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The benefits of endurance training

By Darren O'Toole | In Fitness, Marathon training | on September 23, 2014

Endurance training is pivotal for anyone looking to complete a long distance event, be it a marathon, cross country run or even an Ironman or an Ultramarathon. We do more training and then we get fitter – simple, right? Well as you train, the body is undergoing very intricate changes which are enabling you to withstand greater distances at greater speeds. Understanding these principles, could be the missing link in achieving your personal best.

To begin with, it is worth distinguishing between two terms which many people use interchangeably – cardio and endurance training. For me, completing a cardio session can be about maintaining current fitness levels alongside goals such as weight loss or weight maintenance. However, endurance training is concerned with improving one’s aerobic and/or anaerobic capacity. Essentially endurance training will increase your abilities to run, cycle, row or swim for longer and at a higher intensity.

There are three key outcomes to an effective endurance training programme.
1. An increased aerobic threshold
2. An increased anaerobic threshold
3. Greater utilisation of fat as an energy source

Aerobic threshold
Oxygen consumption rises exponentially during the first few minutes of exercise. Occasionally the first few minutes of endurance training can seem a little uncomfortable until you feel yourself ease into the session. This is because your body takes a short period of time to reach a plateau or a steady state of exercise which is when there is a balance between the energy required by the working muscles and the ATP production being supplied aerobically ie, in the presence of oxygen. Aside from things like fluid loss and electrolyte depletion, once we get to steady state exercise, we could theoretically continue forever. Once we go above the aerobic threshold, the aerobic energy production is gradually supported by anaerobic metabolism causing a bi-product called lactic acid. Lactic acid accumulates in the blood and muscles causing a level of discomfort which will ultimately affect your performance. Therefore the longer and quicker that you can run under your aerobic threshold, the more success you will have in longer endurance races. The majority of marathon runners will be running at this threshold for much of the race to ensure that they can complete it in the best time that they physically can.

There are six major factors that affect your aerobic threshold.
1. Genetics is said to play a role. So if you have always felt ‘naturally fit’ without too much effort, then thank your parents. If you’ve always felt that you’ve had to work to stay fit, well, you know who to blame!
2. Age is a factor, but only really if you let it be. After the age of 25, your threshold will decrease slightly each year; however this will only really take effect if you are not training in this time. Train hard and your age won’t matter.
3. Familiarity with the exercise is very important in understanding your threshold. A cyclist will do tests where their aerobic threshold is outstanding yet they follow it with a similar test on the treadmill and it falls considerably. Ultimately, if you are training for a multi-discipline aerobic event, then being fit at one of the disciplines is not enough – train for them all.
4. Sorry ladies, men have been given an unfair advantage when it comes to VO2 max. The natural differences between genders can stretch as far as 15-30%.
5. One of the main reasons for men having a higher VO2 max than women is down to body composition. Women, on the whole, have greater levels of body fat, and there appears to be an inverse correlation between body fat percentage and VO2 max.
6. The good news, training can hugely affect someone’s VO2 max by up to 20%. The old adage of ‘control the controllable’, and in this instance this is the area that you have control over. Train hard and take advantage of the benefits that can be reaped.

Anaerobic threshold/Onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA)
Once the aerobic threshold has been reached and lactic acid is entering into the muscles and blood, you will begin to feel some discomfort. If you then continue to increase the intensity further, the levels of lactate production will begin to outweigh the speed that it can be removed and it accumulates in the blood. This point is referred to as the anaerobic threshold and is the highest limit of aerobic performance.
It would be foolish to look to complete a long distance event at just under your anaerobic threshold as the pain and physiological reactions will ultimately cause you to stop. However, shorter distances such as 5-10km races can be completed in and around this threshold. Some of the training programme in this chapter will require you to work just above and just below your anaerobic threshold – it will be uncomfortable and it won’t be pleasant. So why do it? Well fortunately there are some very notable benefits.

1. It has been found that training around your anaerobic threshold greatly improves your endurance capabilities.
2. Your anaerobic threshold will react faster and more drastically to an effective training programme than your aerobic threshold – offering a more tangible reward for your efforts.
3. Adaptations to the cardiovascular system start when working at these intensities.

Fat utilisation
There are a number of motivations for why people undertake endurance training – fat loss is a popular one. Aside from the calorie deficit experienced with prolonged endurance training, fat loss is the body’s enhanced ability to utilise fat as an energy source. The human body has a limited amount of energy-supplying carbohydrates in the form of glycogen but an abundance of fat. Therefore the sooner that fat can be used as the primary energy source – the better. At the start of exercise, both of these fuels will be utilised, however there is a crossover depending upon the exercise intensity and duration. At low intensities the majority of energy will come from fat-burning, however we are concerned with improving fitness which will mean that the intensities of the sessions will be higher than the traditional ‘fat-burning’ zone. This will then mean that much of the training will need glycogen to be utilised. However it is not that clear cut. At any one time both fat and glycogen are being used, only at different percentages. There is eventually a crossover whereby fat takes over as the primary energy source allowing the body to conserve the very precious glycogen supplies. With endurance training, this crossover point takes place earlier in the session which allows conservation of glycogen stores and the added bonus of weight loss.

This blog has been adapted from Darren O’Toole’s book 20 Full Body Training Programmes for Exercise Lovers. Whether you’re a complete novice, or a long-time fitness fanatic, this easy to follow series of 20 dynamic training programmes aims to inspire you to achieve your exercise and fitness goals. This essential guide provides step-by-step advice on boosting your general fitness, endurance, strength and power and proves that following a simple training programme can achieve fantastic results.

If you are interested in purchasing this book or wish to book a personal training session in Muswell Hill or throughout north London, contact Darren today.

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