• Introduction
  • What is endurance in sports exactly?
  • Endurance can be divided into cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance
  • Why are some athletes built for better endurance?
  • Genetic factors of endurance in sports
  • Sex differences in endurance capability
  • Endurance ability changes as you age
  • Training background is heavily related to endurance
  • Movement efficiency and endurance in sports
  • Benefits of Endurance in sports
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources

Introduction

Have you ever been in a situation where you are giving it your all but still feel like you are not moving anywhere? Your heart pounds, you can barely catch a breath and your muscles are screaming for oxygen while you are fighting to finish that extra mile.

Yes, we’ve all been there.

You see, strength or power are not always shortcuts to victory. Sometimes it’s not about how fast or how much your body can do – sometimes it is all about your ability to go longer than your competition. And that’s where endurance comes in.

Endurance is the main building block in your fitness and athletic development. Ultimately, your performance relies on your ability to perform continuously at a high level whether it’s long-distance running or multiple quick sprints during a football match. And the more you can do, the more effective you will be in the competitive field.

That is why we’ve created this article specifically for athletes who want to know how endurance can benefit their performance. Here, you will have an in-depth look into the biomechanics of endurance in sports and physical activity. However, if you believe you know enough and jump straight into training your endurance, we’ve written more about it here. 

What is endurance in sports exactly?

Endurance describes your neuromuscular system’s (muscles and their connecting nerves) ability to maintain muscle movement for an extended amount of time. In a way, basically any movement you do more than once can be considered muscle endurance. Endurance combines both the efficiency of each muscle contraction with your cardiovascular system’s ability to move oxygen-rich blood from your lungs to your muscle tissue. ”Cardio” meaning your heart and ”vascular” meaning your blood vessels. 

Oxygen, on the other hand, can be used in energy production in the muscle tissues themselves. So, first and foremost endurance measures how well your lungs and heart can do their job during exercise. The better this system works, the better your aerobic fitness will be. The benefit of producing energy aerobically (with oxygen) is that you can use the energy storages in your body to perform efficiently for a long time. However, the downside of this is that aerobic energy production is usually not enough as the intensity of the exercise gets higher.

That’s where anaerobic energy production comes in. It provides you more energy in a shorter amount of time which is crucial during short and intense exercises. But, the downside is that it produces lactate as a side product. As you may already know, lactate buildup is the number one cause of fatigue in the human body. However, continuous endurance training increases this lactate threshold, which means that you will be able to perform at a higher intensity while still working out in the aerobic zone. Additionally, this also forces your body to get used to buffering lactate without fatigue or nausea.

If you want a more in-depth explanation about aerobic and anaerobic energy production, we’ve written a more thorough article here.

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If you want to improve any of your fitness components, you’ll have to overload the body in similar ways that you experience in your own sport.

Endurance can be divided into cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance

Endurance is a combination of two different factors; cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance. They are also the basic components of physical fitness alongside strength, flexibility and body composition. Cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance also create the basis for athletic development and provide your body the means to further specialize towards your own goals. 

Cardiovascular endurance relies on your body’s ability to use oxygen as an energy source. This can be achieved through longer exercises that keep your heart rate up for an extended amount of time. It is often trained through long low-intensity exercises such as jogging, swimming, biking or light gym exercises.

Muscular endurance trains your muscles’ ability to fight against fatigue inside the muscle. Basically, it teaches the muscle how to contract efficiently even in high-lactate situations. Muscular endurance is often trained through lighter weight training with a lot of repetitions.

The type of endurance you need depends on the sport you participate in and how intense it is. You can even train endurance at various intensity levels depending on the effect you want it to have. In most real-life scenarios you’ll need to train in a variety of different intensities to have the biggest impact on your performance.

For example, wrestlers, swimmers and even tennis players rely on muscular endurance to produce as much power in each movement for as long as possible. However, it is important to remember that these examples wouldn’t be possible without good cardiovascular endurance either. You’ll also need to be able to utilize the oxygen in your muscles that you receive on each inhale. And, the most efficient way to do that is through cardiovascular endurance training since it improves the overall fitness of your heart, lung and circulatory system.

