An age-old question in the fitness world is whether you should split up running and strength training or do them together. Running advocates say that strength training adds extra muscle mass that impedes your running, while those for strength training argue that endurance cardio kills your gains in the gym. Though strength training and high-intensity cardio (like running, HIIT, and plyometrics) are indeed different types of exercise, the truth is that combining them to create a hybrid training program is a potent recipe for success in achieving your health and fitness goals.
A 2019 study published in the peer-reviewed PLOS One found that a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training resulted in lower blood pressure, increased lean muscle mass, and enhanced strength and cardiorespiratory fitness. Moreover, these findings suggest that combining running with strength-building activities is better than doing either type in isolation—and can even reduce your heart disease risk.
“Strength training strengthens the muscles involved in running, which improves running performance and reduces the risk of running-related injuries,” says Antoine Hamelin, CPT, personal trainer and CEO of First Step Fitness.
Hybrid workouts are a great way to switch up your fitness routine. If you’re a runner, your workouts likely get monotonous after consistently putting in mileage day in, and day out. The same goes for strength training—repeatedly doing the same exercises can get boring. Hybrid training will help keep you mentally fresh and make workouts more fun while helping prevent burnout and plateaus in your fitness.
What is hybrid training?
Regardless of your age or fitness level, hybrid training is ideal for those looking to get in the fat-burning zone quickly while building lean muscle and strength. Here, it’s important to point out that fat is just the way your body stores unused energy it receives from the food you eat. So hybrid training is one way to tap into that reserve and put it to work for you in order to maintain a body fat percentage in a healthy range for you. This training method combines cardiovascular exercise—such as running or high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—with resistance training, like weightlifting and calisthenics (aka bodyweight exercises). The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, plus strength training two or more days per week.
“Running is a muscular endurance activity. Many people think it’s just cardio,” says certified trainer Holly Perkins, CSCS. “While it does tax your cardiovascular system, your muscles are what’s carrying your body over space in a repetitive motion for a period of time. So it’s actually a muscular event.” And the same is true for HIIT and plyometrics, or jump training, too.
Benefits of hybrid training
If you focus only on strength training, you neglect your cardiovascular health and miss out on the many benefits of endurance training, such as lower resting heart rate, lower blood pressure, improved mood, and fat loss. Conversely, the same concept applies to cardio. If you prioritize aerobic exercise and avoid strength training, you won’t reap the many health benefits of building muscle.
Cardio works synergistically with strength training. Combining these types improves body composition (the ratio of muscle mass to body fat), speeds up metabolism, improves blood sugar control, and safeguards your heart health. In addition, regular cardio workouts can help build muscle. When your cardiovascular system works more efficiently, it helps increase blood flow to muscles and improve circulation.
Building muscle does much more than make you stronger. Strength training has many health-promoting benefits, such as improved bone density, better body composition, lower risk of injury, and more efficient metabolism. Strength training has also been shown to enhance digestion and reduce your risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Alternating your weekly focus from strength training to cardio can be an effective strategy for making gains in both areas. “Flip your focus and your priorities each week. The most important goal is getting two to three dedicated, high-quality strength training sessions per week,” says Perkins, who recommends alternating your strength training and cardio days.
Nutrition for hybrid training
Not all calories are created equal. For example, the energy you get from a bowl of fresh fruit isn’t the same as the energy contained in a doughnut. For optimal energy and performance, your best bet is to eat a balanced diet rich in carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, and fiber from whole plant foods that deliver sufficient calories to fuel your increased workout volume.
Whether your goal is to run a marathon or set a deadlift PR in the gym, your body relies on carbohydrates to fuel it for physical activity. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), moderate exercise for one hour per day requires 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day.
“For hybrid athletes, glycogen (blood sugar stored in the liver) is optimal to maintain energy levels during endurance exercise as well as to protect protein stores so they can be effectively utilized for strength training and building muscle, which in turn supports overall endurance performance,” states Katie Cavuto, RD, registered dietitian and executive chef for Saladworks.
