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Running For Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders hate to run — fearing injury and muscle loss. But done right, running is safe, natural and far more effective than other types of cardio.

This photo is stunning and incongruous: a massively muscular man, his Michelin-tire-like delts, lats and traps shimmering in all their glory, jogging along an empty two-lane mountain road. Crowning the sinewy perfection is the symmetrical shaved head of four-time Mr. Olympia Phil Heath, the awesome apotheosis of the running bodybuilder.

The trouble is, it was all for the cameras. Yes, Heath ran a lot in a previous life as a college basketball player. Yes, Heath and nearly all bodybuilders use cardio to shed fat and get ripped — but it’s usually an hour of low-heart-rate, low-impact aerobics on the bike or elliptical and walking at 3.2 to 3.5 mph on a treadmill at a three-degree incline. Heath, like all men his size who compete at his level, can barely run a mile. More accurately, they have no motivation to even do that, says Howie Skora, fitness manager at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, Calif.

“Their bodies just aren’t designed for it,” he says. “Bodybuilders are carrying 30, 40, 50 extra pounds of muscle, and that weight puts too much wear and tear on joints. And anyone who’s ever done any bodybuilding at all knows running burns up muscle. I only know one bodybuilder who runs.”

Related:Stay Shredded While Gaining Size

So that ends the argument for running and bodybuilding — or does it? Can running benefit the guy who wants to burn fat, develop greater work capacity or maybe compete in the occasional mud run once in a while, but without burning off hard-earned muscle and putting joints at risk? Some coaches — although not bodybuilding contest preparation experts — think that guys interested in muscle mass and hypertrophy can safely tap into running’s proven fat-burning prowess, improved posture development and all-round functional fitness if they do the following:

Utilize primal running form: You can greatly reduce the impact of running and its risk to joints and connective tissue by learning “soft” running. This technique imitates the barefoot-running style of the cavemen, in which you land gently on the forefoot with a springy bent leg and avoid the traumatic heel strike that rattles your bones.

Perform periodized low-heart-rate training: Keep your heart rate low, in a sub-lactate threshold aerobic zone that burns mostly fat as fuel. Using a classic periodization program, you can slowly ramp up the pace and get faster over time at the same heart rate and staying in the fat-burning zone.

Do sprints: Performed immediately after a leg workout, a short, high-intensity interval session can spare joint stress, have a strength-training-like anabolic effect and raise EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) and extra calorie-burning for as long as 48 hours.

Before we get into these concepts in more detail, you might wonder: Why run at all when other, less-risky aerobic options like bikes and ellipticals are available? The answer: Nothing blasts fat like running, and nothing is as convenient, natural and functional.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a 200-pound man running at a snail’s pace of 5 mph burns 755 calories per hour — nearly 50 percent more than rowing and swimming, beating even high-impact aerobics, basketball and inline skating. Move it up to a still-leisurely 6 mph and the calorie burn goes to 917 calories per hour. Only stair climbing, at 819 calories, beats 5 mph running.

Some say no matter how fast you run, it has a positive effect on all your body’s functional movements. That’s because running is so natural, according to evolutionary biologists like Daniel Lieberman, Ph.D., of Harvard University. That school of thought says that evolution built the human body with an upright posture to see far distances over the wide-open savanna and to run, walk and stride for long distances at fast speeds — probably to track down animals for dinner and run from them when the tables are turned. Compared to our slower primate cousins, human bodies have lots of running-friendly features, such as shorter arms that swing faster to balance the cyclic movement of the legs; lighter lower legs and thicker hips, which allow the leg to swing pendulum-like with little effort; bigger, more complex feet, to absorb shock; and thicker lumbar vertebrae, also able to absorb shock forces. In addition, our muscles, tendons and connective tissue are designed as natural springs and slings that effectively store energy during the gait cycle, then give it back to you on the next step.

“So if you run — and run well — it not only promotes good posture, but in theory helps you do all human movement and exercise training a little more naturally, with more economy of motion,” says physical therapist Robert Forster, who trains and rehabs elite-level runners at his Phase IV performance center in Santa Monica.

Los Angeles running coach Steve Mackel, who teaches the soft-landing ChiRunning technique, thinks running can help anyone get more in touch with their natural inner caveman. “Based on the occasional bodybuilder who shows up at my classes, I think running helps reacquaint them with a natural, primal grace — a grace that their sport works against,” he says. “Running is all about moving your body weight from point A to point B with as little muscular effort as possible. But bodybuilders spend all their time in the gym doing exactly the opposite: making as much muscular effort as possible. So at first they run terribly. Then suddenly, when they learn how to harness gravity, they visibly get more flexible and agile and graceful.

“I would assume that learning how to get more work out of less effort would pay off in the gym — that it would somehow help them move more weight.”

Step 1: Use Joint-Friendly Form

Of course, any time you discuss running, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is size. Big gorillas, whether their weight comes from muscle or fat, have a hard time running with all that bulk. Not only does a big body exhaust itself quickly when trying to move its bulk, but joint injuries are rampant, due to slamming strides with an extra-heavy load. That’s why the crucial first step for a heavily muscled runner is to stop the high-impact slamming. That’s accomplished by adopting a “soft” running gait that babies your joints and tendons and takes advantage of your body’s natural springs.

