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How cardio and endurance training can increase your stamina

Karrina Howe
Article written by Karrina Howe

Date published 17 July 2019

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Whether you train to compete, to better your health and fitness, or because you simply enjoy exercising, any training programme should focus on improving your stamina and endurance. Both these factors will aid in achieving your goals: whether that be weight loss, fitness, or improving your overall strength.

Despite being closely related, stamina and endurance are very distinct concepts. But together they can work to improve your ability to work out for longer periods of time, undertake heavier loads, and ultimately push your body to reach new limits.

Stamina Vs. Endurance

Stamina relates to the amount of time a given muscle or group of muscles can perform at maximum capacity. For example, being able to perform a heavy deadlift, for several repetitions. Endurance, on the other hand, is the number of times any given group of muscles can perform a certain action or exercise. That is, performing deadlifts at a lighter weight for more repetitions over a longer period of time.

If we delve deeper into endurance, however, there is a difference between cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance. Cardiovascular endurance is the capacity of the cardiovascular (respiratory) system to distribute oxygen efficiently throughout the whole body. Whereas muscular endurance is the capability of skeletal muscles to do several repetitions of movements over time. Strengthen these attributes and your stamina will increase, allowing you to perform at your peak for longer amounts of time.

Target your Anaerobic System

One method of building up your muscular endurance is with HIIT (high intensity interval training) or hybrid training. This combines strength training with conditioning and can only be performed for short bursts, rather than long durations.

This type of cardio will work your anaerobic system. The anaerobic system is the energy provided by your body in the absence of oxygen. This can only be used in the first few minutes of all exercise, before there is sufficient oxygen available at the muscles for aerobic metabolism. By training your anaerobic system you are developing type II muscle fibres. As a result, your muscles will develop in strength, allowing you to exert a lot more power for longer durations through your workout - something that endurance training will not target.

By optimising your heart rate with short bursts of intense movement, you will increase your heart's capacity whilst simultaneously increasing the number and the density of your mitochondria- the energy powerhouse of cells. This will raise your VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen you can deliver to your muscles in a given amount of time, as well as strengthening your skeletal muscles for higher force production, and better venous return to your heart. All of these factors will contribute towards greater stamina.

Cardio Endurance and Anaerobic Excess

If you love fitness and train around four or five times a week, then maintaining focus only on high intensity cardio is not realistic. It will, over time, cause additional stress to your immune and hormonal systems: something which is just not sustainable. Anaerobic excess can cause oxidative stress (or free radical damage), which can lead to overtraining and illness. By combining muscular endurance with cardio endurance you will help your body to a versatile, fit state, with the ability to persevere with training.

Cardio endurance builds the aerobic system and is vital no matter what your chosen fitness discipline: from professional hockey players, to long distance marathoners, to the average fitness fan looking to be as healthy as possible. This is because cardio, when performed regularly, causes more permanent adaptations in the body, which reduces the effort required to carry out everyday activities. It makes the body better able to respond to physical challenges.

By including training such as a 40 minute constant speed swim or run, you will improve your cellular metabolism. Endurance training increases the number of capillaries in the muscles, so that they can be supplied with more oxygen and nutrients and can more quickly eliminate waste products. Greater capillary density helps heal injuries and reduces muscle aches.

Endurance exercise also trains the muscles to make the most of available oxygen and fuel so that they work efficiently. Exercise increases the size and the number of mitochondria in the muscle cell, thereby increasing the energy capacity of the cell and helping to conserve muscle energy. How does this work? With more mitochondria, glycogen depletion is prevented, improving the muscles' ability to use lactic acid and fats as fuels.

Developing the Aerobic System

Pushing your heart rate to extreme levels for prolonged periods of time will not help develop your aerobic system. In actual fact, you want to keep your heart rate low, not putting too much stress on your body, whilst also increasing cardiac output. This will increase blood pressure, increase ventilation (the rate and depth of breathing), and increase the blood flow to active skeletal muscles and to the heart. All of these changes help the body to respond to the challenge of exercise in the short term.

For a low-key workout that reduces your stress level and improves recovery, while delivering general health and an efficient aerobic engine, steady-state cardio is tough to beat.

Eating for Stamina

The effects of fast food or poor nutrition on the body, whether you train five hours a day, or thirty minutes a day, can lead to metabolic dysfunction. This can lead to metabolic syndrome, causing fat to live around your organs, cardiac disease, and type 2 diabetes. You can't always rely on the mirror to tell you what is happening on the inside, so those days when you feel sluggish after a take-away, a night on the town resulting in a kebab, or a week of bad food choices can seriously affect your training performance and stamina.

So how do we avoid it? For most of us, the best pre- and post-training meals will contain some combination of high quality protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and some fruit and vegetables. These whole foods provide an essential blend of nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that build muscle, supply energy, decrease inflammation, and boost recovery.

Train Smart

To get the most out of your training, you need to maximise how much blood your muscles can utilise (with HIIT), as well as how much blood your heart can send to your muscles (with aerobic training). That means including some form of long, steady workout in your training program. In other words, HIIT works more effectively on your peripheral muscle fitness, while endurance training works more effectively on your central, cardiovascular fitness.

The best way to increase your stamina in training probably isn't the all-or-nothing approach. Rather, it's a blend of both higher and lower-intensity cardiovascular training that's tailored to your body and your goals.

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Karrina Howe

About Karrina Howe

Karrina Howe is a qualified personal trainer, Olympic weightlifting coach and Precise Nutrition Level 1 coach, who guides people on their path to a healthier lifestyle.