If you want to gain maximum benefit from an exercise program, you should combine endurance heart-lung training with resistance muscle-strength training. The safest way to do this is to do your endurance training with your legs, such as running, walking or cycling, and aim your resistance training on your upper body and core in your belly and back.
Researchers in Australia showed that adding a weight-lifting program to cycling or running will help to improve performance only if you know that when your muscles are sore, you have to take the day off or go slow and easy (Sports Medicine, July 2017;1–14).
- After running or cycling very intensely, you need to go slow and easy for more than 24 hours.
- After lifting weights intensely, you should go easy for several days with the same muscle groups.
If you want to train the same muscle groups for both endurance and strength, you need to use long recovery periods of less intense exercise after each intense workout, or you will be at high risk for an over-training syndrome of chronic fatigue and muscle damage. You should not exercise at a fast pace or lift very heavy weights when your muscles are still sore from a previous workout.
How to Combine Strength and Endurance Training
You can develop larger and stronger leg muscles just by cycling or running and not lifting weights (Int J Exerc Sci, Jan 1, 2017;10(1):137-145). However, you can become faster and even stronger by combining strength and endurance in your training program (Eur J Appl Physiol, Mar 2003;89(1):42-52), but you have to back off any program when your muscles feel sore.
For example, inexperienced, out-of-shape middle-aged men got stronger with just cycling than those combining cycling and leg weight lifting (Eur J Appl Physiol, May 2005;94(1-2):70-5). High-intensity interval cycling done after heavy-resistance exercise can decrease strength gains because of the soreness it causes (Scand J Med Sci Sports, Sept 23, 2016).
You need to back off from intense workouts when your muscles feel sore. You can set up a schedule for lifting weights every other day and alternate riding intensely on one day and easy on the next, but always listen to your body and back off if your muscles hurt. One study showed that in just six days of this training, your muscles will be so sore that you won’t be able to exercise intensely and you will have a significant decrease in strength (Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Aug 2015;86(4):387-396).
- Strength Training: I try to go to the gym every day and use the upper-body weight machines. I do only one set with a comfortable weight until my muscles start to fatigue. On most of the machines I do a set of 50 to 100 repetitions. This type of training does not give me large muscles, but it does help me to avoid injuries.
- Endurance: On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I ride a recumbent tandem with my wife in our tandem bike group for 25 to 30 miles. We do not go flat out but we do pick up the pace at the end of each ride. On the other four days, I attempt to do intervals on my upright bike. My legs are usually stiff in the morning. If they do not recover after a 5- to 10-minute warmup, I take the day off. I usually have to take a day off every 6th to 10th day because of muscle soreness.
My intervals are done fast enough to make me short of breath, but they are not done at my maximum effort. I do 50 pedal strokes and do not start my next interval until I feel that I have recovered completely from my previous interval. I stop my workout when my legs do not recover a few seconds after I finish an interval. I usually do between 21 to 24 repeat intervals.
Caution: Intense exercise can cause a heart attack in a person who has blocked arteries or heart damage. Check with your doctor before you start a new exercise program or make a sudden increase in the intensity of your existing program.
Principles of Training
You will not become more fit by doing the same training regimen every day. Athletes train by taking hard workouts on one day, feeling sore on the next, and not taking another hard workout until the muscles stop feeling sore. You cannot make a muscle larger or stronger unless you put enough resistance against it to damage it.
An intense workout damages your muscles to cause burning during your workout and the muscle soreness you feel on the next day. Then you should go very easy or you may cause so much additional muscle damage that you can injure yourself and not be able to recover for weeks or months.
If you wait until the soreness disappears, your muscles will be stronger than they were before your workout. As you continue to take stressful workouts only after the soreness disappears, you will become progressively stronger and faster and have greater endurance.
Interval Training to Build Endurance, Speed and Strength
Interval training means that you alternate fast and slow paces in your sport (running, cycling or other continuous-motion activity). The increased intensity of interval training makes it the most effective way to strengthen your heart and lungs to increase your ability to take in and use oxygen (VO2max). I do short intervals that take less than 30 seconds each. You do not need to go at your maximum speed; I recommend that non-competing athletes should not do 100-percent-effort intervals.
Both continuous and interval training can increase endurance, but adding interval training to an endurance training program specifically makes muscles stronger than continuous endurance training (Med & Sci in Sprts & Exe, June 2017;49(6):1126–1136).
Before you start a program of interval training to improve your endurance, you should have exercised regularly for many months, be in good shape and not have any health conditions that can harm you.
Your Interval Workout Day: Warm up your muscles for 5 to 10 minutes. Pick up the pace until you feel short of breath and a tightness in your muscles, then slow down until you recover. If you are just starting to do interval training, you can do intervals that take only 10 seconds. If your muscles feel fresh, you can try to keep your fast pace for about 30 seconds.
Alternate a 10-to-30-second intense pace that will start you breathing hard and then slow down for as long as it takes for you to regain your breath and for your muscles to feel fresh again. You do not need to time your recoveries because starting your next interval before you have recovered from your previous interval just shortens how fast you can run the next interval. The faster you run your intervals, the greater the improvement in your ability to run fast and long.
Stop the workout as soon as your leg muscles do not recover in a few seconds after you slow down after each interval. Continuing to do intervals when your leg muscles take longer to recover after each interval can cause enough damage to prevent you from being able to do intervals again for several days.
After you have finished your interval workout, cool down for several minutes by moving at a slow pace. Note: When you are training properly, your muscles will probably feel sore every morning when you get up. However, after you exercise for 5 to 10 minutes, the soreness usually goes away and you will feel better. If the soreness remains, you should not take an intense workout that day. Either take the day off or exercise at a very slow pace.
The Day After an Interval Workout Day: If you have done a proper interval workout, your leg muscles will feel sore on the next day. You should never do interval training when your leg muscles are sore. Go at a slow pace as long and far as you like, or take the day off. When your muscles feel fresh again, you can take your next interval workout day.
You can do upper body and core strength training in two ways:
- You can try to lift heavy weights in two or three sets of 10, feel very sore on the next day and then do not lift weights with that same muscle group until those muscles feel fresh again, or
- You can lift lighter, comfortable weights until your muscles start to fatigue and then stop immediately for that day. You can do up to 100 repetitions in a single set for each muscle group in your workout. This type of training can be done almost every day. For older people who have the time, I recommend a program of single-set repetitions until your muscles just start to fatigue.
Strength Training Guidelines
Good and Bad Pain: There is a difference between the good burning of training and the bad pain of an injury. The good burning usually affects both sides of your body equally and disappears almost immediately after you stop exercising.
The bad pain of an injury usually is worse on one side of your body, becomes more severe if you try to continue exercising and does not go away after you stop exercising. If you feel this kind of pain, stop your workout immediately.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.