ATC 327: Understanding Hypertrophy for Endurance Athletes (Why Gains Are Difficult But Not Impossible), Plus: Marathon PR Plan, and More

May 7, 2021


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Kev asks:

Marathon PR – aiming to get to that next level

Hi team!

1st off thanks again for the show! Always look forward to hear it on my long runs!
My question is as there are very few races currently in the UK, my only proper race this year is Manchester marathon in mid October. Its a flat, quick route and I want to do well
I can manage quite comfortably 40 miles a week, mostly steady paced runs 5 days a week with 1 interval session a week too.
My plan was as I do have a pretty big endurance base was to work on speed, to aim for a half marathon pb say 2 months before the race, then up the distance for the long runs and take that speed from the half training to help on the full but will of course be interested in your input please?
I’ve done about 30 races on or above the marathon distance
I’ve been consistently running for 10 years now with no major injuries. 47yrs old and 165lbs
I’ve enclosed my PRs if that helps.
Thank you for your time as always.

What the coaches say:

  • Red flag: doing a half marathon then increasing volume for the 2 months leading into the marathon: major risk or injury, fatigue, etc.
  • Instead: Increase volume NOW prior to HM, then maintain prior to HM, then drop volume after HM and before marathon to reduce risk.
  • Long runs should be at 20-24 miles for someone with this kind of experience (has run 100 milers, etc).
  • Speed is not the problem. It’s strength and muscular endurance that’s making his 5k better relative to marathon, i.e. marathon is weak point. (Need to be able to grind a hard pace for 26.2, not just 5k).
  • Lead up to HM: focus also on strength, tempo, threshold, muscular endurance- type workouts. Can sprinkle in intervals/speedwork in there by using the short stuff like 200s as a warmup for example, or maybe even some strides or 50m sprints toward the end.
  • Marathon pace is tempo/Z3ish feeling.
  • If you can easily run 40 miles per week, then bump that to 50 mpw! That is, if you have the time and space to allow that added volume.
  • 15 weeks out: peak at 50 miles for the week, but don’t do that much after the HM
  • Example workouts for marathon success:
  • One day hard, two days easy, repeat… allow for more recovery. Hard is harder! E.g. instead of 20 mile long run, do 18 miles long run with more quality, for example:
    • 3 mile warmup
    • 5 x 1min intervals: hills at Vo2; walk down for recovery (takes of edge so your not fresh for the pace efforts)
    • 3 mile cruise at MAF
    • 3-6 miles at marathon goal pace
    • 3 miles easy
    • 3-6 miles goal pace
  • Lucho is not a fan of long goal pace runs for marathon, if you can do tons of miles at marathon goal pace you’ve set the goal too easy. And it also decreases confidence! Keep yourself hungryyy for a big goal, within reason.
  • Tempo is a good place to start by adding a good stimulus to long runs.
  • But don’t worry about goal pace early on; rather, go by the FEELING (pace will change hopefully for the better).
  • The feeling is: you kind of want to slow down but you don’t have to, there’s some pressure there but not a struggle. E.g. MAF+ 10 bpm. Or Threshold minus 10-15 bpm.
  • Just because all your long runs aren’t MAF doesn’t mean you’re missing the focus.

Scott asks:

Strength programming and a Q on that “hypertrophy range” for endurance athletes:
Hi Lucho and Tawnee,
A question for you on strength programming for endurance athletes:
  • Should we avoid the 8-12 rep “hypertrophy” range as defined by NASM and focus only on strength/power (<= 6 reps) and muscular endurance (>=12 reps) across the phases of the year?  (Assuming the goal is endurance performance and not actually gaining size)
  • Or is the “hypertrophy” label for this range too narrow of a definition of the adaptations that occur and there is indeed a reason to train in this 8-12 rep range?
Thanks and Cheers from Switzerland!

What the coaches say:

