Training for Endurance Plus Strength: A simple, three-step program

By April 30, 2015 January 27th, 2017 Exercise

Developing both endurance and strength is essential for human fitness. Those who posses it are less injured, have more energy, reduced body fat, have a higher quality of life, and a lower risk for illness and disease. In addition, the much sought after balance of endurance and strength can lead to great competitive performance in the mile, ultra-marathon, Tour de France, swimming the English Channel, trekking to the North Pole, and everything in between.

Endurance and strength are often discussed as mutually exclusive conditions, which have resulted in separate workout plans and philosophies. In this article I want to emphasize how one could combine both successfully into a single session, once, twice or more weekly.

The Question of Balance

Throughout my career I have emphasized the importance of aerobic conditioning when training for endurance, the proper anaerobic workouts for strength, and, most importantly, finding the balance of both. Too much aerobic training often leads to diminished strength, and too many anaerobic workouts can impair endurance. Carefully planned, both can be incorporated into a fitness program without negative consequences.

The response of one person’s training session is uniquely different from that of another’s. This is because the brain can decipher each workout enabling the body to benefit, recover, and be ready for the next one. While this is how it should work, it is a question of balance. Exceeding the body’s capabilities can result in harm. The brain regulates this balancing act, and the details of response and recovery have much to do with hormones.

When we workout, the brain, through its pituitary gland, oversees changes in specific hormones, which take place depending on many physical, chemical and mental factors. For example, the anabolic steroid testosterone increases during a workout, although after two hours of running or cycling it may begin diminishing.

The catabolic steroid hormone cortisol changes little during an aerobic session, while it can increase significantly with anaerobic training. Too much cortisol can impair both endurance and strength development. This hormone is released in response to any stress, not just a hard workout; this includes pre-race tension, personal issues, emotional strain and others.

Hormone imbalance can also trigger secondary changes such as high cortisol reducing sex hormones and aldosterone (the latter regulates water and electrolytes).

Another important hormone, insulin, changes little during training, but it can rise too much before a workout in response to refined carbohydrate intake. This can reduce the utilization of fat for energy, impair endurance and possibly elevate cortisol.

There is no question that endurance and strength training can help each other. But obtaining these states must be done without undue stress. An important aspect of combining endurance with strength in one session is the order of these two events. The workout should begin with endurance activity, followed by strength training, and end with more endurance.

Despite the complicated orchestration of a seemingly simple workout, there are some basic guidelines to help develop both endurance and strength even when the goal is to improve both in one workout.

Three Steps

When building both endurance and strength, the order of workouts discussed below helps assure proper preparation, avoids overtraining from excess fatigue, and encourages adequate and quick recovery so training can continue unimpeded the next day if desired. This involves an important three-step process. Here are the details:

1. Warm-up 

The onset of physical activity should involve preparing the body for what is to follow—a more robust workout.This means first increasing the lung’s capacity to take in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, increasing flexibility in the joints, elevating blood fats to make more muscle energy available, and improving blood and lymph circulation in the muscles. This is accomplished with a properly executed warm up, and it should be part of every workout. It is particularly important before strength training.

A minimum of a 15-minute warm up is done with some type of endurance training—walking, jogging or running, cycling, swimming, or combinations are good examples. Many people require a longer warm up. They sense this by an improved gait, increased energy, and overall “getting the kinks out.” A longer aerobic workout, such as 30 to 60 minutes, would also help build more endurance. The important aspect of a warm up is to very slowly raise the heart rate from rest to near or at the aerobic maximum heart rate. Following the endurance part of the workout, one can start strength training.

2. Training

The middle part of the session is strength training with weights, which, when properly done improves both muscles and bones. Endurance training, even hard running or riding up hills or performing intervals, does not produce near maximum muscle contractions to accomplish this task. The result is that many endurance athletes have poor strength, even in their lower limbs.

The goal of the second part of this program should be increased full body strength without impairing endurance, and be able to continue training the next day without pain, fatigue, or the risk of overtraining. This is accomplished with higher weights, lower repetitions, without significant fatigue, and resting three minutes between sets. This approach is discussed in detail in Strength Training.

Traditional weight workouts highlight the importance of a 48-hour recovery before training is resumed. This is due to excess muscle fatigue and associated stress hormone responses. Even performing an endurance workout within this 48-hour window can add to an already stressful condition, with the real potential of impairing the aerobic system and pushing one toward overtraining. Some studies show that adequate recovery from traditional weight training could takemore than 48 hours. This type of routine, which includes high reps, little rest between sets and lifting to fatigue, should be avoided.

This second step can vary in length. Even a short strength session of 10 to 15 minutes can provide significant strength benefits. A longer period of up to 30 minutes can be accomplished without undue stress but recovery between sets is a key.

