In a match, you don’t get to take a break until the round is over. And in a real fight, you don’t get to take a break at all. Even if all you do outlast your opponent (and avoid getting knocked out), you gain a massive advantage, because he gets slow and sloppy, and you don’t.
What is Endurance?
Most people think endurance just means going longer, but from a training standpoint, it’s going further and longer that counts. If you move the same distance you moved last time, but you take more time to do it, what you’ve really done is lower your power output. Yes, you lasted longer, and that counts for something, but you also made it easier, and that takes something away.
If you happen to go further in the same amount of time, that’s cool, but now it’s technically an improvement in your speed, which is a different training variable. You’ve only increased your endurance when you move for a greater distance and a greater length of time.
NOTE: Whenever there’s talk of “distance,” people assume that the only real way to train endurance is to run. But distance doesn’t have to mean ‘miles.’ If you wanted to improve your endurance with punching, you would throw punches on a steady rhythm and constant velocity for as long as you can, and measure both the time and the total number of punches you threw, and shoot for an increase in both numbers.
How Your Body Transforms with Endurance Training
Endurance is ultimately about oxygen. Your oxygen-based fuel system is the only one capable of real endurance. The other two systems, ATP/CP and anaerobic glycolysis, are for short bursts of intensity. So if you’re trying to last longer, then from a metabolic standpoint, you need to improve your ability to deliver oxygen to whatever muscle cells are working.
The challenge is that your body has a limit to how much oxygen it can take in through your lungs and deliver to your blood stream. They call this limit your VO2Max—measured by how much oxygen your body can take in and use in a single minute.
So let’s take a look at how you can transform your body to improve your VO2Max:
Respiratory Upgrades – Untrained lungs have a low capacity, and they actually waste a fair amount of oxygen—breathing it back out because they weren’t efficient enough to use it all. But endurance training changes your lungs, so they get way more efficient at processing and delivering the oxygen they take in.
Circulatory Upgrades – meanwhile, your circulatory system gets busy increasing your blood volume and your blood cell count, so more cells are there to grab that freshly delivered oxygen from your lungs. Your heart also gets way better at pumping blood, so it can move more freshly oxygenated cells to your working muscles more quickly.
Muscular Upgrades – more capillaries grow around and into your working muscles, so there’s more pathways for the blood to take to deliver oxygen to the working fibers. At the same time, more mitochondria grow inside the muscle cells, which is where the sugar and fat you’re burning are actually oxidized.
Biochemical Upgrades – Your two sources of fuel – sugar and fat – have to be converted to ATP to be used as energy. This conversion process requires enzymes. The average sedentary person has a shortage of these enzymes, and endurance training significantly up-regulates their production, to help you start using fat as a primary fuel source.
Fat can’t be burned without oxygen, so it’s exclusively an endurance fuel. Without enough fat burning enzymes, your body has to fall back on liver and muscle glycogen stores, which are in much smaller supply. The average Joe has about 1,200 calories or so of glycogen, but he’s got close to 60,000 calories to burn in fat (probably twice that, by today’s chubby standards.)
Neural Upgrades – Have you ever noticed how masters make everything look easy, and how amateurs make it look tense? Well, it’s not an illusion. There actually is more unnecessary tension in a novice than there is in a master. The masters have all learned how to perform at their elite level with the minimum effective output. They don’t produce any unnecessary tension. They aren’t rigid when they need to be fluid.
Finding your own minimum effective output through repetition (and good coaching, to spot errors in form) will give you an automatic increase in your endurance. By releasing all forms of unnecessary tension, you conserve energy. That’s less lactic acid to clear and less oxygen required.
Now that I’ve given you a rough overview of how endurance training upgrades your whole system, let’s look at what happens to you when you hit a wall of fatigue, and how you can overcome it and keep on going.
What’s Happening When You Feel Like You Can’t Go On, and How Do You Break Through It?
A more informative way of thinking about endurance training is to call it “fatigue resistance training”. That’s the essence of the challenge. It’s true psychologically, as you grind on and listen to a thousand brain-elves telling you to stop, just this once, just for a second. It’s also true metabolically, when you can’t delivery oxygen quickly enough.
