Can Running Actually Help You Get Stronger?

A lot of strength athletes neglect cardio completely.
December 27, 2017, 7:00pm
Alexander Redl/Unsplash

Love squats and deadlifts? Dedicated to getting stronger? Then don’t you dare run at a low intensity. Your body will gush cortisol, eat its own muscles, and take pounds off of your lifts. At least, that’s been the conventional wisdom ever since high intensity interval training (HIIT) came into vogue. But is running really bad for strength?

The tide is turning in the strength world, and low intensity, steady state cardio, or LISS—often described as the opposite of HIIT—can have a few advantages over sprint training and metabolic conditioning (also known as “metcons”). That is, if you time it right.

There are the folks who believe that sprints are all you need for cardiovascular benefits and fat burning. We’re not about to say HIIT is useless for either of those purposes—HIIT is awesome, and a few studies have shown that high intensity training is better for endurance and making a hormonal environment that’s conducive for fat loss.

But fitness is more complicated than that. For example, one celebrated study compared ten seconds of “sprints” on a stationary bike to 20-25 minutes of steady state training over 15 weeks and found that the sprints were better for improving endurance and power output. However, the steady state training was better at removing blood lactate concentrations and slightly better at improving VO2 max.

High intensity intervals are said to increase excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) and thereby have an “after burn” effect that continues burning calories after you exercise. But this effect isn’t that pronounced. An influential 2006 study found this post-exercise calorie burn was 6 to 15 percent, so if you somehow burned 1,000 calories in a workout, you’d burn at most 150 extra calories from the EPOC.

Plus when you’re in good shape, the effect appears to be reduced. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that in nine well-trained individuals, the average EPOC was just 4.8 percent and in one case just 1 percent.

And even if HIIT is better for burning fat, so what? More importantly, if your goal is gaining strength, it usually doesn’t matter what kind of exercise increases oxygen consumption or burns more fat. The question we want to answer is, can a jogging habit improve your total?

“Obviously a lot of running beats the shit out of your body, but thirty to forty-five minutes in the morning can help a lot of goals,” says Kenny Santucci, a strength coach, marathon runner, and manager of CrossFit Solace in New York City. “It can really be beneficial for building overall stabilization and stability in the ankles, hips, and knees, and that constant pounding builds a little durability in your lower half and your midline.”

He notes that when training for an ironman or marathon, he tried to keep endurance training to three days a week, otherwise he finds it counterproductive to his strength goals.

“I know a lot of powerlifters who have to go sit on the sidelines for three or four minutes to catch their breath after one lift,” he says. “Adding some jogging two or three times a week strengthens the cardiovascular system and helps to recover a bit faster, and in that way it helps you strength train.”

“Obviously, cardio alone isn’t going to help you squat or bench more, and for as much as some lifters like to talk about work capacity, you don’t need to be able to run a 5k to make it through a powerlifting meet,” adds Ben Pollack, a BarBend contributor and holder of the all-time world record total in the 198-pound class. “For those reasons, a lot of strength athletes neglect cardiovascular work completely, and I think that’s a mistake. Besides its health benefits, cardio can help alleviate soreness, improve sleep and appetite, and warm up your body for the general mobility work that you should be doing outside of training anyway.”

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There are a few reasons why a steady run can, in some circumstances, be a better pick for cardio than HIIT or metcons. Most kinds of HIIT and metcons, be they cycling, burpees, rowing, or kettlebell swings, fatigue large muscle groups. That can be great if you’re in the general population or you’re trying to burn a ton of calories or you’re not doing a lot of progressive strength training any time soon, but if your goal is steady strength gains? It’s going to be pretty hard to properly max your deadlift tomorrow if you’ve done a scorching metcon of kettlebell swings and rows.

Again, intensity is great if you don’t exercise all that often but if you’re lifting regularly or preparing for a meet, you want your CNS to be well-rested so that all systems are go for the next workout. You don’t have to train at 100 percent every time you put on sneakers. Keeping cardio mild can ensure your progress in the weight room goes unimpeded.

“Remember, the point is recovery," Pollack says. “Hour-long bouts and wind sprints aren’t going to help with that. Try to keep the duration of each session short, and your heart rate somewhere in the range of 60 to 70 percent of max.”

Pollack himself sticks to twenty to thirty minutes of low intensity cardio once or twice a week. If you’ve picked up a strength program online or from a trainer and it just consists of lifts, sets, and reps, then dropping HIIT or metcons throughout the week can jeopardize the progress planned. Two or three brisk jogs a week should be able to fit into almost any strength-only plan—it’s a versatile cardio habit.

“I’ve been working out since I was 15 years old and sometimes it gets boring doing the same thing all the time,” Santucci says. “Sometimes you need to change it up and want to enjoy the outdoors. It refreshes your routine, and on days you just don’t want to go to the gym, going outside is probably more beneficial.”

A lot of strength athletes, however, are unclear on the finer points of running form. It’s the kind of subject that can fill a book, but perhaps the most common mistake people make is that they kick their feet far out in front of them when they run.

“That’s where you get a lot of shin splints and hip and ankle problems,” Santucci says. “Instead, you want a very slight lean forward in the torso and a tight midline, so you’re letting your upper body pull you forward.”

The idea is to have as little ground contact time as you can; that will increase your cadence and foot turnover.

So instead of leaping forward, think about feeling “tall” and “bouncy.” When you’re trying to feel tall, you’re going to keep your hips high, which will help stop you from striking out in front of you. And keep your feet beneath your center of mass. That, in turn, will help your step be springier, keep your feet on the ground for less time, and lower your injury risk.

To be clear, nobody is saying that HIIT is useless or that it has no place in a strength program. It has a ton of cardiovascular benefits, a better VO2 max might help you train and recover more efficiently, and a better anaerobic metabolism can certainly help power output.

Likewise, we’re not advising you wake every morning to jog for an hour like a boxer or an ’80s fitness nut. But twenty- to forty-minute sessions of jogging two or three times a week can be a great way to improve your cardiovascular capacity, blood flow, recovery between sets, and energy efficiency without crushing your CNS or interfering with your strength program.

This post originally appeared on BarBend.

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