Ask Stew: How to Improve Strength and Endurance

An Airman runs in the Courage, Leadership, Education, Advocacy and Respect challenge obstacle course on Ramstein Air Base, Germany (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Devin M. Rumbaugh)

Everyone wants to be better at what they do and reach their fitness goals as fast as they can but faster is not always better. The difference of being GREAT at something and being GOOD at many things requires compromise with respect to our training. Here is an interesting question about how to improve both strength and endurance simultaneously:

Hi Stew, I have been trying to determine if it is possible to simultaneously increase endurance and upper and lower body strength. I would like to put more emphasis on my endurance training because it is more practical and better for my physical and mental health. Yet, at the same time, I grew up weight training a lot for sports and I really enjoy the process and the results. So, I don’t want to give up the activity. I currently alternate running and swimming to mitigate damage to my joints. Do you know I any trustworthy articles or papers in peer-reviewed journals or personal experience as well on the topic?  Regards, Eric

Great question.  My general answer is to say YES, you can do both, however, will you increase your strength and endurance at OPTIMAL levels when performed at the same time – NO. My experience is if the goal is to really get strong and push prior 1 rep to 5 rep maxes (1RM to 5RM), it is best to limit the endurance training for cooldown options (running, biking, swimming) to 10-15 minutes easy type pace.  Obviously, that kind of cardio is not going to help you with any running or swimming test preparation and performances.

Same goes for endurance training – either longer distances runs (6+ miles / 45-minute events) or longer swims 1-2 miles / 25-50 minute events) with the addition of heavyweights can affect optimal goal pacing and overall speed. 

But can you be good at both of them at the same time? Absolutely. You will not be world class at either, but is that the goal? Likely not. You will not see any powerlifters running long distance while striving to reach their 1RM for competition nor will you see many swimmers or runners lifting heavy during the time they prepare for their competitions. But do both groups lift or do some cardio while training cycle throughout the year – sure.

Consider the periodization approach to build each individually for a cycle of 6-8 – even 12 weeks. One cycle will focus on strength, power, and short distance speed, and the other cycle can focus on calisthenics/lightweight higher repetition and long-distance running and/or swimming. 

Our groups do both running and swimming fast distances (fast 4-6 mile runs) along with higher repetition calisthenics and/or lightweight training in order to focus on endurance gain. THEN, we give the body a break from the miles per week and high repetitions and start a lifting cycle with shorter runs and swims (sprints and goal pace less than 400m).

So, the answer is YES – you can improve both when done at the same time (see Summer / Fall or Winter / Spring Transitions below. Can you see the type of improvement in strength or endurance if that were the sole focus – NO. BUT it can still be significant and sufficient increases in both for the average guy or tactical athlete for that matter.

Periodization Articles (tactical athlete): 20 Years of Periodization Periodization Training Periodization – Do I Need It?  Periodization Advice Multi-Sport Athlete Periodization  Summer – Fall Transition

Science on Periodization Article from Peak Endurance Sport Strength / Endurance Gain in Elderly Study Ben Greenfield – Strength and Endurance Training  


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