Here’s a little comparison chart between cardiovascular and muscular endurance. 

Cardiovascular Endurance


Aerobic enduranceRelies on the efficiency of your heart and lungsBetter performance at a lower heart rateForms a basis for more advanced trainingSafe & effective to train

Muscular Endurance


Anaerobic enduranceRelies on muscular efficiencyBetter performance at a lower heart rateForms a basis for more advanced trainingSafe & effective to train

If you want to learn more about cardiovascular endurance or muscular endurance and how they can affect your performance, feel free to click either of the buttons below. If you want to skip that and go straight to our endurance training page, you can find it here.

Why are some athletes built for better endurance?

Your endurance capability is a combination of many different physiological factors. These include genetics, sex, age as well as training background. Aside from the physiological factors of endurance in sports, your technique can also have a huge impact on your efficiency and running economy.

While these factors have a big impact on your endurance, strength, power and speed, all of them can still be improved with smart and consistent training. 

Genetic factors of endurance in sports

Even though your training background has an enormous effect on your endurance capability, your genetics, which determines factors such as weight, height and body composition also have a significant effect on how you perform. For example, most endurance athletes are leaner because added muscle mass requires more energy to move. However, one of the most important endurance factors is the muscle fiber type, often referred to as slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I) and fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIa and type IIb/type IIx).

Slow-twitch muscle fibers rely on aerobic (with oxygen) energy production to create more fuel for exercise. While they fire more slowly and produce less power than fast-twitch muscle fibers, they make up for it with energy efficiency and increased endurance. This is also the reason why slow-twitch muscle fibers are better suited for longer endurance activities.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers can be divided into two different categories; Moderate fast-twitch (type IIa) muscle fibers and fast-twitch (type IIb/type IIx) muscle fibers. Moderate fast-twitch muscle fibers are thicker and have faster contractions but they also fatigue faster than slow-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers provide the strongest contraction but with lower endurance capabilities.

Because fast-twitch muscle fibers rely on anaerobic (without oxygen) energy production, they are able to produce more power during an intense exercise. However, they also use a lot more energy in the process, which makes them fatigue earlier than slow-twitch muscle fibers. This is also the reason why most high-intensity and strength-reliant athletes have relatively more fast-twitch muscle fibers.

"Slow twitch muscle fibers may not produce as much sheer force as their faster equivalents, but they make up for it in efficiency during longer physical performances."

One thing to remember that your body doesn’t strictly consist of either type of muscle fibers. On average, most people have roughly the same amount of fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers, although there are some genetic differences to this rule. Some people are simply born with the ability to go fast while others excel at longer distances. Thus, the proportions of each muscle fiber type in your body can have a significant impact on the way you perform.

Another thing to consider is that you can’t create more slow-twitch muscle fibers or specifically isolate them during exercise. In fact, nearly all physical activity will utilize both muscle fiber types. While both muscle fiber types respond well to training, they might have somewhat different responses. For example, having more slow-twitch muscle fibers can show better results from an endurance program whereas fast-twitch muscle cells respond to strength training much better. Therefore, focusing too much on your endurance can have a negative impact on your strength and power components – and vice versa.

That’s why it is up to you to determine if you need more muscular endurance for longer performances or simply more power in shorter explosive exercises.

Sex differences in endurance capability

While gender differences in athletic performance are a hot topic in sports right now, there is no doubt that there biological factors between women and men when it comes to endurance capability. These differences are also visible when looking at world record times between men and women. In fact, there is often a 10-12% difference in world records between men and women regardless of the sport. 

The reason behind this is that men tend to have a higher maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max) due to having larger hearts, more muscle mass, more hemoglobin as well as less body fat to carry than women. This means that men also naturally require more oxygen to maintain physical performance. However, even when comparing the maximum oxygen uptake to bodyweight, men still hold a slight, but significant edge. Due to having a lower aerobic capacity, women also have a lower lactate threshold, which means that they tend to start producing lactate at a lower heart rate. Naturally, this results in the feeling of fatigue during an exercise and a significant decline in performance. This means that while elite female endurance athletes can easily outperform nearly every male out there, they still fall short of beating elite male endurance athletes.

