• Introduction
  • The basic mechanisms of speed endurance
  • Lactate threshold 
  • Maximal oxygen uptake
  • Running economy and movement efficiency
  • Other factors affecting speed endurance
  • How to increase speed endurance through training?
  • Benefits of speed endurance in sports
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources
  • Aerobic respiration: producing energy (ATP) with the presence of oxygen.
  • Anaerobic respiration: producing energy (ATP) without the presence of oxygen.
  • Lactate: a byproduct of anaerobic respiration. Known to cause fatigue and nausea.
  • Lactic acidosis: lactic acid production exceeds lactic acid clearance.
  • Maximal oxygen uptake: The maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense exercise.
  • Speed endurance: the ability to sustain near maximum speed and the effects of fatigue.


Speed is one of the biggest factors that set athletes apart in modern sports. But, while maximum speed is important, it’s of no use if you are unable to maintain it long enough to take advantage of it. What’s more important is the ability to maintain speed at the intensity needed in your sport without getting fatigued. And that’s where speed endurance comes into play.

This article analyzes the basic mechanics of speed endurance in sports and why it is so vital for athletes as well as active individuals alike. You can also head straight to our speed endurance training post if you want to learn how to create your own training program. You’ll even find a few free samples to get you started.

The basic mechanisms of speed endurance

Speed endurance describes the ability to maintain sprinting at near maximal velocity for an extended amount of time. Speed endurance capability consists of three main factors;

  • Maximal oxygen uptake: the maximum amount of oxygen used during increasingly intense exercise.
  • Lactate threshold: the intensity where lactate is produces faster than it can be removed. 
  • Running economy: the technical ability to maintain running mechanics under increasing levels of fatigue.

During low-intensity exercises, the body is able to use aerobic (with oxygen) respiration to generate fuel in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Therefore, the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during incremental exercise has a significant impact on speed endurance performance. As the intensity of the exercise grows and oxygen need exceeds oxygen delivery, the body must switch to anaerobic (without oxygen) respiration. This quickly produces relatively small amounts of ATP as well as a byproduct thought to cause fatigue – lactate. The accumulation of lactate is tied to increased levels of hydrogen ions (H⁺) in the blood, making blood more acidic and causing increasing levels of fatigue.

Whether a certain speed endurance activity relies more on aerobic or anaerobic system is dependent on the distance, duration, and intensity of the activity. Generally speaking, the longer the exercise lasts, the more it relies on aerobic respiration. This integration of both systems is also what separates speed endurance athletes from long distance runners and pure maximum speed sprinters.

Speed endurance also requires similar technical skills as maximal speed, such as optimal cadence and stride length. Good running mechanics minimize friction and allows you to propel yourself forward on each step. Thus, resulting in a more efficient and powerful running performance.

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Speed Endurance

The ability to maintain sprinting at near maximal velocity for an extended amount of timeShort distances rely on anaerobic metabolism & lactate bufferingThe longer the distance, the more important VO₂max becomesCan be trained with long & intense exercisesUseful in sports with very long sprints

Lactate threshold 

Lactate threshold (anaerobic threshold) refers to an exercise intensity in which lactate accumulates in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed. This can be seen in the blood as a non-linear rise in lactate during incremental exercise. The accumulation of blood lactate hinders cross-bridge formation the excitation-contraction coupling, which disturbs the muscle’s mechanical properties. This results in decreased force production, lowered peak force, and slower velocity. Because shorter speed endurance activities rely heavily on this system, your body’s ability to delay lactate formation and clear it from the blood are imperative for better performance at high intensity.

The highest possible without disproportionate rise in blood lactate is known as maximal lactate steady state (MLSS). A higher MLSS indicates an ability to perform longer at a higher intensity before blood lactate levels become unbearable. Because of this, anaerobic threshold is seen as a significant contributor to speed endurance performance in short-to-middle distance activities (e.g. 200m & 400m sprints). 

Maximal oxygen uptake

Maximal oxygen uptake (VO₂max) refers to the maximum amount of oxygen consumed during incremental exercise. It is dependent on oxygen delivery (air exchange in the lungs, pumping power of the heart, blood flow to the muscles) and the oxygen demand of the tissues (mitochondria, etc.). Therefore, the more oxygen you can use during intense exercise, the more energy you can produce with oxygen. This is also why maximal oxygen uptake is considered the gold standard of measuring aerobic fitness.

During short and intense sprints (200m-400m) energy is mostly generated via anaerobic means. However, this intensity makes the activity unsustainable for distances over 400m. Thus, the longer the distance is, the more your performance is reliant on VO₂max and various pacing strategies (especially when the event lasts longer than 80-100s).

Several studies have also demonstrated a clear relationship between VO₂max and success in middle-to-long distance events (e.g. 800m-5000m races). However, how much of this is attributed to maximal oxygen uptake and not lactate threshold is still debated.

Running economy and movement efficiency

Technical factors like running economy (using as little effort and energy in relation to workload) and movement efficiency are also significant factors in speed endurance capability. This is especially important because your legs must absorb landing forces of up to four times your bodyweight. The most important factors in efficient running are stride cadence and stride length. 

