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Train Better, Not Longer: Speed and Endurance

By Cody Waite

When people think of the word “fitness” they often think about aerobic conditioning; that ability to “go” and keep going. This is especially true for endurance sports like running, cycling, swimming, etc. Building up the endurance to go the distance is a primary objective for many of us, but there’s another important piece to the metabolic puzzle. 

Aerobic conditioning can be thought of as two distinct elements; Endurance and Speed. 

Endurance is the ability to maintain pace while speed is the ability to create pace. To be successful you need to address both endurance and speed in your training. The shorter your goal event, the greater an emphasis on speed and power will be required; the longer your event, the greater emphasis should be placed on endurance-- but a healthy balance of both will give you the greatest fitness gains. 

Benefits of Endurance Training

Training longer durations at lower intensities has many benefits, such as increased mitochondria and capillary density, improved oxygen delivery, maximizing the use of slow twitch muscle fibers, improved fuel utilization and carbohydrate storage, and an increase in the volume of blood your heart can move with each beat. Long, slow distance training has been a staple of endurance sport training for years. Yet as valuable as the benefits are, you must have the time to put into this method, as it requires increasingly higher and higher volumes to create the stimulus needed for improved fitness. Most athletes who balance work and family with their training schedule can only find time for limited amounts of true high volume training.

Benefits of Speed Training

Luckily, training the short, powerful, high-intensity energy systems also has many benefits, and these can often be achieved with much lower training volumes. Benefits of high-intensity training include increased oxygen utilization, improved lactate tolerance/utilization, maximized recruitment of both slow and fast twitch muscle fibers, increased hormone production, reduced insulin dependency, and improved mechanical/movement efficiency. Even if your event is endurance focused, the benefits of high-intensity training cannot be ignored, nor should its place in your training program.

Putting it all together

Every human is born with an innate capacity to process oxygen, known as maximum oxygen uptake or, simply, Vo2 max. The more oxygen an athlete supply to their working muscles, the faster and/or longer they can go. Vo2max is trainable to a certain extent, but everyone has their genetic ceiling of maximum uptake. 

Therefore one of the primary goals with aerobic conditioning is to maximize the sustainable percentage of Vo2max. Improving this ability to perform can be achieved by training either of the above mentioned energy systems, but is most effective by training both.  

Picture aerobic conditioning as a sliding scale. On one end you have the shortest duration, highest intensity output, the ‘alactate’ burst of maximum speed; on the other end you have the ‘all day’ maximum endurance effort. In between these two extremes you have the classic physiological energy systems of anaerobic power (30-seconds to 2-minute max output), Vo2 max (3-minute to 7-minute output), lactate threshold (30-minute to 60-minute output), aerobic threshold (1-hour to 3-hour output) and aerobic endurance (extended output). 

Training all six of these ‘zones’ of intensity is critical for all athletes, regardless of their event; balancing the amount of each level of intensity and at certain points in their season is key. 

Every individual has their own genetically given strengths; some athletes are more powerful and faster over short distances, while others are built for the long haul and can maintain moderate outputs for extended periods of time. To maximize your performance you must identify your strengths and weaknesses and then create a training program that will improve your weaknesses while maximizing your strengths.

Finally, it’s important to get the right amount of training stress to minimize fatigue and maximize performance. Too much stimulus and you get tired, sick or injured; not enough stimulus and you won’t reach your fullest potential. With the right amount of training stress, as well as aerobic endurance and speed, you’ll maximize your fitness and your performance.

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