However, women often have more fatigue-resistant slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I) than men, which means that women can outperform men in certain muscular endurance exercises. Some studies have even hinted that females may be able to burn fat for fuel more efficiently than men, which may be a result of estrogen’s (female sex hormone) effect on the metabolism. So, there is still a lot we don’t know about gender-specific effects in athletic performance. 

There is also an ever-growing array of studies specifically related to female athletic performance, which are already breaking down old social norms. We are only beginning to understand the limits of female athletic ability. This is because historically women haven’t been allowed to participate in most sports. Nowadays, when more women can participate in different activities, we will also have a better understanding of what the true physiological differences between sexes are. 

Focusing too much on your endurance can have a negative impact on your strength and power - and vice versa.

Endurance ability changes as you age

While there are countless of examples of older athletes still competing at the elite level, most sports rarely have active competitors over the age of 40. In fact, most sports have a sweet-spot age between 25 to early 30s, where technical, physical and strategical skills are at their best. After your sweet-spot age, your physical performance starts slowly declining. This is a result of several different physiological changes that happen in your body, including lowered maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max) as well as the loss of muscle mass (hypertrophy) and muscular strength. 

Studies have shown that your maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max) starts declining around 5-10% after the age of 30 depending on how physically active you are. This means that you are not able to deliver oxygen to your muscles as well as before. Additionally, this also leads to lower cardiac output (amount of blood the heart pumps) and reduced maximum heart rate during exercise.

Aging also takes a toll on your muscle mass and muscular strength. Studies have shown that after the age of 45, your muscular strength declines 5% every year. This is due to a natural phenomenon called sarcopenia, which means the loss of lean muscle tissue. Not only does this reduce strength and endurance capability, but it can also hinder your recovery speed. Interestingly though, this degeneration mostly affects fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIa & type IIb) that are specialized in higher force production. Thus, more endurance-focused slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I) remain relatively similar in terms of functionality as you grow older. 

Sure, aging causes some negative effects on your athletic performance. But, the good news is that these changes can be slowed down through smart and consistent training. This means that as your body changes, so should your training program. This way you can make sure you maintain your strength and endurance as well as stay free of injuries for as long as possible. 

Training background is heavily related to endurance

Your training background can have an enormous effect on your endurance ability. The reason behind this is that our bodies tend to adjust to the way we work them. For example, athletes of high-intensity sports are used to producing lots of force for a short period, whereas long-distance athletes can maintain a certain level of intensity for an extended amount of time. Naturally, your athletic history will also have an impact on your aerobic and anaerobic capacitylactate threshold as well as body composition.

Your aerobic capacity, also known as maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max), refers to the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during physical performance. And, since endurance relies heavily on your ability to deliver oxygen to muscle tissue while removing carbon dioxide, it is easy to see why it is so beneficial for endurance performance. Consistent and versatile training can not only improve your maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max), but also increase your lactate threshold, which refers to the intensity where your blood’s lactate content starts increasing. Thus, the better you can perform without producing lactate, the better your endurance capability will be. Naturally, this can also benefit high-intensity athletes due to having less lactate to buffer even during the most intense activities. 

Anaerobic capacity, on the other hand, describes the total amount of energy you can produce anaerobically, or without oxygen. This type of energy production only occurs during higher intensities when aerobic energy is not enough. While this method is great for producing lots of energy quickly, it produces lactate as a side product, which is one of the main culprits of fatigue during an exercise. However, consistent high-intensity training not only increases your lactate threshold but also improves your ability to buffer lactate and fight against fatigue. 

Body composition is another physiological factor that has a tremendous impact on your endurance. While it is highly related to genetics, it is also a result of your training background. The reason for this is that our bodies tend to adapt according to how we use them. For example, football players can benefit from added muscle mass and inertia when tackling an opponent, while endurance athletes are often built lighter to minimize energy used during exercise. Thus, training for endurance does not significantly increase your muscle mass but rather it keeps your body lean and efficient to best suit different endurance activities.

