If you do nothing but pound the pavement day after day, it might be time to add variety to your run training. And what better way to switch things up while also reaping serious running benefits than to incorporate metabolic conditioning (MetCon) into your weekly routine?
MetCons involve alternating high-intensity intervals done at 85% of your maximum effort with short recovery periods. These workouts can be done bodyweight-only or with added weight.
According to Hollis Tuttle, senior coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City, runners of all experience levels can gain considerable performance benefits from incorporating MetCons into their weekly training plans. “This type of training helps build total-body fitness in a way that running does not,” she says.
During metabolic conditioning, you work primarily in the anaerobic glycolytic energy system. “It’s uncomfortable to work there, but the benefits are super time-efficient and they carry over to both of the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems,” says Mike Young, PhD, director of performance and research and lead researcher for Athletic Lab. By hitting a variety of energy systems, you’ll reap benefits you wouldn’t ordinarily see if you were simply running.
MetCons are a very efficient way to improve running economy (how much oxygen you need to sustain your running speed) and fitness without having to log extra miles. By swapping a few miles for a MetCon, you can reap similar performance benefits without over-stressing your joints. “You’re spreading the load across your entire body in a way that you wouldn’t be if you were just running,” Young says. “When you’re running, the lower extremities just take a beating,” he adds.
The landmark 1996 tabata study is just one example of the effectiveness of MetCons, or in this case, the effectiveness of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), a subcategory of metabolic conditioning. Researchers found that doing HIIT five days per week was even more effective for boosting aerobic and anaerobic fitness than doing five days of moderate-intensity cardio.
When you incorporate weights into your MetCon workout, you train parts of the body that don’t get trained when running. “A lot of runners treat themselves as lungs with legs, but the best runners tend to be those that train more holistically,” Young says.
MetCons often use compound exercises like the squat-to-overhead press, which recruit multiple muscle groups at once and require a maximum amount of energy to execute well. By training with weights and completing full-body exercises you can address upper-body and core strength, which not only improves your running performance but also reduces your likelihood of injury.
“The upper-body can transmit forces from the ground up through the top of your head and vice versa,” Young says. By building upper-body and core strength via MetCons, you’ll be better able to stabilize your body when you start to feel fatigued at the end of a long run. And by building strength in the lower-body, you’ll be better-equipped to handle the ground reaction forces (the force exerted by the ground on your body with each step you take), which is especially helpful if you’re predisposed to lower back pain or injuries, Young says.
Tuttle recommends replacing “junk” mile training days with 1–2 days of metabolic conditioning per week. “Incorporating these workouts will make you a more robust athlete, helping to reduce the risk of developing common injuries associated with overuse all while still training the same energy systems,” she says.