3. Cool-Down

The third step in the process of training for endurance plus strength is too often neglected: active recovery, also called a cool down. This also adds to ones aerobic development. Just the opposite of a warm up, this step involves performing endurance activity of descending intensity. Reduce the heart rate and pace over the final 15-minutes of the workout to approach the resting rate. If your heart rate is not very high after the strength training part of the workout, maintain or even increase it to a moderate level initially, then slowly bring it down over the last 15-minutes. (Don’t underestimate the power of walking for the last five minutes.)

The total time of the entire endurance plus strength workout can be as short as 40 minutes, or longer if the schedule permits. As the months pass, aerobic progress should continue as measured by the MAF test.

This three-step program of endurance plus strength can help avoid excess stress hormones and undue fatigue, speed recovery, and allow the option to effectively train the next day. When properly done, it can help keep the body balanced and improve performance.

The next post will give you examples of excellent strength training exercises, and will help you understand how to organize your strength training in relation to your endurance training. Click the button below to continue:


  • Andrew Sommer says:

    Curious to know how to most effectively train for middle distance running/racing? This could be 400m up to the 1 mile. I’m just a little confused as to how to structure the periodization training. Would one begin still with an aerobic base period of 8-10 weeks, followed by a little rest, followed by speed training? ALSO, is it okay to include strength training (in above article) during aerobic training period, or instead wait to do it later? I too read Mark’s “Primal Endurance” book and it was very exciting, however left me a little confused. Any help is appreciated!

  • Gabe says:

    Would this approach be more effective for lowering body fat in a shorter amount of time?

  • Chris says:

    Hey Ivan,

    Sorry, I couldn’t reply to your reply for some reason, so posting it here.

    Thanks for the info, that’s interesting/helpful.

    Where is a good place to learn more about Dr. Maffetone’s training method?

    Is this a good place to start? Would love to learn more as I’m planning for next year.


  • Mike Smith says:

    I’ve been confused for some time whether including strength training while building my aerobic base would hinder or help my aerobic progress. This article seems to suggest that exceeding my max aerobic threshold during strength sets (with 3 minute rests between sets) for a total of less than 30 minutes will not impede aerobic gains. I hope I understand correctly. Thanks.

    • Mike:

      Pure MAF training will always make you gain aerobic speed faster than a combination of MAF and anaerobic. But 30 minutes once a week of anaerobic should work just fine for most people.

      • Matthew Leskis says:

        I still do not understand the response from Ivan Rivera. I too have been studying Dr. Maffetone’s training, and reading Mark Sisson’s book “Primal Endurance.” During the aerobic building base it has been stated to not lift weights. I understand that lifting weights with higher reps and lower weight can increase heart rate which would put you in an anaerobic state, so this would not be good to do during the endurance building phase. But, I have also read that doing low reps heavy weight with a minimum of 3 minutes rest between sets, or body weight exercises are fine during the aerobic base building phase. Is this correct?, or should no weight training be done during the 8-12 weeks of aerobic (heart rate monitoring) phase?


        Matt Leskis

        • Matthew:

          You know–I must have misread your comment. I did not realize that you were talking about building an aerobic base. My apologies. To clarify:

          During an aerobic base-building period, you would simply train 100% aerobically. The hybrid approach laid out in the article does not apply to those intending to exclusively build an aerobic base. Following the above guidelines, you would enter periods of anaerobiosis. Given the parameters laid out by the article, you would likely still make aerobic progress while also providing strength gains, but aerobic gains will be slower in the measure that you include anaerobic training.

          • Chris says:

            Thanks Ivan for providing more details.

            I also found this confusing/counter intuitive after reading Primal Endurance, but this helps. It seems like I’ll lose a lot (most) of my strength after 8-12 weeks of the Aerobic Base Period. So I need to research/learn more.

            A couple of follow up questions.

            Is it OK to do yoga/pilates for flexibility/mobility during the Aerobic Base Period as long as it doesn’t take me above my Max Aerobic HR?

            Where is the best place to learn more about this philosophy/method of training for endurance sports. I still have lots of questions after reading Primal Endurance.

          • Chris:

            Thanks for your comment.

            Yes, it’s great to do some kind of cross-training even during the base-building season. However, I want to address your question more directly:

            As humans, we are not designed to maintain all of our strength or all of our endurance throughout the entirety of the year. We have periodicity built into us: we wind up in the spring, exert ourselves in the summer, wind down in the fall, and rest in the winter. Allowing the body to rest and deconstruct itself may be less tangible than something like the need for sleep, but it its no less necessary. Even when we don’t follow this periodicity by changing our activity levels with the seasons, a high level of periodicity is still necessary: this is why athletes have a preseason, a racing season, a post-season, a rest period, and a base-building season.

            But even the rest of us who are not competing at a high level have to maintain a cyclical periodicity by choice, or it will be forced upon us in the form of burnout, illness, or injury.

            Hope this helps.

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