Movement efficiency and endurance in sports

Even if you are physically in great shape, that still does not mean that you will automatically great at any given endurance activity. Sure, having a high maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max) is a great foundation to build on, but you’re still a long way from becoming a great athlete. This is because you must have a great technique if you want to make any movement as easy as possible. You see, every movement in your body requires a complex and coordinated effort between nerves and muscles. Thus, having better neuromuscular coordination will inevitably lead to better movement economy and performance efficiency. While these findings are well documented in long-distance running and cycling, studies have also stated that improved swimming technique can be an even bigger benefit for performance than power or endurance. 

While movement efficiency and economy are an integral part of endurance performance, it is important to remember that great technique cannot make up for low maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max). Interestingly, some endurance athletes are still able to compete in long-distance events even though they have naturally more muscle mass, lower aerobic capacity in the muscles and lower VO₂max. This means that while they are not built for endurance, they make up for it with better efficiency. 

Studies have also stated that running economy becomes more important as the distance gets longer. For example, running economy is a better indicator for performance during a 10km run than in an 800m race. 

Slow-twitch muscle fibers are specialized in efficiency, giving you the possibility to go longer distances with less fatigue.

Benefits of Endurance in sports

Having a good endurance can provide several health effects on your overall wellness, including better heart health, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, injury prevention and weight control. Studies have even stated that good endurance can lead to better school results among children. While these are all great benefits for a healthy lifestyle, we’re here to focus on what it can do to your athletic performance. You see, endurance also creates the foundation for developing other sports-specific skills like strength, power, agility and speed. Thus, you should consider it a critical part of your training routine if you want to become a better athlete. 

From an athletic standpoint, endurance training also increases the heart’s stroke volume, lowers overall heart rate, increases the number of energy molecules in the muscles, builds up capillaries, boosts the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream as well as improves venous return from the muscles to the heart. All of these play a vital part in delivering oxygen to the muscle tissues to maintain performance. It is also important to remember that endurance training is not only meant for long-distance athletes. Even the highest-intensity sports requires you to perform at your best until the very last seconds of the game. 

"Endurance training adapts your body to performing as efficiently and as long as possible."

So what does this mean for you and your sport? Well, to have the desired effect in your own performance, you should naturally train at the same level of intensity you experience in your sport. One huge benefit of endurance training is its versatility – it can challenge both beginners and experienced athletes alike. For example, endurance athletes should put most of their efforts in longer exercises with lower intensity whereas most court-based and ball sport athletes should focus on quick and sprints that still keep your heart rate up.

Of course, none of these examples are as black and white in reality. Most sports never utilize only one type of endurance. After all, even a road biker has to accelerate to get past fellow competitors and fight through the steepest hills. Thus, endurance can also be trained at different intensities according to your personal needs.

Here’s a quick recap of the benefits of endurance in sports;

Increases maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max)

Improves efficiency during exercises

Better performance at a lower heart rate

Increases cardiac output (more blood pumped on each heartbeat)

Increases performance without producing lactate (maximal lactate steady state)

Creates the basis for strength and power training

Enhances lactate buffering

Improves fat metabolism

Promotes optimal body composition

Improves injury prevention

Endurance training strengthens the cardiorespiratory system, builds capillaries, enhances aerobic energy production, improves recovery and reduces injuries.

Final thoughts

No matter how old you are or what shape you are in, endurance is one of the most important factors for your overall health. Not only does it offer a myriad of physical and mental benefits for the average Joe, but it also builds a foundation for athletic development. It can even be used for rehabilitation after an injury!

If you are looking to improve your endurance and reap the benefits it can provide, you just need a consistent training routine. The good news is that you don’t even need to create an over-the-top training program or invest your hard-earned cash for a gym membership. In fact, endurance activities are not only easy to do but also very inexpensive. In most cases, you just need a pair of sneakers and some motivation to walk out the door. 

However, if you are serious about improving your endurance in a sports context, you must remember that training is not a one-way ticket to success. You must also take care of your nutrition and have plenty of rest to let your body recover between training sessions. This will not only have a positive effect on your performance but your overall wellness too.

This is also what we call the ”holy trinity” of training. To become the best athlete you can be, you need to find a balance between these factors. But first and foremost, remember to have fun and listen to your body.

Did you learn anything new about endurance in sports? Let us know in the comments below.

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