  • Hypertrophy: 
    • Hypertrophy, is the result of an increase in the amount of contractile proteins within each muscle fiber. 
    • Hyperplasia can happen but it’s more rare and not the main means to gaining bulk.
    • How is hypertrophy achieved?
    • “While there are a number of ways to induce hypertrophy in the weight room, it seems that employing multiple sets with moderate loads (6-12 reps, 65-85% 1RM) and rest periods (60 seconds) creates the greatest elevation of testosterone and growth hormone (primary anabolic hormones); compared to heavy loads (1-5 reps, >85% 1RM) with long rest periods (2-5 minutes) and light loads (12+ reps, <65% 1RM) with short rest periods (30 seconds) (Schoenfeld B. J., 2010).” – Source NSCA
  • Muscle hypertrophy doesn’t exactly happen as you’d expect with concurrent strength and endurance training – reason for this is at a molecular level. Why?
    • “AMPK also acts to inhibit the Pl-3 k/ mTOR stage of the pathway via activation of the tuberous sclerosis complex thereby suppressing the ST induced up regulation of protein synthesis [185, 186]. This conflict arising at a molecular signaling level therefore appears to impair the muscle fiber hypertrophy response to ST and attenuate increases in body mass [186].” (source)
    • In other words: mTOR is released during or as a result of strength training and that otherwise would help build muscle tissue; however, mTOR is suppressed by adenosine monophosphate-activated kinase (AMPK), which is an enzyme that is released in response to endurance exercise. Basically, AMPK overpowers mTOR preventing big gains in strength training as long as one is endurance training enough.
    • As long as you’re doing about 3:1 endurance training to strength training, roughly, you’re not going to have massive hypertrophy gains.
  • Practically speaking for athletes: what is your goal with strength training? Most endurance athletes using strength training as supplement to bigger goals of endurance gains. In other words, you don’t want to become a stronger runner by doing in work in the gym, needs specificity.
  • When we make a muscle bigger, we reduce capillary density, thus reducing endurance efficiency, not something endurance athletes want or need.
  • Increasing squat max has other side benefits- efficiency, durability, etc, allowing you to run better and get faster (i.e. indirect benefit).
  • Squats also pinpoint biomechanical needs to endurance athletes.
  • Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review, (mentioned above) also says:
    • “Importantly for the distance runner, measures relating to body composition are not negatively impacted by a ST intervention. The addition of two to three ST sessions per week, which include a variety of ST modalities are likely to provide benefits to the performance of middle- and long-distance runners.”
  • Lucho poses the idea that most athletes don’t need to go into a true strength training phase of training outside the exceptions. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need strength training, we just need small amounts to get the benefits as endurance athletes. E.g. get “strong enough” to support your endurance goals. Hypertrophy, reps, sets, etc…. just doesn’t matter for this population of athletes.
  • What if you DO WANT hypertrophy/lean body mass (LBM) gains:
    • Diet matters for positive protein status:
      • “hypertrophy occurs is by growth of individual muscle fibers. This is a result of altering protein turnover in favor of net protein synthesis (Figures 2.15 and 2.l6). Strength training causes a short-term increase in protein degradation, but a longer-term increase in protein synthesis (Figure 2.l7). Adequate protein and carbohydrate consumption before or after a strength-training workout can shift protein turnover further toward a positive protein balance by reducing degradation and increasing protein synthesis.” (Source: Essentials of Sports Nutrition book)
    • Decrease endurance and increase strength (more like a 2:1, 1:1 E:S or even less E and 3+x week strength. 
    • Timing! Wait 3+hr minimum after E to do your S (minimum, this may not even be enough). Anabolic response from S lasts 18ish hrs, so don’t do more E in that time for max S gains. 
      • Programming: endurance soon after strength diminishes anabolic response (less hypertrophy).
      • Separate sessions by at least 8 hours.
    • Load! At least 70% 1RM for 6-12 reps, 3ish sets, 1ish min rest (60% 1RM eg 17RM or even lower weight with high reps won’t elicit much, but also 1RM near max won’t elicit much hypertrophy either).
    • Multi joint free weight exercises.
    • Sometimes you see that you have to give up endurance training for a while if you really do want to gain weight and muscle mass.
  • Chronically injured and using strength training to help? Keep it more functional, not heavy lifting (at least not right away). Also related: special situations like a post-knee replacement surgery. We give examples of what to do in the gym.
    • Bottom line: Address deficiencies at a functional level before adding heavy loaded strength training.
  • Split schedules of endurance and strength.
  • Always better off doing strength before endurance if you must do them back to back. And the good news is, you don’t completely wreck your strength gains (it’s a LOT safer this way).

Martin asks:

Aerobic gains + Strength gains – how to get ’em both?

Hi, I am not an endurance athlete but despite that I love the show. It is helpful and I have listened for about 5 years. Please keep the content coming. I have to admit. I am an avid ATC listener and less avid for the “100 km trail run advice” type episodes.

I do judo ( just think wrestling) which requires a combination of strength, endurance, and explosiveness. Typically, five 4-8 minutes fights over a 1 hour period in a competition. Nothing too serious. Just a hack but an avid hack.

I have incorporated the MAF concept to create a baseline aerobic fitness that has been very helpful, as when others (even those much younger) are puffing I am just on aerobic idle. Phil would probably shudder at how I have, as I don’t go for “runs” but do it more via body weight calisthenics and walking up hills. Apologies Phil, I am sure I am not the first to deviate from your great advice, but “horses for courses”. Things like obstacle courses & cross fit style workouts kind of feel like “just judo warmups”.

I can become very fit aerobically or become strong through strength-based training, however balancing the two is quite a dance/ dark art. Got any tips on how to balance the two?

Boring stuff: Male. 178 cm. 69 kg. Late 50’s and super active. I am a good runner when I put my mind to it, but didn’t find out to my forties, and I find it dull, and not very relevant. Wiry build, am relatively stronger in my upper body than lower body, but I am making efforts to correct that. Walk 1 ½ hours per day in hilly areas (guess it adds to MAF). 30 minutes weights per day, and maffy style calisthenics workouts 3 time per week. Plus judo training several times a week. Apologies, I have no metrics I can send you, like a runner can.

What the coaches say:

  • Defining the goal(s).
  • He needs muscular endurance, not so much MAF-type training. (Though not a waste to do MAF, just doesn’t seem that sport-specific to judo).
  • If HR is elevated for hour+ duration, this is aerobic endurance exercise even if sub-MAF, i.e. a fat-burning activity.
  • 90min of easy walking may not be doing enough for his goals.
  • Ideas for cross-training as an alternative to the walks:
    • More explosiveness-type training as a focus, perhaps.
    • Hill intervals – 45min worth or so.
    • Try a MAF test to see what aerobic run fitness is like. Then: Run at MAF 1x a week (a little bit more than just walking).
    • Functional endurance: Sprint intervals with a heavy weight of some kind (medicine ball, sand bag, etc) that you’re throwing up the hill and chasing. Or: crawling up a hill, hill bounding, carrying something dynamic (rock, baby, etc), run up a hill sideways.
    • Dynamax balls are a good tool.
  • Don’t worry about losing strength gains if overall endurance/aerobic work is minor.

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