How to increase endurance is a question that has puzzled scientists since Galileo tried to run to the moon. Every year, new evidence emerges which suggests that running is harder and more boring than previously imagined. Then a tourist will write a book about a tribe of American Indians who ran to work in shitty sandals and running will be cool again. Then people will get infected with a thing called “finger toe shoes” and all of a sudden 1 in 4 Americans have their feet amputated (from diabetes… it’s totally unrelated). This has been the cycle of contradictory silliness that has made coaching people who want to run faster and farther more of an exercise in hypocrisy than an exercise in exercise.
I’m mostly kidding. The point is that endurance as a science has been evolving since 490 BC when a Greek soldier accidentally ran the first marathon and died. His lifeless body had barely settled on the steps of the Acropolis before smug guy in Oregon said, “Yeah, that was a PR but I’d like to see his splits” and took a sip of his nitro latte. Or the early 1900s when a Nobel Prize winner found that lactic acid is the fuel of muscles’ nightmares. Either way, just as scientists get closer to identifying the one thing that regulates all of the others in our bodies (with respect to our capacity to have and increase endurance) another element reveals itself as an equal or more important factor. I’ve been trying to keep up with the developments because I actually do like to run and I’ve found that increased aerobic capacity is positively correlated with (if not the cause of) increased happiness in my life.
If you want to stop reading here, these are the four takeaways: Run, Run Slow, Pace Yourself, Be Happy.
This post is going to focus on running. Nothing beats running. Humans are designed to run. We were excellent hunters because we could literally run until our prey died or just sighed, “screw this, running sucks. Eat me. I don’t even care.” When you run, you have to carry your own engine so it forces you to confront the fact that being heavier is not always better and a critical sacrifice for increasing endurance is losing unnecessary weight. If you want to increase your endurance, you need to be running.
The good news is that the training is easier than you think. A large percentage of casual runners think that every run needs to be a maximum effort event. Every three miles needs to end in pain with nothing left in the tank. That’s why you’re not in the Olympics. Elite marathoners pace their average training run at about 8 mins/mile. Each run doesn’t have to suck.
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” – Bill Lombardi (probably)
Conveniently, endurance is resistance to fatigue.
Another good quote: “Training is not the work that you do, it is the value and the cost of your body’s response to that work.” -Legendary running coach Renato Canova (his runners have won more medals and set more records than those of any other coach)
Put those two quotes together and it means that power output alone isn’t useful and it’s scary.
My personal bible for aerobic training is called Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete. I enjoy being in the snow above the clouds and I believe that true tests of endurance require elements that challenge the body and mind. Nothing does this better than a combination of varying terrain, distance, nature, and risk. So, when I want to understand how to adapt to a jog through suburbia, I look to the methods of alpine athletes. The authors applied and adapted the most recent and relevant endurance science into a guide for the most elite climbers and mountaineers (the principles of which trickle down to recreational hikers like myself who do more “shopping at Patagonia” than they do “high altitude alpine climbing at the extreme limits of nature and human performance”). These elite mountaineers are the type of people who run up mountains faster than I walk downhill with nothing more than two ice axes in their hands and spikes on their feet like they’re Wolverine who doesn’t understand skiing.
One of the most important points of this book is that “harder is not better when it comes to the development of your aerobic threshold. Intensity is not a substitute for duration when it comes to increasing this capacity, and in fact an overreliance of intensity can diminish aerobic capacity.”
The bulk of your endurance training should be spent in your heart rate Zone 1 (55-75% of max HR) or, better known as the “conversational pace.” In this zone, you should be able to speak in complete sentences to a running partner.
Anything harder than this is almost a waste of time if your base level of aerobic capacity is not strong.
Important point from New Alpinism: “Low-intensity does not mean slow in well-conditioned athletes.”
Bad News: the development of this base level of aerobic capacity takes time and, thus, patience. For most CrossFitters, this is a hard to accept because easy doesn’t feel productive and increased duration screws with our lives. We love to get in and out of the gym in an hour or less. But that won’t increase your endurance. Only once you’ve spent a few months in Zone 1, should you consider including interval training to increase your upper threshold (aka VO2 max, Lactate Threshold, Anaerobic Threshold). That’s when your endurance training starts looking and feeling more like CrossFit style running. But it’s also when you’ll start ripping those 5-15 min workouts.
As the other coaches have mentioned, pacing is everything. Your last round of a workout should be close to or better than your first. The last half of a race should have a negative split, meaning your time was faster than the first half. If that’s not the case, you didn’t plan properly. Pacing is a choice and it is the mark of a disciplined CrossFit warrior. It demonstrates awareness.
Did you see a motivational fitness picture on Instagram today? Congratulations, you just did steroids. Now call Dave Castro and invalidate your Open scores. Turns out, nerds were convinced for a long time that endurance could be boiled down to nothing more than a number such as VO2 max but in a shocking turn of events, the (new) single most important regulator of endurance performance is perceived effort. Meaning, if you are motivated, happy, not mentally fatigued, and receive/self-administer positive feedback, your body will allow itself to push farther and faster.
So, while those laboratory numbers are still useful in determining our total theoretical capacity, the amount of available capacity is based on our attitude. This applies to everything from Fran to a marathon. My source for this nonsense is Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.
In conclusion, 1-2 times per week, go for a long, slow run and enjoy it. If you want to learn more or get some personalized programming, send me a message.
- Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete
- Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance
- Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
- Faster, Higher, Stronger: The New Science of Creating Superathletes, and How You Can Train Like Them
- Shocking Claim That Turns the Industry on Its Head: Something Mysterious, Something Sexy, Something Useful, Verb, Noun by Nick Ralston