Why Hybrid Programs Fail - Part 1 (Training)

Whether you’re looking to smash a 10K and compete in a powerlifting meet, get selected for Special Forces, play rugby at a high level, or excel at anything involving strength and endurance, you fit the bill of a hybrid athlete. Hybrid training, also referred to as concurrent training, can be defined as training to improve two (or more) separate disciplines that do not directly support each other. 

Of all the different fitness adaptations (speed, power, strength, hypertrophy, agility, endurance, mobility, and flexibility), some compliment each other, some don’t. For example, speed and power are closely related. Becoming more powerful will likely improve your speed. Strength and power are also similar adaptations. Power is force (strength) x acceleration (speed). Finally, strength and hypertrophy often go hand in hand, especially for newer trainees. 

Although these goals are technically hybrid by definition, the hybrid training popularized today involves the two most opposite adaptations the human body can experience; Strength (and hypertrophy) + endurance. 

This article series will discuss hybrid training as it pertains to becoming a better runner while simultaneously making gains in the gym. Although I’ll highlight running in this article, similar rules apply to other forms of endurance. That being said, of all endurance modalities, running requires the most meticulousness, as it’s more structurally stressful than any other form of endurance training. I'll also combine  strength and hypertrophy into one discipline because there’s so much overlap. Another way to look at strength+hypertrophy gains is powerbuilding. 

Here in part 1, I'll break down 7 common training mistakes made by those looking to concurrently improve their strength (as well as gain muscle) and their distance running ability. Since lack of progress extends beyond unsound training, in part 2 we’ll dive into the non-training habits that hold hybrid athletes back most, to include nutrition and sleep.

When you’re looking to improve your strength as well as your running, precision and intent are of the utmost importance because the adaptations involved in a strength training session are counter to that of an endurance session.

The Interference Effect

Many people believe that the interference effect is one of the biggest roadblocks they'll face when attempting such an endeavor. In simple terms, the interference effect is the belief that cardiovascular exercise may interfere with the muscle-building adaptations inherent to strength training, and vice versa. At face value, strength training is anabolic (pro muscle tissue) and cardio is catabolic (anti muscle tissue). 

But this doesn’t mean you’ll inherently lose muscle from cardio - so long as you’re lifting appropriately, eating enough protein and calories, and not going overboard with the conditioning, you’ll maintain your muscle (at minimum). The original interference effect study involved inordinate amounts of cardio volume as well as other measurable limitations. Gaining strength and muscle and improving your running can coexist when done properly. Let’s take a look at some specific training mistakes when navigating your hybrid training goals.


Too Much Overall Workload (200% Program)

A mistake I made when I first began my hybrid journey, and one that many have made and continue to make is failing to "trim the fat" from their program. Although this is a popular approach, your goal for hybrid training should not be to do as much of both disciplines as possible and see what you can recover from.

This is what I call the “200% program” approach. A running program is meant to be followed 100% in an effort to improve your running. It’s designed for nothing else but to make you a better runner. Although some running programs will involve strength work, it’ll be supplementary to the running, rather than intended to build appreciable strength and muscle.

Likewise, a strength or hypertrophy program is meant to be followed 100% in an effort to improve your strength and/or gain muscle. Many strength programs don’t involve any conditioning whatsoever because it’s commonly believed that conditioning will interfere with strength gains. 

These programs are typically (with exception) effective for their respective goals. But if, in an effort to get stronger, bigger and faster, you opt to follow both programs at the same time in their entirety, you’ve entered into 200% program territory. Regardless of how disciplined you are with recovery habits outside the gym or how optimal your PED cycle may be, it’s unrealistic to think that you’ll be able to make consistent progress on a 200% program. 

There’s a broad spectrum of recovery ability across different individuals. Some people can accumulate and recover from a lot of volume. Others need less. Either way, your goal when you start a hybrid program should be to do as little as possible while still getting results. Will this maximize your running ability? No. Will it lead to reaching your full strength and muscle gain potential? No. But it’ll allow you to improve in both disciplines at the same time without running yourself into the ground or getting injured. 



The next mistake is attempting to follow a hybrid program while also doing extracurriculars like BJJ, pickup basketball, or other high energy demand sports. Dovetailing off of the first mistake, it should be easy to conceptualize why this would likely be a short lived, frustration-filled endeavor. To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t improve your endurance, strength and build muscle while also doing an extracurricular.

But if you do, it'll require further manipulation of the hybrid program. Hybrid programs are intended to be followed in isolation - in other words, the only physical training you should be doing is that which is programmed. If you’re adding several hours of additional physical training to an already high workload program, you’re likely to struggle. My suggestion is to determine which adaptations are most important to you, and make the necessary substitutions. 

