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Aerobic Endurance Explained

What is the definition of aerobic endurance? 

Aerobic endurance means literally ‘with oxygen’. During aerobic exercise, your heart pumps oxygenated blood to working muscles to help them burn fat and carbohydrate for fuel, which in turn enables you to perform for extended periods.  

In contrast, anaerobic activity such as sprinting means ‘without oxygen’. Because anaerobic exercise such as sprinting is performed at a higher intensity your heart is unable to deliver oxygenated blood to your muscles, which is why you can’t maintain your intensity for long periods. 

Training for aerobic endurance is more commonly referred to as cardio because it uses the cardiorespiratory system (heart, lungs, veins, arteries, portal vessels and coronary vessels). As a result, aerobic endurance is known by many other names including cardiovascular endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and cardiorespiratory fitness. It’s also referred to as aerobic fitness or its most basic term, stamina, but their definitions are identical: your ability to keep exercising at moderate intensity for extended periods of time. 


Why improve your aerobic endurance? 

Even if you don’t play or compete in sport, improving your aerobic fitness through physical activity will lower your heart rate and go a long way to reducing your risk of heart disease and other health conditions. Whatever the type of exercise, it will hugely benefit your entire cardiorespiratory system. 

As an athlete, professional or otherwise, endurance exercise will also improve your VO2 max. Your VO2 max is a measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilise during intense or maximal exercise. The better your VO2 max, the more efficient your body becomes at consuming oxygen from blood, so you can work out at a higher intensity for extended periods and go for longer distances. 

Lady running at sunrise

12 benefits of improving aerobic endurance 

  • It increases your stamina and improves cardiovascular conditioning 
  • It decreases the risk of health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes 
  • It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by increasing HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol 
  • It helps to regulate your blood sugar 
  • It assists in weight management and/or weight loss by burning extra calories 
  • It improves your sleep quality and mood 
  • It improves your lung function 
  • It decreases your resting heart rate 
  • It makes your body more efficient at moving oxygen into the blood  
  • It makes your heart stronger and more efficient at pumping oxygenated blood to muscles 
  • It enables your body to become more efficient at converting carbohydrates and fat to energy 
  • It increases your VO2 max 


How to increase your aerobic endurance 

A staple form of endurance training for most people is running, cycling and swimming. But it’s a misconception that the only way to gain aerobic endurance is to stick to these activities and these activities alone, especially if you’re an athlete. The truth is, there are many ways to train for aerobic endurance, including strength training, which make use of different energy systems, so well-balanced training programs consisting of a variety of adaptations will yield the best results and give you a more well-rounded level of cardiovascular fitness.  

If you’re training for an endurance event, your focus should be on improving your cardiorespiratory endurance. But even then it should be combined with a number of other training methods. For example, while the nature of sprinting is anaerobic, a sprinter benefits hugely by including longer aerobic distances. Consider the duration and intensity of your training as well as the frequency to maximise the benefits. While frequency is open to debate, you won’t go far wrong if you aim to complete three to five 30-minute sessions per week. 


Types of training to improve your aerobic endurance 

There are a number of more modern and popular training methods including Concurrent Training and CrossFit that increase strength and endurance simultaneously. But there are many tried and tested training types used by amateur and professional athletes that have stood the test of time and are guaranteed to improve your aerobic endurance. 

Long and slow 

Long and slow-paced runs, cycles and swims are the most common types of endurance training that require moderate intensity and rely on sustained energy outputs. This type of training is routinely undertaken by elite athletes as part of their wider training programs, and it is also ideally suited to novices and older exercisers owing to the lower intensity that puts less stress on the body. 

Pace or tempo training 

Training at a set tempo essentially refers to the speed at which your perform your reps. Whatever your physical activity, it has multiple benefits for aerobic and muscular endurance that will make you stronger and able to perform for longer and harder. For runners it means a pace that could be defined as comfortably hard. Tempo runs are designed to challenge how fast you can still run aerobically and are done at lactate threshold (a metabolic by-product of exercise and the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed). Recognising if you’re training beyond your lactate threshold is easy as you’ll feel a familiar burning sensation in your muscles and you’ll fatigue quickly.  


Interval training 

Interval training is typically used for physical activities such as running, cycling, swimming, rowing, and weight training and consists of a number of periods of high intensity interspersed with ‘rest’ periods involving physical activity of lower intensity. Interval training is incredibly effective for improving both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems because the level of intensity during periods of exertion are close to anaerobic exercise. For athletes, it’s also very effective for increasing your VO2 max and anaerobic threshold, which ultimately translates to being able to work harder and maintain intensity for longer. 


Circuit training 

An old favourite and one of the best customisable training methods, circuit training consists of a number of exercises with equipment or bodyweight performed in a circuit for short durations and rotated through with little or no rest between stations. Circuit training typically includes both strength and endurance exercises and is one of the most effective all-round fitness training models that can easily be made sport-specific to help you reach your training goals. 


Fartlek training 

Translated literally, Fartlek means ‘playing around with speeds’, which makes for an unstructured but fun training session. Fartlek training effectively involves a continuous run for typically between 45-60 minutes during which you vary the intensity and speed of your run (it can even include walking) to improve your endurance, strength and overall fitness. Other benefits of Fartlek training include practicing mind over matter, which improves your ability to find another gear during competition. 


Weight or resistance training 

Weight training provides stress to your muscles that forces them to adapt and get stronger in a similar way that aerobic conditioning strengthens your heart. Resistance training programs complement all forms of endurance training exceptionally well and they’re an important training type of professional athletes whose events are solely endurance-based. Your muscles get stronger to better cope when they’re put under the stress of endurance activity, and blood vessels (arteries) in your working muscles vasodilate (get bigger) to allow more blood flow to those muscles. Usually involving as little as one or two sessions per week interspersed with your normal endurance work, exercises should be performed at low intensity at around 60% of your one rep max with high repetitions and short rest periods. 

Written By

Nick Burt

In a previous life Nick played American football professionally before becoming a secondary school teacher. Nowadays he works as a freelance copywriter where amongst other things he gets to write about his first love – sports. In his spare time, he lifts weights, plays and coaches baseball (which he calls his retirement sport), and travels with his wife to as many countries as he can.