Whenever there’s insufficient oxygen for the task, your body is forced to use anaerobic glycolysis for energy instead, and that system burns a little dirty, like diesel. Metabolic waste products build up in your muscles, mostly lactic acid and hydrogen ions, causing you to feel that token muscle burn that weight lifters and intense trainees are so familiar with.
Your body clears out lactic acid from the muscles by converting it to another form called lactate and then dumping it into your bloodstream. Once it’s there, your heart is able to use it as a fuel source. Pretty nifty! But there’s only so much lactic acid you can convert to lactate and use as fuel. When that pool fills up, lactic acid takes longer to clear out of your muscles, and then they start to burn and misfire. When you can’t stand this anymore, you’ve reached what they call your “lactate threshold.”
Pushing your lactate threshold higher and higher (ideally, so that you never reach it at your desired speed) is one of the fundamentals of endurance training.
Your body gets better at this in two synergistic ways:
- Less lactate is produced – when your muscles have more mitochondria, more fat burning enzymes, and greater oxygen delivery, they do more with oxygen and less with glycolysis, so less lactic acid is produced in the first place.
- Faster clearance – high lactate is a form of biochemical stress, and like any other stress you subject your body to, your system adapts in order to make it less stressful. In this case, the biochemical system involved with clearing lactate from the blood gets more efficient, and your heart gets better at burning it as a fuel.
So, now let’s get a little more practical, and discuss the best training methods for producing each adaptation.
Four Synergistic Ways to Improve Your Endurance
Raising Your VO2Max to Its Genetic Maximum
Unless you’re already a world class elite athlete, you can probably increase your VO2Max by up to 20% by stressing your oxygen intake capacity with intense cardio-respiratory training. Resistance training alone does not increase your VO2 Max—it’s too localized, and there’s too many breaks. Light cardio-vascular stimulation, like jogging, will only give you a mild uptick, because it’s not intense enough to really stress your intake capacity.
To get a serious uptick in your oxygen processing capacity, you need to push your oxygen processing abilities to their limit. That’s why the most effective way to raise your VO2Max is to do high intensity interval training.
After a warm up, I recommend doing all out sprints, 20-30 seconds each, with 90-120 breaks in between.
Shoot for increases in your speed / distance on each sprint, and add volume as you improve. Begin with 4 sprints, and increase to 9 or 10 as you get really acclimated to it. Don’t do these sessions more than 2x a week to avoid overtraining.
NOTE: This method will also give you a big bump up on your lactate threshold.
What Happens When You Reach Your Genetic Maximum for Oxygen Intake?
Eventually, you will hit a genetically determined maximum for how much oxygen your body is willing to process. That’s your real VO2Max.) This is the highest possible amount of oxygen your body is able to process. If you push past this point, any improvements in performance you get will come from other adaptations.
Raising Your Lactate Threshold
World-class endurance athletes have lactate thresholds that don’t kick in until they’re operating at about 85% of their VO2Max, while average folks hit their threshold at closer to 50%. That means there’s some serious room for improvement here. (Especially since untrained individuals can often increase their VO2 Max by about 20%.)
With lactate threshold training, your goal is to push it higher. You want it to kick in later and at higher levels of intensity than before.
To push that crossover point higher and higher, you need to come right up to it and then push slightly beyond it and stay there.
The best way to handle this is with steady state movement for a set length of time. If you’re out of practice, then start with 20 minutes at the right intensity and then increase your time to 30 minutes as you improve.
Get your heart rate to its starting target, which should be just below your lactate threshold. (I’ll show you how to compute your threshold by using heart beats below.) Once you’re there for a few minutes, work a little harder, and increase it slightly beyond your estimated threshold, and keep it there.
Over time, your goal is to achieve greater distance in the same amount of time without having to stop. (Your heart rate estimates for your lactate threshold are likely to change as your fitness level improves, but the main thing to focus on is the increase in your distance.)
Improving Muscle-Specific Endurance
If a specific muscle group seems like it consistently gives out first, you can focus on it with a precise form of endurance-oriented resistance training. You need a load light enough to permit you to perform 2 minutes or more of continuous tension time per set, and do 2-4 sets.
This will produce localized endurance improvements in those working muscles, like more capillaries and more mitochondria, so they’ll get better and pulling in oxygen and won’t give out so quickly.