For example, perhaps you enjoy playing pickup basketball for 2 hours once per week. If you wish to continue, that’s fine, but you’ll likely have to replace some of the training from the program with basketball instead of just adding it on and hoping for the best. Again - some people can recover from more volume, and if you’re following a “for the masses” program, there’s a chance you could indeed add 2 hours of basketball to it and still make progress.

But if you try it and determine it’s too much to recover from, but basketball is still important to you, look at the program and see what can be omitted. Perhaps you can get away with small adjustments like dropping some lower body accessory work and/or some volume from 1-2 runs. But in other cases, you may need to make more drastic changes, such as cutting out a tempo run or training 3 days/week in the gym instead of 4.

There’s no one size fits all to this situation. There’s always a give and take for hybrid training. When you add more to it, this process requires more thought, honesty with yourself, and some acceptance that you may not make quite as much progress.  


Unrealistic Expectations

We’d all love to be able to run a 5:00 mile, a sub 3 hour marathon, ruck 12 miles in 90 minutes,  squat 600, be 6% bodyfat, and be in perfect mental and physical health 365 days/year. Unfortunately, the reality is that most people will never do a single one of these things, let alone all of them at the same time.

Not only do genetics play a major role in your overall athletic potential, but they also play a role in the fitness domains in which you’ll excel most and least. For example, a well trained slow twitch dominant athlete may be able to ruck 12 miles in 90 minutes or run a marathon in 2:40. But that same person probably won’t dominate on a bodybuilding stage or win a powerlifting meet.

If your goal is to do it all, you’ll need to accept the fact that when you’re a jack of all trades, you’ll inherently be a master of none. The more conflicting the goals are, the harder it’s going to be to truly excel at any of them. For example, if you want to be a bodybuilder and a marathon runner, you’re going to have to choose between the following 3 options:

  1. Be a great bodybuilder and a sub par marathon runner
  2. Be a sub par bodybuilder and a great marathon runner
  3. Be above average (but not elite) at both (and probably better at one than the other based on your priorities, training history and genetics)

The more generalized your training, the more generalized your performance will be. The more specific your training, the more specific your performance will be. If you choose two competing disciplines, expect to sacrifice a bit of performance in each one. But ultimately, remember that you won’t be elite at everything. Knowing this, it’s important to consider periodization.


Lack of Periodization

Periodization is a way to tailor your training based on your current and future goals. Focusing on, and measurably improving all fitness disciplines 365 days/year is a pipe dream. Periodization involves identifying your current main goal, and perhaps a secondary goal, and setting up your training to reflect such goals.

The great thing about being a hybrid trainee is that you’re never too far away from excelling at any one discipline. For example, perhaps 5 months from now you want to compete in a powerlifting meet. Then perhaps 3 months after the meet, you want to run a marathon. Assuming you care about putting your best foot forward in each respective competition, periodizing your training to reflect these goals is the next logical step.

For the next 5 months, you’d focus mostly on getting strong while maintaining (not maximizing) your running ability, while being aware of the great limiter; fatigue. It's unrealistic to follow a full powerlifting and marathon training plan at the same time. Ideally you’d train for a marathon for longer than 3 months, but in this case, since you have a powerlifting meet closer on the horizon, you’ll have to make adjustments.

Once the powerlifting meet is over and you’ve recovered, that’s when you'd go all in on marathon training for the 12 odd weeks before the race. Will this result in a win at the powerlifting meet? Perhaps not - there will be powerlifters at the meet who only focus on powerlifting. You’re limited by your ability to recover given the extra running you’ll do leading in. Will you win the marathon? Probably not. There will be runners there who only run, and have been training for 2-3x as long for this particular race than you have.

But that’s the beauty of being a hybrid trainee - while you may get beat in the PL meet, you’d be able to run all the other competitors under the table. And while you may get beat by runners in the marathon, you’d be able to out lift anyone there. Outrun the lifters, outlift the runners. That’s hybrid training in a nutshell.

Easy stuff not easy enough

When training for a single discipline, you have more wiggle room. Pushing the pace a bit on a zone 2 day when you’re feeling good is sometimes worth the squeeze. Going a bit harder than prescribed on your last repeat is not typically problematic. But when you’re training several different disciplines, there’s little room for negotiation - easy stuff needs to stay easy.

Fatigue is main factor needing to be managed through training volume and intensity, as well as lifestyle outside the gym. When prescribed intensity is surpassed, fatigue has a tendency to surpass fitness. This is fine acutely - sometimes fatigue can mask fitness transiently when intentionally overreaching. But when it’s not done intentionally (by habitually going harder than prescribed), it’s not a desirable outcome.

On the lifting side, it’s crucial to develop your ability to use rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and reps in reserve (RIR) in training. If your program calls for a 7 RPE day (subjective 7/10 effort) and you go for a 9 RPE that day, this can result in a recovery debt that takes extra time and rearrangement of subsequent training in order to repay.

