There’s no doubt that, if you’re trying to get into shape, you’ve heard about the interference effect and how running can be counter-effective if you’re looking to build muscle. But is it just a myth? Can you be muscular and run long distances?
Yes, you can be muscular and run long distances, but it requires careful training and diet. It’s difficult to find the perfect balance, but some people are strong advocates for the “hybrid-athlete” lifestyle, while others simply refuse to cross-train.
If you’re just getting into fitness, you need to figure out exactly what your goals are, and if you’re looking to be a long distance runner (20-30 miles/32-48km per week), you’ll be facing an uphill battle to get into that lean-but-toned shape that you’re probably aiming for.
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Is It Possible To Run Long Distances And Be Muscular?
It is absolutely possible to be muscular and run long distances. I submit the following examples as proof that it’s possible:
David Goggins (wikipedia) is an ultramarathon runner who maintains impressive body mass.
Roger Craig (image) Roger is a former 49ers football player that has run over 2 dozen marathons. He may not be an ultramarathon runner and he may not have the muscle mass that he had while he was playing football, but it’s undeniable that he’s got muscle all around.
Tiki Barber (article and image) is another retired football player that has run at least 6 marathons and still maintained impressive muscle mass. This article also demonstrates Tedy Bruschi, another former football player who also runs marathons.
George Laraque (article and image) is a retired hockey player who used running as a way to control his weight.
To be fair, these are definitely those who have gone far above and beyond what most people do–still it’s nice to know it’s possible to run dozens of miles but still maintain muscle mass. Although it’s possible, how can this be done?
How Can I Build Muscle and Still Run?
To understand how to counteract “the interference effect”, you need to understand what it is. The interference effect is observed by measuring muscle glycogen, the amount of fuel being used by a specific muscle group. In layman’s terms, when you run, you’re depleting your body of carbs; and if you’ve used up all of your carbs, your body feeds off of your muscle mass for energy.
This is why you’re very unlikely to see bulky professional long-distance runners – because, if running is the only thing you focus on, the only place you’ll be building muscle is in your lower body. The distance you’re running is also important to consider, because you’ll also notice that sprinters often are quite muscular, because you need large muscles (especially in your arms) to propel yourself forwards as quickly as possible.
The Journal of Physiology, however, has said that researchers still need to delve deeper into exploring the proposed interference effect. In recent years, specialists have seen concurrent training (alternating between resistance training and running), as long as athletes find the proper balance that matches their fitness goals.
What’s also working in your favour is that we get the most gains from our training when we get a good quota of active sleep. Running is very good for high quality sleep and, therefore, reduces estrogen levels, which is incredibly bad for muscle growth.
What’s The Right Distance To Run For Someone Wanting To Maintain Or Build Muscle?
The consensus from professional bodybuilders is that you’re going to want to stick to 3-6 miles (5-10km) of running a week max if you’re looking to put on a lot of muscle mass, and, unless you want to dedicate a huge part of your life towards running marathon distances and maintaining muscle mass, you should probably stick to shorter distances if you’re looking for the best results.
You’re ultimately left with a choice: Are you looking to build strength or endurance? The more strength you want, the less you should run. If you want more endurance, you should run for longer, and you’ll always be playing a balancing act between the two. Once you find the optimal level, however, it becomes a lot easier.
When Is The Right Time To Run For Someone Wanting To Maintain Or Build Muscle?
There have been groundbreaking studies in the effects of aerobics exercises on strength performance following various periods of recovery, which indicate that strength gains from resistance training are depleted when done right after an aerobics workout.
So this shows how important your recovery periods are. So the general rule is to try to do your cardio and strengthening exercises on different days. You will be weaker after your runs, so try to avoid doing resistance training on your legs right after running. However, the extra resistance training that you get from gravity means that you can run after leg day.
If you’re just starting out, it’s probably going to be far easier for you to just start out with strength training and skip the cardio/running altogether until you’ve built a decent amount of muscle. Don’t worry about the fat that you want to lose, when you start running, when you’re strong enough, and when you’re less susceptible to injuries, it’ll make life much easier for you and you’ll burn that fat off in no time.
Besides, strength training does make you sweat, so you may even come to the conclusion that you’re not interested in running and have achieved the results you were looking for.
It’s also okay for you to skip core and strengthening exercises for a day, but you can’t make a habit of it. You can’t just do it every once in a while if you’re expecting to make any gains.
The Right Diet For Running And Building Muscle
The fuel for your cardio workouts, and long-distance running in particular, is calories. Your muscles are metabolically active and this means that, without calories, they will not maintain size and shape. So you need to get out those calorie counters and make sure that your workouts never exceed your intake.
Carbohydrates and proteins are the food groups that you want to target and fruit is an especially good and healthy source of sugar, while vegetables are packed with all kinds of healthy oils and proteins of their own, along with many vital vitamins that are simply good for your overall health.
Aim for 7-9 fruit and vegetable servings per day and about double that for carbohydrates and proteins. However, there is no set formula and it all depends on your body size, your metabolism and how long you’re training for. Protein, obviously, should be the most important part of your meal if you’re aiming for strength, while carbohydrates are the best fuel for endurance running.
The Key To Running Long Distances And Building Muscle
Your body’s natural reaction to long distance running is to make your body leaner and lighter. Food and fat are important fuel sources and failing to use food for energy will make your metabolism target muscles instead.
But there are plenty of people who cross train (sometimes even mixing crossfit with long distance running), who argue that a strict schedule and being very specific about the muscle groups that you target before and after your runs, the recovery times and your calorie intake, it is possible to be a muscular long-distance runner… it just won’t be easy.
In my experience, however, I have found that HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) yields the ideal results – especially if you’re looking to get into shape and are carrying a few extra pounds. HIIT training regimes are very effective at targeting your core and provide great strength training (often without the use of any equipment whatsoever) and will make you sweat profusely.
The mix of cardio and resistance-like training will burn fat and build muscle simultaneously. Better yet, some HIIT schedules can take as little as 15 minutes to complete and you’ll be exhausted even if you haven’t put in a full hour of exercise.
But that’s a matter of personal opinion and everyone’s journey is different. By all measures, the key to running long-distance and building muscle is to do what works for you. Experiment with your training and with targeting specific muscle groups on specific days, mix your runs in between strength training and follow a diet that ensures you don’t enter a caloric deficit.
Get this right and you’ll reach your goals with ease, as long as you’re consistent.