Whether you’ve just started your first fitness program, or you’ve been following a strict routine for years, it’s often the case that you want to work towards more than one goal.
In some cases these goals tend to match very well and are readily achievable, such as a desire to increase your cardiovascular endurance and lose body fat at the same time.
However, there are also times when combining certain goals can be detrimental to the results you see from either type of training, such as wanting to lose body fat and gain muscle mass.
But what about when you want to increase your cardiovascular endurance and muscle endurance at the same time? Wouldn’t it be the case that the progress you see in resistance training would be restricted by the cardio workouts you include to improve cardiovascular fitness?
This is when you typically find the comparison between sprinters and long distance runners. While the sprinters tend to have much more muscle mass, their cardiovascular fitness doesn’t need to be as high as a distance runner due to the shorter distance involved.
One of the best examples where you can see an example of cardiovascular fitness and resistance training working well together is in sports. Specifically, rugby and American football.
Does the science support combination training?
Due to there being such a variety of cardio and resistance combinations, timings, and nutritional intake possibilities to take into account, it can be difficult to put together an effective workout for your own training based on solid evidence.
One study that looked specifically at the effects of heavy resistance exercise on skeletal muscle after completing a cycling workout was carried out by Wang L et al. in 2011.
Two training protocols were compared against each other; one that required 1 hour of cycling, followed by 3 hours of rest, and one that required 1 hour of cycling, 15 minutes of rest, 25 minutes of leg press, then 2 hours 20 minutes of rest.
The total workout time for each protocol was the same, with the leg press exercise performed with sets of 15 repetitions (or until failure) to tailor the resistance workout more towards endurance than strength (15+ repetitions tends to be endurance, whereas 2 to 6 repetitions would have been more strength focussed).
The results from observing these protocols were that heavy resistance exercise combined with the cycling did indeed amplify the endurance signal in skeletal muscle.
Although both protocols saw an increase between the 1 and 3 hour marks, cycling endurance paired with resistance training saw close to a 70% improvement in muscular endurance compared to cycling alone.
Do results differ between specific exercises?
Because there are so few studies comparing specific combinations of endurance exercise with specific resistance training exercises, it’s difficult to say how much results differ.
That being said, there are enough studies now available to suggest a clear correlation between combining strength and cardio training, and an increase in endurance, muscle power, and even running economy.
In fact, another study carried out by the KIHU-Research Institute for Olympic Sports found that explosive strength training can lead to drastic improvements in your 5-km running time.
To measure improvements in endurance, various factors were considered as measures, such as V02 max, running economy, and peak treadmill running performance.
The participants in the study were split into two groups; an experimental group of 12, and a control group of 10 experienced cross-country runners.
The 9 week training period then put each group through the same total training volume, but with 32% of training time in the cross-country group replaced by explosive strength training and free weights instead of traditional cardio.
Essentially this found that simultaneous sport-specific explosive strength training improved the 5-km running performance of the well-trained group of cross-country runners.
You can find the complete training routines that each group went through, together with charts of the results by viewing the complete study.
If you’ve been sticking to one form of cardiovascular exercise for several years and feel you have reached a plateau, it’s certainly worth combining your usual running sessions with an explosive strength workout as part of combination training.
The cardio tends to be performed first, followed by a short 10 to 15 minute rest, followed by the strength workout for best results.
Because each person’s body is unique in the way it responds to training, it’s difficult to provide an exact routine for you to follow.
What we would say is that you should keep your cardio workouts within the 60 minute duration limit, and set out a detailed training plan before integrating resistance training with your cardio.
For example, try running for 60 minutes, followed by a strength based leg workout, with exercises such as squats and the leg press (compound rather than isolation exercises).
After 6 to 10 weeks on this program, switch the running for cycling and see if you experience greater increases in endurance or strength.
Alternatively, instead of switching the cardio exercise choice, you can opt for a full body workout rather than specifically training lower body. This can be particularly effective in the event that you have difficulty recovering between workouts.