Stride length is measured as the distance between each foot contact. The optimal stride length varies between individuals. Instead of artificially lengthening each stride to improve speed, the main focus should be in having an effective stride (the distance traveled by your center of gravity per stride), where you can apply force to the ground and powerfully propel yourself forward. This force production capability is fundamental in achieving optimal stride and maximal speed.

Stride cadence refers to the number of strides taken in a minute. This essentially makes it a function of ground contact time (time spent on the ground) and flight time (time spent in the air). Studies have shown that cadence remains relatively similar at different speeds. This has led researchers to believe that shortening the ground contact time (~180-200ms) is more important for improving running economy than increasing cadence.

Note: while these examples are used in a running context, similar technical factors can be used in other activities as well (swimming, rowing, etc.).

Other factors affecting speed endurance

In addition to the aforementioned factors, certain genetics traits (i.e. muscle fiber distribution), your age, and sex can have a significant effect on speed endurance.

The proportions of slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I) and fast-twitch muscle fibers (type II) can have a significant impact on speed endurance. This is because type I fibers are specialized in sustained endurance activities due to their high oxidative capacity. Type II fibers provide higher force production albeit at the expense of endurance capacity. However, which of these muscle fiber types offers better performance in speed endurance activities depends on the duration and intensity of the exercise. 

On average, males tend to have a higher maximal oxygen uptake (VO₂max) and higher peak blood lactate following anaerobic performance. Men also have larger hearts, more muscle mass, more hemoglobin, and less body fat than females.

According to studies, maximal oxygen uptake starts declining ~5-10% per decade after the age of 30 depending on physically activity. This reduces cardiac output (amount of blood the heart pumps) and lowers maximum heart rate during exercise. Due to age-related loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia), muscular strength also declines at a rate of 3-5% per decade after the age of 30. Interestingly, this mostly affects fast-twitch fibers. Females also show greater rates of atrophy (loss of muscle tissue) of type II fibers as they age.

Speed endurance describes your ability to maintain a near-maximal speed for an extended amount of time.

How to increase speed endurance through training?

Speed endurance training is notoriously difficult because it relies on two seemingly opposite mechanisms (speed/endurance, aerobic/anaerobic endurance). In fact, training too much of either will result in a negative effect on the other. Therefore, you must put special emphasis in structuring a balanced program that tapers and ensures peak performance during competitive season.

Speed endurance training can be divided into two main categories; building an aerobic base and increasing aerobic capacity as well as lactate threshold.

Prolonged slow-intensity exercises increase mitochondrial content and improve their function. Longer exercises also increase the amount of capillaries in the muscles which improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients in and out of the muscle. Together, these improve the oxidative ability of a muscle, leading to better endurance capability. The best way to build an aerobic base is utilizing specific target heart rate zones.

Short and intense exercises are used to increase maximal oxygen uptake, lactate threshold, lactate buffering, and maximal lactate steady state. Interestingly, the lactate produced during intense exercises can be used as a source of fuel by the mitochondria. Thus, having a good aerobic basis can help you perform even at a high intensity. Some of the most well-known high-intensity training methods include; Tabata training, HIIT training, sprint interval training, tempo & threshold runs, fartlek training, circuit training, etc. 

Benefits of speed endurance in sports

Speed endurance is especially beneficial in sports where you need to perform sprints for an extended amount of time or back-to-back with little breaks in between. Here is a full list of benefits that speed endurance training can offer;



Aerobic performance

Increases maximal oxygen uptake (VO₂max) and improves cardiovascular function.

Anaerobic performance

Improves lactate tolerance and lactate buffering. This results in better performance during long and intense exercises.

Movement efficiency

Improves running economy (e.g. optimal stride length and cadence). Reduces ground contact time and maximizes flight time. Results in better force production with less effort.

Injury prevention

Strengthens bones, muscles and other connective tissues. Results in reduced injury risk.

Even though the average person does not need lots of speed endurance in everyday life, it can provide tremendous benefits for athletic performance. Thus, it is recommended that you incorporate various speed endurance exercises into your training program if your sport relies on longer sprints. However, you must also remember to train at similar intensity and duration as needed in your sport.

Speed endurance training requires a good foundation of endurance and speed.

Final thoughts

What makes speed endurance interesting is the fact that it is always related to a certain activity. By definition, it describes your endurance abilities at a certain speed that is optimal for your sport. This, however, can vary greatly according to the activity that you are doing.

Since speed endurance includes such a wide range of activities at varying intensities, there is no “best way” to train for it. Moreso than with other athletic attributes, speed endurance requires training at the same intensity needed in your sport. This is also the reason why it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what kind of energy production is needed in speed endurance activities – short and intense activities require good anaerobic endurance and lactate buffering whereas longer exercises need better aerobic endurance.

It is important to remember that training is not the only thing you need to consider if you want to become a better athlete. In fact, it can do more harm than good if you don’t remember to take some time off to rest and take care of proper nutrition. Balance these three and you’re well on your way to a successful and healthy athletic career.

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


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