Cardiovascular Endurance Is a Huge Part of Any Fitness Routine

You don't have to be a marathoner to benefit from boosting this part of your training.

Whether you want to run your first 5K, nail a half marathon PR, take advantage of your local lap pool, or just be able to ride your bike to your next yoga class without getting winded, there's a particular type of fitness you need: Cardiovascular endurance.

This fitness term is everywhere, but with so much fitness jargon floating around these days, you might still be scratching your head about what it means.

Well, chances are you've worked on your cardiovascular endurance at some point in your workout routine—even without realizing it. But if you want to focus your sweat sessions on a particular goal or just level up your fitness vocab, consider this guide your go-to for all things cardiovascular endurance.

Couple running in a park

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Cardiovascular Endurance Overview

Cardiovascular endurance—in simple terms—refers to how well you can continuously perform any type of exercise or movement for an extended period—typically more than 20 to 30 minutes—said Rick Prince, CES, kinesiologist, and founder of the United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

Cardiovascular endurance is sometimes also called "aerobic endurance," so if you hear the two terms used interchangeably (or a trainer refers to one or the other), don't panic. 

Your aerobic endurance depends on how effectively your body can deliver oxygen to your working muscles, determined by how well your heart and lungs can do their jobs, Prince added. 

The job of the heart is to pump oxygen-carrying blood through your veins, according to the Nemours Foundation. And the job of the lungs is to transport oxygen, according to the American Lung Association.

You see, to make any sort of movement, your muscle cells need the energy molecule called ATP (that's short for adenosine triphosphate), said Prince. In endurance training, oxygen is the main ingredient. So, if you want to be able to walk, run, or cycle for mile after mile, your muscles need a steady supply of oxygen to convert into ATP so they can fire again and again.

Exercises to Improve Cardiovascular Endurance

Prince explained any exercise that increases your heart rate technically requires cardiovascular endurance. However, certain types of activities are famous for their endurance focus—walking, running, cycling, and swimming, according to the National Institute on Aging. Playing tennis or basketball also fits the bill.

What do all of those types of exercise have in common? They each involve doing a repetitive movement over and over and over again for a long period, Prince explained. Those exercises will increase your breathing and get your heart rate up.

Benefits of Improving Cardiovascular Endurance

In addition to making you feel awesome on runs around the neighborhood or bike rides with friends, improving your cardiovascular endurance has plenty of perks for your health. 

According to Prince, those benefits may include:

  • Increased cardiovascular health
  • Lower risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes
  • Better sleep quality (especially when you sweat in the morning)
  • Stress reduction
  • Easier weight loss (when combined with a healthy diet, of course)
  • Stronger bones
  • Improved immune health
  • Better cardiovascular exercise performance

Differences From Muscular Endurance

In case there's any confusion: Yes, typically, your cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance develop hand-in-hand, Prince explained. That's because your heart and muscles both work to keep you going when you're exercising, according to the Nemours Foundation.

That doesn't mean these types of endurance are the same, though. If you start jogging more, for example, the challenge put on your heart builds cardiovascular endurance, said Prince. Meanwhile, the demand on your actual leg muscles builds muscular endurance.

What Is the 'Talk Test'?

Believe it or not, getting a sense of cardiovascular endurance is pretty darn easy. One simple way to do it is with a protocol called the "Talk Test."

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), during the talk test, you'll do some sort of cardio exercise (trainers often use treadmill walking) while wearing a heart rate monitor. Then, you'll increase the intensity every minute or two until you're working hard enough that you can no longer comfortably carry on a conversation.

You can't talk and suck back oxygen simultaneously. So, when talking becomes difficult enough, it's a sign that your body is no longer taking in oxygen efficiently enough to turn it into the ATP your muscles need. Basically, you've hit the upper limit of your cardiovascular endurance.

Note your heart rate and stay below these numbers during your workouts—and ensure you can carry a conversation—and you'll be working within the limits of your aerobic endurance.

As you continue to get your endurance on, Prince recommended using a heart rate monitor or fitness tracker during your workouts to monitor your progress. 

"Generally, the lower your heart rate trends, the more conditioned you're becoming in terms of cardiovascular endurance," Prince said.

Tips to Improve Cardiovascular Endurance

What are the tactics involved in boosting that endurance? Prince said to increase your volume (the total number of minutes of exercise you log) and up your intensity by following these tips:

  • Increase the difficulty slowly: Since your cardiovascular system adapts to tougher workouts faster than your bones, muscles, and connective tissues (think tendons and ligaments), it's important to slowly increase your workouts' difficulty. Otherwise, you could end up injured, urged Prince.
  • Increase the length of the workout: American Council on Exercise recommended increasing the length of your workouts by just 10 percent each week. So, if you log 80 minutes total running this week, keep it to just shy of 90 (88 minutes, to be exact) next week.
  • Add high-intensity training: You can add some high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) to your routine, too, Prince added. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, HIIT comprises alternating intervals of hard effort and easy recovery. It's a highly effective way to boost your cardio abilities. However, because it's so intense, limit HIIT workouts to twice per week max, said Prince.
  • Monitor your improvement: Prince added that you can also check in on your progress by timing how long you can exercise at a particular effort level. Take for example: Suppose, a few weeks ago, you could jog on the treadmill at five miles per hour (comfortably enough to chit chat) for 20 minutes and now you can do it 25. That means your endurance is on the up and up.

How Long It Takes To Improve

Of course, how quickly you boost that endurance depends on a few factors. Those include whether or not you are following a balanced workout routine, nourishing your body properly, and taking ample time to rest and recover. 

While progress is still pretty individual, if you're checking all of those boxes, it's safe to say you'll start noticing improvements in your cardiovascular endurance after about three or four weeks of working on it, said Prince.

Prince mentioned one important caveat: Beginners always experience quicker, more dramatic results than exercisers with more miles beneath their feet. So, don't be surprised when shaving a minute or two off of your latest 5K time feels way, way harder than it did to build up to finishing your first 5K.

When You Should Get Help From a Pro

You can certainly make major endurance gains by sweating alone. Though, there are a few circumstances where you might want to enlist a certified personal trainer or coach to help you.

"The most common reasons people out pro help with their endurance are that they're not seeing results on their own, have gotten injured, are training for a race, or just want to take any guesswork out of training by having someone else tell them what to do," explained Prince. 

In some cases (like if you have preexisting health concerns), your healthcare provider might also recommend you sweat under a fitness professional.

Regardless of your reason, working with a professional trainer or coach can ensure you stay consistent with your workouts and train as effectively as possible. And you'll keep seeing those cardio endurance wins over time.

A Quick Review

Cardiovascular endurance can help you perform exercises or movements over extended periods. 

And exercise, in general, can improve the function of your heart and lungs and lower your risk for certain diseases. So, working on your endurance will improve the efficiency of your exercise routine and keep your body healthy.

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