studies show that low carbohydrate diets are counter-productive to physical fitness, in general, and can lead to extreme fatigue, decrease in performance and overtraining syndrome. As always, bear in mind that not all carbs are conducive to optimal health, as well as understanding that eating right for your body is not as simple as calorie in vs calorie out.

On days I weight train – no cardio, I increase my lean protein intake, while reducing carbohydrates – 2:1 ratio – focusing on eggs, chicken and fish along with nutrient-dense fruit and vegetables. However, I still consume at least one complex, whole grain meal, like buckwheat or oats, to adequately support vital muscle tissue repair. My aim is not to “bulk up” but to help my body build, repair and regenerate lean muscle tissue.

Lastly, let’s not forget the vital role healthy fats play for both endurance and strength training. Your body requires daily fat intake to fuel your workouts, especial those of long duration and intensity, and it supports a healthy hormonal system. Balanced, healthy hormonal function for athletes is key to performance gains and more efficient training. Healthy fats also help reduce exercise-induced inflammation. Limiting your body’s inflammatory response helps avoid muscle breakdown – hence, maintaining lean muscle integrity.

Strength and endurance – the perfect combo for all runners.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Ladies! Lifting Weights Doesn’t Make You Bulky…a Bad Diet Does! – DR J 2211 December 3, 2016 at 11:33 am

    […] I first started weight lifting, I had no clue about nutrient timing, especially the importance of macros (protein, carbohydrates and fats). I ate a healthy, very clean […]

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    DR J 2211 – Rachael Jezierski, PhD