Although putting in some extra effort once in a while is usually fine, many people are of the belief that more effort is always better. You must think of your training on a continuum. You’re not going to make a ton of progress from one day, or even one week of training. But you could absolutely set yourself back by going too hard for one day because it can bleed into your ability to perform for the rest of the week, which can bleed into the next week, and so on. So when following a hybrid plan, it’s critical to be honest with yourself. Keep the easy stuff easy. This will allow you to go hard in future sessions when the situation calls for it. 


Hard Stuff Not Hard Enough

One of the main reasons to keep the easy stuff easy is so that when it comes time to go hard, you’re able to truly go hard. All too commonly, hybrid trainees get stuck in proverbial no man’s land, which consists of spending too much time at a moderate intensity. There’s a time and place for moderate intensity work, but it’s typically best to spend the lowest percentage of your training time there.

When you’ve developed more fatigue from previous sessions, it’s tough to reach top gear. But the ability to hit that top gear (whether in the gym or running) is needed in order to really move the needle. For example, if you’re so smoked from a weekend long run where you spent most of your time in zone 3 instead of zone 2, and you’re training high effort squats and 800 meter repeats on Monday, you're more likely to carry excessive lingering fatigue into the session. Carrying excessive fatigue into a hard, needle moving session will lead to reduced performance and result in even more residual fatigue than usual. 

In other instances, there are some people who simply don't have the requisite pain tolerance or fortitude to go hard. In other words, although they’re physically capable of going hard on a given day, they avoid it because it’s extremely uncomfortable. Going hard takes practice and mental toughness, and if yours hasn’t been developed yet, the hard stuff won’t be as impactful on your progress.

Regardless of what’s causing it, when you don’t go hard enough when the day calls for max or close to max effort, you’ll leave gains and progress on the table. Polarized training (either hard or easy) is important for many single fitness disciplines - but it’s paramount for hybrid work.


Junk Volume (miles, lifting)

The last training mistake I’ll discuss is problematic for many gym rats and training fanatics who simply love nothing more than to be training. In today’s influencer abundant world, working harder and training more is typically touted to be the best way to separate yourself from the competition. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way (ironically, it often backfires and sets you back).

On a hybrid training regimen, it’s actually quite easy to accidentally overreach (different from intentional overreaching). You may find yourself doing extra sets in the gym because you feel great one day. Or you may find yourself running some extra repeats or adding a seemingly harmless recovery run when it’s supposed to be a rest day. The problem is, although it may not seem like much, junk volume and junk miles can creep up on you and throw a wrench in your progress, or more commonly, slowly degrade it over time. 

In most cases, when you’re wondering whether or not you need to do more sets or add exercises to your lifting plan, err on the side of “not today”. When you’re contemplating whether you should go for a recovery run or just relax for the day, err on the side of relaxing for the day. 

Runners training with the sole goal of running improvement can get away with a good deal more junk miles than runners who are also trying to get strong. Lifters can get away with junk volume to a greater extent than lifters who are also trying to get faster. When it comes to junk volume, not all of it is created equal. Doing a few sets of arms or lateral raises at the end of a training session likely won’t derail you. Doing a 15 minute warmup before your tempo run instead of a 10 minute warmup likely won’t either. The big offenders for junk volume are things like:

-Adding a drop set or other intensity technique to the end of your main squat movement for the day

-Doing an inordinate amount of high rep lower body exercises 

-Running 12x400s and going all out on the last one instead of the prescribed 8x400s and hitting your pace range for all of the repeats

-Instead of doing a 90 minute zone 2 run, you go 2 hours and spend the last 30 minutes in zone 3, teetering the line of zone 4

-Going for a 4 mile shakeout or “recovery” run in mid-high zone 2 on your single rest day of the week (needing to recover from a recovery run makes it, by definition, not a recovery run)

And so on. Your mindset should be “how can I get the most out of my current training program” rather than “what can I add to my current program to get more out of it?” Ironically, the latter typically leads subpar results despite having put in more effort. 

Wrapping It Up

Hybrid training isn’t easy - it’s a constant game of guess and check. It requires a lot of discipline to stick to any training plan. Hybrid plans are often more difficult, especially if you have a background in running, powerlifting or bodybuilding.

You’ll have to come to terms with the fact that you can no longer do as much of your former sole fitness focus if you want to reap the rewards. It can be hard to leave the gym or press stop on the watch when you finish a prescribed session but feel like you could keep going. But it’s usually the exact thing you need to do.

To make things even more challenging, progressing on a hybrid program also requires discipline outside the gym. Nutrition for hybrid training is another make or break consideration. In fact, this part is understandably more difficult for many than the training itself. In part 2, I’ll discuss some of the common nutrition mistakes that hold hybrid trainees back.

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