The ChiRunning method taught by Mackle, like the similar Pose Method of renowned Russian author and triathlon coach Nicholas Romanov, reduces impact and turns the leg into a big spring that propels you forward. These two running methods, widely adopted over the last decade by runners concerned about recurrent injuries, can be explained simply: They mostly copy the landing, leg position and gait cycle of barefoot running.

So while learning the Chi/Pose method can seem difficult, a quick shortcut is to just take your shoes off and run barefoot for 50 feet. Without the heel cushion of a running shoe to protect you, you’ll notice several things:

No heel strike: Your heel should not be the first thing that hits the ground, because that will cause you pain.

Forefoot/midfoot touchdown: You will land on the front and/or middle of your foot. Your heel will come down immediately after that.

Flexed knee: You will land with your knee bent, not straight. A straight-legged landing and a heel strike are possible in cushioned shoes — but not barefoot.

Short strides: You will land with your foot almost directly under your body, rather than a foot or two ahead, as you may do in shoes.

If you can remember these four things when you put your shoes back on, you’ll be running “softly.” It won’t be easy to remember and to coordinate all four, because the heel-strike is so ingrained in the running pattern of so many people. The shoe companies put big heel cushions on running shoes several decades ago, assuming that’s how humans naturally landed. The problem is, as you may see when you take your shoes off, that the heel strike is completely unnatural. The conveniences of the modern world have made us forgot how to run naturally.

Now, one more thing:

Rapid turnover of 180 steps per minute: As you are learning the new form, you must also increase your cadence (number of steps) to keep your speed with the reduced stride length. The fast cadence reduces injury potential because you only get injured when your foot is on the ground. So immediately after your heel touches the ground (following the forefoot landing), lift it into the air. Shoot for a cadence of 180 steps per minute — 90 with each foot. This will be a bit exhausting at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it.

Once you learn the form and give your body time to gradually adapt to the new biomechanics (calves and Achilles tendons, in particular, are foreshortened and weak from years of heel-striking and wearing heeled shoes), the reduction in impact forces to your ankle, knee and hip joints, and decreased incidence of injuries to connective tissue and muscles will be profound. Some studies have shown that shock is reduced by 50 percent.


Step 2: Learn To Burn Fat While Sparing Muscle

The other downside of running — muscle loss — can be avoided by using two distinct running methods: long slow distance (LSD) and interval training.

Long Slow Distance Runs: Twice a week, ideally on days you’re not in the weight room, do an easy run for 30 to 60 minutes. In concept, the low-heart-rate LSD run should be nothing new for bodybuilders; it’s the same slow, 120 to 140 bpm cardio they’ve always done on the bike and stair-stepper to burn off fat. In the desired low-exertion aerobic zone, your body is going slow enough that it can take in all the oxygen it needs to use fat as its primary fuel. Fat is dense with calories but requires lots of oxygen to burn. The key is not to exceed that heart-rate range while running, which is not easy for most people to do, especially at first. Running naturally encourages you to push it, so you must actively throttle back.

Your goal with running, or any other form of cardio, is to train your muscles’ mitochondria (the tiny intracellular engines where fuel is ignited and energy created) to get better at burning fat. It does this when you stay in the fat-burning zone, but if you exceed the upper limit of this zone (technically your “threshold,” where you can’t get enough oxygen in to meet your speed), your muscles will reach for a more fast-burning fuel — carbs. This quicker pace not only diminishes your use of fat and slows your development of a fat-burning engine, it also puts a strain on your muscles, undercutting your recovery. Remember that you worked out hard in the gym the day before; to best realize those gains, your cardio day must be about recovery.

How do you make sure you don’t run too fast? Take the “talk test.” At all times, just make sure that you can converse easily without gasping for breath. To be sure you don’t mistakenly slip into a too-fast pace, wear a heart-rate monitor. Then, as you talk, note your pulse and set the monitor to beep when you exceed it.

Besides burning lots of fat, the LSD pace also safely builds the infrastructure (tendons, ligaments, connective tissue) that allows your joints to handle the stresses of running and gives you time to focus on good form.

Interval Training: Once a week, do short, intense interval sessions immediately following a leg workout. The intervals (eight 10- to 30-second all-out sprints on a treadmill at an angle, separated by a minute of slow recovery) become muscle-building extensions of your strength work, taking advantage of a principle called post-activation potentiation (PAP). The hormonal response to all-out sprints, especially testosterone, is similar to lifting. Intervals are very time efficient: just 20 minutes for eight sprints and recoveries, including warm-up and cool-down. But don’t do them more than once a week, as they’re hard on your joints. Minimize the pounding and max the effort by raising treadmill elevation as well as speed.

Training Plan

Running is the world’s cheapest, most convenient fitness activity. It has a documented endorphin effect that tends to get people addicted — until they get hurt. To stay clear of the addiction, approach running only as an adjunct to your weight training, not as an end unto itself. Your goal for running is to burn fat and expedite recovery, while not impacting your size.

A logical training strategy for simultaneously getting ripped and maintaining recovery is to use easy LSD running (or any cardio) the day after all hard training days. So if you hit upper body/lower body or front/back on Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday, then Wednesday and Saturday would be the time for a low-heart-rate run. A third run could come as a PAP interval session tacked onto a heavy leg workout. To maintain size, don’t run more than three days a week or for more than an hour at a time. For those interested in competing in running events, a standard periodization plan would progressively increase speed and mileage on the two LSD days, with the interval session remaining unchanged.