“A great deal of research shows that consuming protein within the anabolic [i.e. building] window—30 minutes to two hours after a workout—either alone or paired with a carbohydrate, enhances muscle repair and growth. However, several studies also show that consistent protein intake throughout the day can equally support muscle growth,” Cavuto says. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that muscle protein synthesis was 25-percent higher when protein was evenly distributed across breakfast, lunch, and dinner instead of a single meal.
Here’s a sample day of eating to fuel a hybrid training program; though, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to nutrition. Caloric needs are highly individualized, based on age, gender, height, weight, and activity level. Use this example for reference only.
Sample day of eating for hybrid training
Rolled oats: 1/2 cup
Banana: 1 whole, sliced
Blueberries: 1/2 cup
Pumpkin seeds: 1 tablespoon
Ground flaxseed: 2 tablespoons
Natural peanut butter: 1 tbsp
Unsweetened non-dairy milk: 1/2 cup
Cinnamon: 1 teaspoon
Post-Workout Protein Shake
Unsweetened non-dairy milk: 1 cup
Frozen strawberries: 1 cup
Banana: 1 whole
Leafy greens of choice (spinach, kale, etc.): 1 cup
Chia seeds: 2 tablespoons
Medjool date, pitted: 1 whole
Protein powder: 1 scoop
Lentils, dry: 1/2 cup
Black beans: 1/2 cup
Broccoli, steamed: 1 cup
Cherry tomatoes: 1/2 cup
Avocado: 1/2 whole
Spinach: 2 cup
Lemon: juice of 1 whole
Salsa, organic: 1/4 cup
Apple: 1 whole
Almonds: 12 whole
Yogurt (oat-based or coconut-based): 1/2 cup
Brown basmati rice, dry: 1/2 cup
Tofu, organic: 100g
Cauliflower, chopped: 1 cup
Sweet potato, raw: 100g
Onion, diced: 1/4 cup
Bell pepper, diced: 1/2 cup
Red cabbage, chopped: 1/2 cup
Chickpeas: 1/2 cup
Bok choy: 1 cup
Lemon tahini dressing: 1 Tbsp
How to get started with hybrid training
1. Find exercises that you enjoy
The key to the success and sustainability of any fitness program is liking what you’re doing. You’re more likely to stick with hybrid training if you’re doing workouts you enjoy. If you’re unsure where to start, try various workouts in different locations. For example, do a strength training session outdoors, run around a track, lift weights in a gym, or do bodyweight exercises at home. See what works best for you and make it your own.
2. Fuel your body with proper nutrition
As discussed above, nutrition is essential for reaching your health and fitness goals. You’ll likely burn more calories starting a hybrid training program, so you must ensure you’re consuming enough calories. Fueling your body with calories from whole food sources high in protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats will make all the difference in your energy, performance, and recovery. If you’re unsure where to start, speak with a registered dietitian who can help you create a personalized plan to help you achieve your goals.
3. Prioritize rest and recovery
Overtraining is a common mistake that fitness enthusiasts of all levels are guilty of from time to time (myself included). There’s even a name for this condition—overtraining syndrome (OTS). OTS can occur if you do too much physical activity too soon. Avoid OTS by building up your fitness gradually.
After a rigorous workout, take time off for rest and recovery. During the recovery phase, your muscles rebuild and you get stronger. Do active recovery one or two days a week (e.g., walking, hiking, cycling, swimming) or take one day a week off from exercise completely. This will help give your body and brain a well-deserved break from training.
4. Be flexible in your workout routine
Combining strength training with cardio can work a few different ways. Some prefer keeping the two separate, while others like incorporating both types of exercise into a single HIIT or circuit-style workout. For example, you could run for 30 to 45 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with strength training workouts on Tuesday and Thursday. Alternatively, you could do high-intensity hybrid workouts that combine calisthenics, weightlifting, and running three or four days a week.
5. Start slow and increase workout volume over time
When starting any new workout program, it’s wise to pace yourself and allow your body time to adapt to prevent injury, burnout, and fatigue. This time ranges significantly based on your fitness level, but expect the adaption phase to last several weeks to months. Start with two or three workouts a week and gradually do more until you can do four or five a week without reaching the point of exhaustion.