Finding a happy medium: Can I be an endurance athlete and strong, too?

Does it have to be one way or the other?

I’ve been a gym rat for too many years than I’d like to admit. Heading to the weight room has been a habit of mine dating back to age 17, and has been uninterrupted for a long, long time. During that time I’ve had points where I saw big-time strength gains, significant fat loss and more than my share of workout stints where I was pretty much mailing it in.

Par for the course with a lot of people, I’m sure. But I’ve learned a lot, coached a little and even helped some people in their training for bodybuilding competitions.

I had a running habit built up starting at age 16. I got burned out. Ran intermittently for years between then and now, but I’ve been a steady runner (and even a “competitor”) for the last few. I’m not fast, my miles are not impressive. But I’m getting faster, my miles are increasing and I’m learning a lot. I run streets, parks and trails. I enjoy it because it does one thing weightlifting can’t do – it gets me outside.

But there’s one thing happening that I’m not so thrilled about.

My calves are shrinking.

I’ve always had pretty beefy calves. Part of it is genetics, part of it is hard work. I’ll admit that some of the appeal is aesthetic. My calves aren’t any weaker, they’re just not as beefy as they used to be. It’s a common occurrence among distance runners. As the miles stack up, the body slims down. And let’s be honest – a pair of sticks for legs is not very impressive to look at.

While appearances are one thing, performance is another. I work hard in the weight room. I expect to not only maintain strength, but to gain. I like to try new things to challenge my body and make it more powerful, more fit and more able to do whatever task I take up, be it something in the realm of sports or just being able to move things, swing an axe or whatever daily task comes my way.

My concern is simple. If my miles continue to increase, will that undermine what I do in the gym? Will lifting add bulk to the point where endurance performance suffers?

Is there a happy medium?

That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I don’t need to look like a bodybuilder, but I don’t want to look like the latest Boston Marathon champion, either. I want the best of both worlds: to be able to pick up heavy things, throw things far and bust off 10 trail miles on a whim. I want to be able to climb a 14,000-foot peak in good form, but be able to haul a heavy pack in the process.

The goal is a strong heart, strong lungs, and a strong body.

Can this be done? What are the limits? I’m going to find out. My prescription is free weights using mostly compound movements; clean eating, with plenty of protein and good carbs; and a continued mix of long runs, hill work and intermediate runs where I push the pace.

Got any ideas? Let’s hear ‘em. Until then, today’s work will include a steady diet of squats, Romanian deadlifts, lunges, weighted bench steps, calf raises and some isolating exercises. In the days to come, a city run, a trail run and a long run.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


8 thoughts on “Finding a happy medium: Can I be an endurance athlete and strong, too?

  1. Great question and even harder to answer for you! If you want to toss some ideas around please feel free to email me. One item to consider as we age is “efficiency” when we work out … Dynamic movements that crank up the intensity while requiring greater concentration: KB Swings, TGU’s, Hill Sprints etc.

    • Some good thoughts. I’m trying to steer clear of things that are too “body-building”-type exercises. More on power/strength. I think my cardio could use more HIIT than what I do now, but it’s hard to get that in while training for races. One fall race season is over, I think I need to work in more HIIT work.

    • I hope I find the magic mix. But what’s more likely is that if I want power, I’ll have to limit high-level endurance training. If I want to run long ultras, I’ll need to kiss a sturdy physique good-bye. But we shall see!

      • Maybe you can have seasons where you focus more on one or the other but not long-term? Maybe that’s easier said than done. I’m blending both together right now, but I don’t think I’m as serious as you are…just doing it for the enjoyment. But I don’t think I could live without either.

        I’m glad you brought up the question though. Good post.

      • Thanks a bunch! That may be the case. Once fall race season ends, I might be able to go heavier into strength through the winter. But I have some serious goals for next summer that will require some really stout cardio. So we’ll see. Best of luck in your future endeavors!

  2. You can stay big and get amazing endurance. The only limiting factor will be your speed when you run. The weight itself muscle or not is what does it. A perfect example is a book called racing weight. For every 10 lbs your 6% slower. It’s just physics. Other than that you can stay big and strong and do the an Ultra you just wont win. P.S. It’s a long way from 2012 how is your progress?

    • This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so you comment is very timely. I remember talking about this subject with an ultra runner and fitness trainer named Ashley Walsh, and she told me the same thing. During marathon training, I built endurance, gained some speed, but lost weight. Almost to downright skinny. I’ve backed off the miles a bit, cranked up the weights and adjusted my eating, and as you might expect, I’ve put on a little size and strength. But the speed has come back down a bit as well.

      Bottom line is your observation is dead-on. It is a choice: I have to choose to be stronger and slower, or faster and thinner. I’m not sure I could shoot for something like a BQ marathon time and expect to maintain any real size or muscularity.

      Thanks for the comments! Very insightful, and useful.

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