Before examining our list of key components to endurance training, we should first distinguish “training” from “exercise”. Although the difference between the two terms is substantial, for many, it seems somewhat vague; hence, they’re often misinterpreted — and used interchangeably — as being one and the same.
To clarify, “exercise” is a non-structured physical activity; in other words, it’s not part of a well-designed periodization, and it doesn’t follow a distinct goal. On the contrary, “training” requires structure, commitment, and consistency. Furthermore, it is based on a clear, measurable goal, and it’s the backbone of a well-defined plan.
So below, we provide an overview of what we consider to be the 6 key components to endurance training, aiming to help coaches upgrade their athletes’ training level.
Looking into the 6 key components to endurance training
1. Frequent evaluation of the athlete’s physical condition
As aforementioned, an endurance training unit must follow a clearly defined goal. This means that the type, intensity, and duration of the workout should be properly adjusted to the athletes’ capabilities and fitness levels. At this point, it is important to monitor performance systematically.
With this in mind, a coach must evaluate their athlete’s initial performance; and keep evaluating during the season. This way, they can adjust the training plan and get feedback on the impact of the previous plan, regarding performance.
2. Scientific knowledge on the 3 fundamental aerobic parameters
From the scientific point of view, VO2max, Lactate Threshold, and Economy of Movement are among the most important parameters to build aerobic capacity. Therefore, they’re key components to endurance training and performance.
Still, most athletes only have superficial knowledge about them. For this reason, a better understanding of these parameters, and their mechanisms, isrequired to optimize the training program.
Practically speaking, answering “what is VO2max?”, will not help the athlete boost performance. However, answering “what is the mechanism of VO2max, and how can it be improved?” will make all the difference in the world. To that end, the coach will help clarify how these 3 parameters work; and, how they can be best implemented in the training plan.
The coach uses the VO2max to rate their athlete’s maximal oxygen consumption; especially in training that requires an increasing intensity. Naturally, in endurance training, the rate of VO2max indicates the athlete’s physical fitness level; thus, it reflects on their cardiorespiratory ability and aerobic capacity.
The Lactate Threshold (LT) is the point at which lactate starts to increase rapidly, during physical exercise. This is a critical point, since the excessive lactate accumulation in the cells circulates into the athlete’s blood. The concentration of lactate in the blood is accompanied by hydrogen ions, and the pH of the blood becomes acidic; which, in turn, leads to the reduced function of the cellular enzymes.
The goal here for the athlete is to build a high LT, in order to optimize endurance performance; as well as the training zones. Speed/power in the LT is an important factor; and it is necessary to be as high as possible. If anything, a high LT means that the athlete can train at a higher intensity and, for a longer period of time. Simply put, a high LT implies an extended level of tolerable lactate.
Economy of Movement
Economy of Movement refers to the amount of oxygen (energy) an athlete’s body needs to complete a sports-specific aerobic movement; for instance, to run, swim, cycle, etc. Along with the capacity for VO2max and LT, Economy of Movement is a fundamental determinant of optimal performance in endurance sports; especially in those with a longer distance/duration, such as marathons, ultra-marathons, and triathlons.
An athlete with an efficient movement economy can cover a given distance at a given speed, spending less oxygen; hence, less energy. That is, compared to an athlete that scores low on this component.
3. Quality over quantity
Nowadays, modern endurance practices and methods are more efficient than ever; in terms of time and external training load. In the last few years, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has gained wide recognition, as a method to enhance aerobic performance.
Scientific studies have shown that HIIT enhances the VO2max, the velocity corresponding to the lactate threshold, and the economy of movement; such as oxidative enzymes, mitochondrial function, etc. It goes without saying, this has helped coaches provide time-efficient plans that require fewer hours of weekly training.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the continuous method, or long slow distance, is less important than the HIIT method. To highlight, HIIT helps in the improvement of the Lactate Threshold and VO2max; while, the long slow distance is critical for the improvement of the economy of energy. So they are both an integral part of the training process and should be implemented in the athlete’s agenda. That is, depending on their training needs and goals.
Recovery is probably the most underestimated practice; yet, it is indeed a key component to endurance training, and performance. Athletes believe that only hard work pays off, and they’re right; only, to withstand hard work, the body needs an optimal recovery phase. Otherwise, it won’t be able to adapt to the training stimulus of the previous training; nor will it be ready for the next workouts. Another important factor to consider is that the majority of adaptations actually take place during recovery.
5. Proper warm-up and cool-down
The warm-up phase is not just a process to keep the athlete from being injured during an intense training session. It also contributes to the proper ‘unfolding’ of the athlete for the upcoming workout; specifically, a proper warm-up:
- supports and boosts the function of oxidative enzymes,
- increases the stroke volume,
- also increases body temperature; and, finally,
- it prepares the whole cardiovascular system — not just the muscles and tendons.
On the other hand, cooling-down is just as important, because it restores the body, smoothly, to the pre-exercise condition. In brief, a proper cool-down:
- regulates blood-flow,
- normalizes heart rate and blood pressure,
- helps expel various metabolic products created by the workout, and
- reduces muscle soreness.
6. Nutrition and Hydration
Sports nutrition scientist, Asker Jekeundrup, states:
For endurance exercise lasting 30 min or more, the most likely contributors to fatigue are dehydration and carbohydrate depletion; whereas gastrointestinal problems, hyperthermia, and hyponatraemia can reduce endurance exercise performance and are potentially health threatening, especially in longer events (>4 h).
More often than not, athletes think they know how to set up a balanced diet and an optimal nutrition program for themselves. They often gobble up carbohydrates, isotonic drinks, gels, recovery bars, and multivitamins — all very popular among endurance athletes — to boost their efficiency. But nothing could be further from the truth, since they don’t have the necessary scientific knowledge for their correct consumption.
This is why cooperating with a nutrition specialist is so important; and why proper, science-based nutrition is a key component to endurance training. A nutritional scientist won’t just safeguard the athlete’s health through a diet program tailor-made for them; but also, contribute to the improvement of their performance.
The key components to endurance training, briefly analyzed above, do not constitute a magic recipe that can turn a hobbyist athlete into a professional. Nonetheless, this list can be a great starting point to help coaches and trainees optimize the endurance training plan. To that end, it’s important for the coach to customize the training program and scientific methods applied to each trainee’s needs and goals.