Is it possible to put on muscle and be a runner? Of course it is! If you’re following a strength training regimen and you get your nutrition right, there is no reason you won’t be able to put on lean muscle mass; it just requires some planning and a bit of simple math. I’m terrible at math so if I can do it, you can too.
The laws of thermodynamics are the basis for gaining and losing weight at a fundamental level. If you’re eating in energy balance (maintenance), then you’re maintaining your existing weight. If you’re eating in a positive energy balance (surplus), you’re going to gain weight and if you’re eating in a negative energy balance (deficit), you’re going to lose weight. It’s that simple (kind of).
The most prevalent misconception being circulated is the proposed “fact” that you simply cannot build muscle while in a caloric deficit unless you’re new to training or among the genetically gifted. While it is much harder (especially as you become leaner and build more lean body mass), it is possible to build muscle in a deficit… it’s just harder and slower.
If you’re going to regularly mix in some long runs in your training, it’s important to pay attention to how much you’re burning. I use MyFitnessPal to “roughly guesstimate” how many calories I burn based on the number of minutes and my average pace. This method isn’t perfect, but nothing is. Let’s go through a step-by-step process on how to do this:
1. Calculate your maintenance calories
You can roughly guess this from a calorie calculator. Some calculators can either severely overshoot or underrepresent the number of calories you need, but it’s a decent starting point. The best way to figure out your maintenance calories is to track everything you put in your body and your weight daily for at least a week without changing anything significantly to your current diet or workout plan.
You then take your weekly averages — if you lose weight, you’re eating below maintenance. If you gain weight, you’re eating above maintenance, and if you stay the same weight, well then voila! You’ve found your maintenance calories. This process is a bit complex, but Dr. Eric Helms put together a fabulous video on the subject, so I encourage you to check it out.
2. Adjust your calories to eat in a surplus
When you figure out your maintenance calories, don’t forget to factor in the calories you burn from your runs since this will increase your caloric needs for the day. To “lean bulk” or in other words, put on muscle without accumulating too much fat, you’ll want to increase your caloric intake by 10–20% of your maintenance calories.
Take maintenance calories + calories burned from your run + 10–20% more calories than your maintenance. Confused yet? Have I totally lost you? Let’s slow it down with an example:
I’m 139 lbs and my maintenance calories are ~2,000 per day. I burn roughly 500 calories per day from my five-mile runs. With this in mind, to figure out my surplus I’m going to take 2,000 x 10–20%:
Calories (2,000) x 10% = 200
Calories (2,000) x 20% = 400
I’m going to want to eat in a surplus of 200–400 calories/day to progressively gain weight (hopefully from muscle). So, my energy intake should be: maintenance + calories burned from exercise + caloric surplus.
I’m going to go on the lower end so I don’t accumulate too much fat in the process. This is what it would look like:
2,000 maintenance + 500 calories burned from my run + 200 extra calories = 2,700 calories per day.
Once you figure out the calorie portion, then it’s on to ensuring you’re hitting your protein targets. Again, this is a complex issue, but if you aim to get in at least 2 grams of protein per kg of body weight, you should be good.
The carb and fat splits don’t really matter as much — this is highly individualized so it’s important to experiment and see what works best for you. Some operate better with high fat and others with a higher carb count. The real macro you need to pay attention to in order to build muscle is protein.
4. Progressive training plan
The last component to building muscle is of course to include a resistance training plan — applying the principles of progressive overload. As a general rule of thumb, to gain muscle hypertrophy (growth), you want to aim for a rep range of 8–12 until muscle failure, but there are exceptions.
I wrote about this more extensively in another post which you can refer to for a deep dive. In short, progressive overload is lifting more weight, taking less rest, and/or doing more reps/training volume on a week-over-week basis to achieve muscle growth.
Your muscles don’t actually grow in the gym. It’s during the period of rest when your body is repairing the torn muscle fibers. The process is called muscular adaptation. So all of you checking how “swole” you are in the mirror after your workout, you can pump the brakes a bit.
Rest is a vital ingredient in the mix. While I don’t necessarily follow this advice (I’ve been running every day for almost four years now), I do give my muscles a break from strength training, and the type of recovery I do is called active recovery.
For many of my runs (especially the days following either a long run, hard high-intensity interval training, or tempo/threshold run), I bring down my pace and intensity significantly. In fact, active recovery can be a great way to reduce lactic acid build-up, reduce soreness, increase blood flow, and can even help with flexibility.
While passive rest is keeping your body in a restful state (think sitting still, not moving), it’s not entirely necessary. Even on passive rest days, you can still go for a walk or a bike ride, keeping your muscles loose and limber.