Improving Your Fat Utilization
Learning to utilize fat is what enables people to run marathons, or, if you’re Stu Mittleman, 100 mile runs (in 12 hours) and 1,000 mile runs (in 11 days.) Fat is the only fuel that can take you that far. Everything else burns too dirty and is in too small a tank.
The key to fat utilization is to pick the right intensity level you need to burn mostly fat and still be moving enough for it to be a form of training. (Technically, you use the highest percentage of fat when you’re at rest, but obviously, that’s not training anything. So you’ve got to sacrifice some of that purity in order to have a training effect.)
To train your endurance with a focus on fat utilization, you need to go light, and go long. Where’s the sweet spot? Have a look at this chart (from Romjin et al):
|Vo2max||% of oxidized fat||% of glucose|
As you can see, once you cross 65% of your VO2 Max, your body starts getting the majority of its fuel from glucose. That’s not going to last long. You want the majority of your energy to come from fat, so if you’re an average person, you need to stay somewhere in the 35%-50% VO2Max range.
This kind of training takes a larger time commitment. Start with 40 minutes, and increase it a bit each session, till you’re training for no longer than 90 minutes. Once you hit that time, start gently increasing your distance in that same amount of time, while always staying at an intensity level that utilizes a lot of fat.
Finding Your Training Zones
The only way to measure your VO2max is with a large, expensive piece of equipment called a metabolic analyzer, and you’re gym’s not going to have one.
Fortunately, as a short hand, your heart rate offers a pretty accurate substitute. Knowing your maximum heart rate gives you the numbers you need to have an educated guess at your VO2Max.
Computing your Max HR and converting your VO2max involves some equations I know you don’t want to bother with, so I’ve crunched the numbers for you:
Finding Your Lactate Threshold
For most individuals, this table will be a good launching point. It tells what your target heart rate is for lactate threshold training, based on your age and your estimated fitness level.
To use it, estimate your fitness level into one of four categories: beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert. Scroll down to the row that lines up with your approximate age, and use that number as your target heart rate. If it’s too easy, bump it up a couple of ticks. If it’s too hard, bump it down.
Note: these are estimates based on a bell curve of data. There are outliers, and you may be one of them. If you’re extremely fit for a 75 year old, and you’ve maintained fitness your whole life, your numbers are probably more like those for 60 years olds. Likewise, if you’re an obese 15 year old who’s been sedentary since Kindergarten, your max heart rate may have prematurely dropped.
Finding Your Fat Utilization Sweet Spot
To use this chart, find your age, and choose a training heart rate that’s above the 25% column but below the 65% column. The 45% column is a good place to start. As your fitness improves, you may be able to bump your heart rate up while maintaining high fat utilization, particularly if you’re older and in a much greater level of fitness than average.
|Age||Heart Rate at 25% VO2 Max||Heart Rate at 45%
|Heart Rate at 65%
|Heart Rate at 85%
And that wraps it up for endurance! For a basic training regimen that includes all these aspects, include some high intensity interval training, some steady state threshold training, and some long, low intensity, fat utilization training, and watch what happens.
Maintain a Healthy Store of Nutrition in Your Bones and Joints
A healthy nutritious diet is SUPER important for endurance training. All the demands placed in your body require a ton of maintenance and repair and you need a rich supply of nutrients to help your body do this. Tonic teas, internal wines and tonic tea pills can help add concentrated amounts of nutrition for your body’s large demand.
Consider adding one or a few of the following to your diet/training regimen:
- Spring Wine – Super potent tonic and conditioning wine to aid in both endurance and longevity
- Gecko Tonic and/or Great Mender Tonic Teapills will add nutrition and speed healing and maintenance of bones and joints.
- Comprehensive Iron Palm Tonic – Superb conditioning tonic wine for those attempting to air or increase upper body endurance activities.
- Bee Pollen and Royal Jelly provide superfood nutrition and all the essential amino acids and building blocks the body needs for deep repair and regeneration.
- Si Wu Tang Tea is a fantastic blood tonic for aiding circulation.
- Si Jun Zi Tang Tea is renown for vitalizing the Qi and boosting energy required for endurance training – highly recommended for those expending a great deal of physical effort in training!
If you want to learn more about healing with Chinese herbs, we have a whole line up of great info and material on training and recovery you may find extremely useful.
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