The limits of endurance

The loneliness of the long distance runner…


This week brings us to endurance in examining the components of fitness.

As previously noted, endurance, in the form of running or general cardio exercise, is one of the most common answers prospective clients give me when I ask them to define fitness. However, while cardiovascular conditioning can be an integral part of a training program, many gym rats/bunnies end up focusing solely on endurance, which can prove counter-productive to their training goals.

Unless the aim is to be able to run or cycle further and for longer, i.e. train for an endurance sport, a broader program will be required – especially if you are seeking lean muscle mass. If your primary aim is weight loss, and specifically fat loss, then endurance training is not only inefficient, but also counter-productive.

It’s important to remember that our body’s focus is not how we look, but ensuring we survive. Conditioned to an environment where historically food has been scarce, it is programmed to be as energy efficient as possible. No surprise then that one of the main neural adaptations the body goes through when focusing on endurance is how to increase oxygen supply to the working muscles. This has important implications if your aim is efficient fat loss rather than turning yourself into a long-distance cyclist or runner.

The impact of endurance training

Consider this: does a bigger muscle need more oxygen? Yes, of course it does. So, to be as efficient as possible, endurance training will encourage the body to decrease the size of muscles, as a smaller muscle has more oxygen available, increasing endurance. However, as a smaller muscle requires less energy, by providing a signal to become more oxygen-efficient, decreasing muscle size, you are also decreasing the amount of energy your body requires to maintain that endurance. From the perspective of an endurance athlete, this is exactly what you need; the body becomes more energy efficient, increasing endurance. However, for anyone wishing to lose body fat, this is a problem, as their body progressively consumes less energy (calories) while they exercise. More work (output) or less food (input) will be necessary to continue to lose weight, a position far too many people end up in. The danger is people burn out, give up running and all exercise and place themselves in a far worse position then when they started: with less muscle and bodies requiring less energy to function, so storing more energy as fat.

Endurance can have an important role to play in achieving many fitness goals, but it should be combined with the other components of fitness, as already highlighted in Revisiting the foundations of fitness.


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          About the author

Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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