How to Improve Your “Fitness Range”

Hybrid athletes pump up their hearts and biceps in equal measure

March 29, 2023 10:19 am
An athlete walking on a blue trrack.
Hybrid athletes have a penchant for proving everybody wrong. Here's how to train like one.
Buda Mendes/Staff

Fergus Crawley’s explanation for why he one day woke up and decided to swim 4.7 miles, bike 223.7 miles, and run 52.4 miles — “I’ve run out of ideas, so here we are: double-extreme Iron-Man distance triathlon.”

The 26-year-old Scotsman accomplished the astonishing feat over 40 hours in Snowdonia, an adventure mecca infamous for its punishing peaks and unpredictable weather. Running even one marathon in the Welsh national park would be grueling; but running two, after multiple centuries on the bike and a frigid swim…c’mon.

Crawley’s story is remarkable in its own right. He attempted suicide in 2016 and now raises money and awareness for mental health services via his various physical challenges. (You can listen to him openly discuss his struggles with depression here.)

But Crawley is also a beacon for the rise of the “hybrid athlete.” A former powerlifter turned triathlete, Crawley is able to conquer endurance exploits with the power and physique of a guy you’d typically expect to find performing prison curls on the gym floor. It defies conventional wisdom; doesn’t long-distance running torpedo your gains? And vice versa, doesn’t bulking up slow you down out on the trails?

Not so, it would appear: in a different challenge, completed a few years back, Crawley squatted 500 pounds, broke the five-minute mile, and ran a marathon on the same day.

While very few people on the planet can string together marks that impressive — let alone slog their way through the British hinterlands for nearly two straight days — Crawley isn’t alone in chasing “fitness range.” Chalk it up to David Goggins-core (marathons and pull-ups, on repeat), or Instagram algorithms that favor fitness influencers who can do it all, but hybrid training is on the rise.

How do you prepare the body for such disparate, all-encompassing events, let alone succeed in them? Is there a mode of exercise best suited for improving your fitness range? And is it foolish for the casual trainees among us (just happy to fit a workout in) to suddenly be thinking about fitting in two? Here’s your guide to hybrid athlete training.

Hybrid athletes

Back in 1980, a researcher at the University of Washington named Robert Hickson created a study to measure whether his primary forms of exercise — running and strength training — were in conflict with one another.

TL;DR, he decided the answer was yes, coining the term “interference effect.” And the shortcomings, he concluded, were particularly profound on the strength training side: “These findings demonstrate that simultaneously training for S and E will result in a reduced capacity to develop strength, but will not affect the magnitude of increase in VO2max.”

Whether overtly or not, this study has informed some of our misconceptions about the perceived antagonistic relationship between running and strength training. Many lifters, over the last few decades or so, may have limited their aerobic efforts for fear of sabotaging whatever they’re getting up to in the gym. (Perhaps you’ve heard someone fret that running would make them “too skinny.”) Only, Hickson’s research was problematic, because the study’s exercise programming was wonky — the athletes (and Hickson, presumably), were training to fatigue in each concentration. No wonder the activities had trouble coexisting.

It’s possible for athletes to train in multiple fields, though, and attain various fitness goals. It obviously can’t hurt to start with an excellent background in one or the other (e.g. a pickleball player shouldn’t suddenly try to join the 1,000 Club and Everest a local hill), and work from there. But for hybrid training to work, you can’t be going full-tilt every day, let alone twice a day. You have to observe some basic tenants.

Pillars to consider

According to Nick Bare, a bodybuilder who’s finished 100-mile races, there are six “pillars” any aspiring hybrid athlete should consider:

  1. Four strength training sessions a week, headlines by compound training (chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs, shoulder and arms)
  2. Lots of miles (upwards of 55 per week), though not necessarily run at a blazing speed
  3. Fueling like hell, and specifically resisting the “junk-food diet,” that intense calorie-burning often invites
  4. Tinkering with endurance load and strategic volume progression based on whatever fitness goal you’re chasing in that particular period
  5. Objective data, in the form of DEXA scans, blood work, sleep biometrics, you name it
  6. Auto-regulation of training, a fancy word for listening to the body and taking a day off when necessary

These are by no means commandments for the modern hybrid athlete, but they do constitute a fascinating foundation for understanding the hybrid athlete’s mindset and programming. Similar to the subculture of longevity-obsessed biohackers, a hybrid athlete’s schedule can make fitness look like a full-time job…one that requires charts and needles and endless adjustments.

Still, however gung-ho, there’s something distinctly admirable about the mission — and the general thesis that no matter how earnestly a hybrid athlete is training towards a new goal (let’s say, a new squat PR), they don’t have to utterly shut down their personal running program. It’s more a matter of establishing a baseline of monthly mileage that’s tenable within that strength training goal.

Hybrid athletes, for their part, aren’t just trying to prove that this can be done; they insist that they’re at their strongest because they do both. There’s some science to confirm this take, with select studies illustrating increased muscle growth from regimens that grant equal attention to cardio and circuits in the gym. As one review concluded: “There are [now] as many papers reporting a greater increase in muscle hypertrophy with concurrent training as there are papers showing an interference effect.” 

But are all hybrid athletes out to prove that their training is the best training? Not necessarily. Some, like Crawley, just seem inspired to head out and prove that they’re capable of literally anything…be it an improbable day at the track, or a “double-extreme Iron-Man distance triathlon.” And others, who’ve clearly found a calling — some degree of meditation or peace — in the rhythms of their activities, may be simply reticent to give one of them up. (If you’ve run somewhere between 50 and 100 miles a week for years, imagine how hollow it would feel to promptly abandon your favorite routes?)

Elite vs. layman hybrid athletes

Fitness-speaking, this is high-concept fare. Hybrid athletes are the type to pore over studies, follow like-minded competitors, and constantly look for new challenges. They’re trailblazers, but as they’re in the 99th percentile for multiple fields, they’re more or less divorced from the fitness realities of average Americans. This is why it’s important — if and when these people inspire you — to not try and mimic their exploits. You’ll probably injure yourself.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the layperson couldn’t or shouldn’t inject hybrid fitness credos into their training regimen. Who doesn’t want strong muscles and a robust heart? A middle road might be to focus on “speed-endurance” sessions, also known as high-intensity interval training. This mode of training also has the approval of elite athletes. (Think of a decathlete alternating middle-distance repetitions on a track, with a few minutes of rest in between. Say: 450 meters, 350 meters, 250 meters, then a series of 150-meter sprints.)

But there are a whole host of activities, which casual trainees are firmly familiar with, that blur the lines between strength and endurance. Consider rowing, swimming, intervals on an assault bike, jump-roping, hill sprints, and burpees. Make no mistake, those activities don’t describe “hybrid” or “concurrent” training. Not in the way elite hybrid athletes define it. But it’s certainly a way to keep lean and get stronger at the same time.

If you’re super inclined to try hybrid training, though, in the more definitive sense, here are some bonus credos to keep in mind:

  • Try to train strength and endurance on different days
  • If you have to train them on the same day, give them eight hours of separation
  • Aim for heavier weight/fewer reps in the gym in order to cultivate some power
  • Keep the cardio under six hours a week, at most
  • Consider an endurance pursuit other than running, which seems to be tougher to balance with strength training than cycling, rowing or cross-country skiing
  • Fuel up accordingly, and make sure your rest days are sacred
  • Eventually, set a clear goal in either, and study what you have to do to stay fit in the other concentration
  • Understand and appreciate that a good run can lead to a “bad” (tired) lift, and that’s just the occupational hazard of training as a hybrid athlete

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