I find your experiences with running marathons and bodybuilding very interesting. I always thought that someone couldn’t do both. I would like to learn more about this from you and, in particular, how you balance these activities so that you can do well at both.
. . . Thomas N.
Thank you for your question.
Although uncommon for bodybuilders or strength athletes to pursue long-distance cardiovascular-based events such as Ironman triathlon or marathon running, it is certainly possible. I retired from competitive bodybuilding in 1999 and ran my first marathon in 2000.
Preparing for that first race required a different set of skills, workout routine, and diet. But since I was already used to intense daily training with a structured exercise and dietary regimen with bodybuilding, the physical challenges involved with transitioning sports were difficult but not as hard as the incredible mental challenge was.
As different as marathon running and bodybuilding are, they are similar in basic structure of meal timing: eating every 2-3 hours throughout the day, and workout duration of 60-90+ minutes of sport-specific training.
For the marathon, I’ll prioritize my training based on whether I plan to complete a training session or race a marathon. For completion, my finishing time is unimportant and my goal is to finish comfortably.
Here my training focus is building my aerobic base. I do three to four 60-minute lower-intensity runs per week with a long run (25 km or more) once per week. My diet and weight training do not change with the one exception being that I eat a high-carbohydrate meal prior to my long run. My physique changes very little over this training process as well – I comfortably maintain my weight and strength.
For a high-priority race, where I’m trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon or seeking a personal-best finishing time, I’ll give this race my full commitment. The focus of my efforts is on, you guessed it, running – and lots of it. I probably doing seven to ten running workouts per week.
There is a lot of slow- to moderate-intensity running to build a strong aerobic base, with the addition of speed work: running hills and track workouts to sharpen racing form and peak my aerobic capacity.
In the gym, it’s higher repetitions, lighter weights, lots of supersets, and little rest between exercises. My diet changes too, with an increase in carbohydrate content and decreasing protein and fat levels. My physique takes on a different appearance too. I’ll drop weight and muscle mass, losing 10-15 pounds of muscle when preparing to race a marathon, welcoming the speed that comes as a result. There’s no stress about losing weight and muscle, since I know I can rebuild it from intelligent weight training and nutrition in about the same amount of time it took me to lose the muscle from running.
When training for a bodybuilding competition, I’ll cut way back on the running, perhaps none at all for the duration of the pre-contest phase. I keep the muscles associated with running well-conditioned by power walking at a fast pace. This also allows me to get my cardiovascular work done, maintain an aerobic base, and provide similar running-specific stimulation to the muscles. In the gym, my focus is heavy basic exercises with lower repetitions and sets. Additionally, I significantly increase my protein levels to encourage muscle growth and recovery.
The marathon-runners goal is maximizing speed, efficiency of movement, aerobic conditioning, and maintaining a lean, flexible, lightly muscled body. The main focus becomes losing or maintaining body weight and running more miles with hopes of building the aerobic engine.
The bodybuilding mindset is exactly the opposite, but they both require a full commitment to succeed. Though bodybuilders enjoy training and competing, the typical, mainstream bodybuilding mindset is one of "get big at all costs" and is usually accompanied by a fear of losing any muscle size or strength.
I had that mindset strongly built up over the years. My family, friends, colleagues and the general public all saw me as a professional bodybuilder, and after I retired from competition, I also had to retire that bodybuilding mentality to successfully train and compete in any new sports, especially marathon running. Approaching marathon training with a bodybuilder mentality stood in the way and had me worried about losing weight, maintaining muscle mass, and strength. I wasn’t eating properly and wasn’t mentally committed to my training. It became easier when I chose to see myself as an athlete who had been training specifically for bodybuilding competition, and now was the same athlete deciding to run a marathon. This new mindset allowed me to train freely and do what was needed to succeed at marathon running. No longer was I worried about maintaining my size or strength or what the numbers on the scale said, and that was when the training really took hold and I started to enjoy the challenges of it. I accepted the reality that I’ll lose muscle mass and strength, but that was not the focus of my training. I now welcomed the physical changes and additional speed that would come as a result.
Once I had the right mindset, I lost 70 pounds over the next seven years, ran 20 marathons, and learned a valuable lesson: I saw what the body was capable of achieving naturally with hard work and purposeful training and nutrition. After almost a decade of marathon running and triathlons and training drug free, I had enormous confidence in the natural ability of the mind and body to achieve incredible things. I knew that this ability would extend to natural bodybuilding.
In 2009, I decided to return to the bodybuilding stage. Training and dieting for the 2009 IDFA Montreal Classic was an amazing experience. Regaining muscle mass and strength takes time, but does eventually return. I also noticed that natural training produces less variability in body weight, aesthetics, and strength following high-volume running or long-term intense dieting.
Alstrup's comeback at the 2009 IDFA Montreal Classic
If you’re a bodybuilder or fitness competitor and plan to participate in other sports, you can do it and do it very well. In seeing yourself as an athlete first who has decided to train for a physique competition, a running race, or whatever it is you choose to do, you are limitless in what you can achieve, fully capable of doing what needs to get done to compete successfully at whatever your chosen sport. Along with this comes an understanding that your training and nutrition will be different, as well as an acceptance of reality that your physique will definitely change as a result of serious training for a different discipline. That is what training is all about and the reason we love it. It is the stimulus for producing some amazing results in whatever direction we choose.
Get excited about your next sporting event, whatever it is. Challenge yourself! As an athlete you are capable of achieving anything!
. . . Erik Alstrup