Cardiovascular Endurance Is a Huge Part of Any Fitness Routine—Here's How to Improve Yours
Whether you want to run your first 5k, nail a half marathon PR, take advantage of your local lap pool in the summertime, or just be able to ride your bike to your next yoga class without getting totally winded, there's a particular type of fitness you need: cardiovascular endurance.
This fitness term is pretty much 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 really 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.
What exactly is cardiovascular endurance?
First, a quick FYI: Cardiovascular endurance is sometimes also called "aerobic endurance," so if you hear the two terms used interchangeably (or a trainer or coach refer to one or the other), don't panic; they're exactly the same thing.
Now that we've got that out of the way, here's the basic definition: Cardiovascular endurance—in super simple terms—refers to how well you can continuously perform any type of exercise or movement for an extended period of time (typically more than 20 to 30 minutes), Rick Prince, CES, kinesiologist and founder of the United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), tells Health.
Your aerobic endurance depends on how effectively your body can deliver oxygen to your working muscles, which is determined by how well your heart (which pumps oxygen-carrying blood through your veins) and lungs (which fill your blood with oxygen) can do their jobs, Prince adds.
You see, to make any sort of movement, your muscle cells need the energy molecule ATP (that's short for adenosine triphosphate), says Prince. Your muscles can produce ATP in a few different ways, but in endurance training, oxygen is a 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.
What exercises build cardiovascular endurance?
Any exercise you do that increases your heart rate technically requires cardiovascular endurance, says Prince. However, there are certain types of activities that are famous for their endurance focus—namely walking, running, cycling, and swimming. Aerobics and cross-country skiing also fit the bill.
What do all of these types of exercise have in common? They each involve doing a repetitive movement over and over and over again for a long period of time, Prince explains. Just how developed your cardiovascular endurance is determines how long you can do those movements; a newbie jogger might only be able to keep moving for about 20 minutes, while an advanced cyclist can pedal away for hours.
What are the benefits of building 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. Just a few of the big guns, according to Prince:
- 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
Hold on: How is cardiovascular endurance different from muscular endurance, though?
In case there's any confusion: Yes, typically, your cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance develop hand-in-hand, Prince explains. That's because your heart and muscles both work to keep you going when you're jogging, swimming, or the like.
That doesn't mean these types of endurance are one and the same, though. If you start jogging more, for example, the challenge put on your heart builds cardiovascular endurance, says Prince. Meanwhile, the demand on your actual leg muscles builds muscular endurance.
So, what happens in your body when you build up your cardiovascular endurance?
As you improve your aerobic endurance, your entire cardiovascular system gets "fitter," says Prince. A few specific changes that occur in your bod include:
- Lower resting heart rate, which indicates that your heart pumps blood more easily
- Higher stroke volume, which means that your heart pumps more blood with every beat
- Greater capillary density, which means that you develop more of the tiny blood vessels that ultimately transfer oxygen to your working muscles
How can you measure your cardiovascular endurance?
Believe it or not, getting a sense of your cardiovascular endurance is pretty darn easy to do. One simple way to do it is with a protocol fitness pros call the "Talk Test."
During the Talk Test, you'll do some sort of cardio exercise (trainers often use treadmill walking) while wearing a heart rate monitor and increase the intensity every minute or two until you're working hard enough that you can no longer comfortably carry on a conversation, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
You can't talk and suck back oxygen at the same time, so when talking becomes difficult enough that you can't string together more than five to 10 words at a time, 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 how hard (on a scale of one to 10) you're working. 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, according to ACE.
As you continue to get your endurance on, Prince recommends 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," he says.
You can also check in on your progress by timing how long you can exercise for at a particular effort level, Prince adds. If 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, for example, then congrats—that means your endurance is on the up and up.
How do you actually improve your cardiovascular endurance, though?
The two basic tactics involved in boosting that endurance? Increasing your volume (read: the total number of minutes of exercise you log) and upping your intensity, says Prince.
Since your cardiovascular system adapts to tougher workouts faster than your bones, muscles, and connective tissues (think tendons and ligaments), though, it's important to increase the difficulty of your workouts slowly—otherwise, you could end up injured, urges Prince.
ACE recommends 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.
Follow this rule and you can also add some high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) to your routine, too, Prince adds. Made up of alternating intervals of hard effort and easy recovery, HIIT is a highly effective way to boost your cardio abilities. However, because it is so intense, limit HIIT workouts to twice per week max, says Prince. To up the ante there, you can gradually cut down on how much you rest between work intervals over the course of a few weeks. During your first week of interval training, for example, you might run for one minute and rest for two—but by the time your third week rolls around, you could alternate between one minute of running and one of recovery.
How long does it take to improve your cardiovascular endurance?
Of course, how quickly you boost that endurance depends on a few factors, including 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 these 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, says Prince.
One important caveat, though: Beginners pretty much always experience quicker, more dramatic results than exercisers who have more miles beneath their feet, says Prince. 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 just finishing your first 5k.
When should you get help from a pro?
Though you can certainly make major endurance gains by sweating alone, there are a few circumstances in which you might want to enlist a certified personal trainer or coach to help you out.
"The most common reasons people seek 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," says Prince. In some cases (like if you have preexisting health concerns), your doctor might also recommend you sweat under a fitness pro's care.
Regardless of your reason, though, working with a professional trainer or coach can ensure you stay consistent with your workouts and train as effectively as possible, so you keep seeing those cardio endurance wins over time.
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