Have you ever heard the expression, “Life’s a marathon, not a sprint”?
This phrase comes from the idea that our journey through life takes time. Along with some consistent, intentional training to achieve transformational change.
We can apply the same principle to improve heart health and build endurance.
Strength and cardiovascular endurance are not only critical to your athletic performance but also to your overall health and quality of life. We all want to get to the top of the stairs without wheezing. Or to play tag with our little ones, sans the water breaks every 10 minutes to catch our breath.
But the time it takes to build stamina and increase endurance can feel intimidating. Especially for beginners who don’t know where to start.
That’s why in this guide, we’ll touch on:
- The difference between stamina and endurance
- The 3 main types of endurance
- What causes a lack of endurance
- Why endurance training is important
- Ways to improve endurance, with and without running
Endurance vs Stamina – What’s the Difference?
Most people think the terms ‘stamina’ and ‘endurance’ are interchangeable. And because both terms refer to your body’s ability to sustain an activity for a period of time, it’s understandable. The difference?
- Stamina is the maximum amount of time your body, or muscle group, can exert the maximum level of exertion for a particular activity. Think, sprinting. When you sprint, you are asking your body to run at its fastest level possible for as long as it can manage.
- Endurance, on the other hand, is the maximum amount of time your body or muscles can perform a specific physical activity. Period.
Endurance doesn’t need you to push your body to its limits during an exercise. It’s simply a test of how long you can sustain a certain activity. Think, marathon runners. They don’t have to run the fastest. Instead, they push their bodies to run the longest time and the farthest distance they can manage.
While the definitions are different, the training for stamina and endurance are similar. Both stamina and endurance are necessary to push limits and perform physical activity for a longer period of time.
The Three Types of Endurance
We can break endurance training down into three main classifications. Remember, it’s important to include a healthy balance of each type of endurance training in your workout routine.
This type of endurance is what comes to mind when we think about marathon runners or triathletes. Cardiovascular endurance focuses on the amount of stress your heart can handle during a specific training session. Otherwise known as aerobic exercise.
During aerobic activity, you’re increasing the oxygen found in your blood while maximizing blood flow to your muscles. This type of exercise can help with losing weight, lowering blood pressure, and strengthening your heart.
The counterpart to aerobic activity is anaerobic exercise. During an anaerobic workout, you work at peak capacity, with little to no oxygen. (Anaerobic means “without oxygen”). Because of this, anaerobic exercise occurs in short bursts, usually at a higher intensity – like lifting weights, high-intensity interval training, and jumping rope.
Muscular endurance training is all about reps. This form of endurance focuses on your muscles’ ability to perform repetitive contractions for extended periods of time. You’ll know it’s lacking if you cramp or get fatigued quickly during your workout.
You can build this type of endurance through resistance training and strength training exercises. CrossFit athletes, cyclists, swimmers, and long-distance runners all need high muscular endurance.
What Causes a Lack of Endurance?
Poor endurance can be a result of a sedentary lifestyle, or it can come down to the cards we’re dealt.
Genetics And Endurance
In 2016, a study found 93 genetic markers that affected endurance. The research led to the conclusion that some variants had different effects on your ability to contract and relax repeatedly, or not.
The gene variants also influenced things like:
- The type of fuel your cells used for energy production
- The distribution of slow-twitch vs fast-twitch muscle fibers
- Whether your blood vessels could adapt to carrying more oxygen during strenuous activity
Other underlying medical conditions like asthma, thyroid disease, and diabetes can also impact your body’s endurance level.
Lifestyle Habits and Endurance
Lifestyle habits such as minimal movement, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and smoking can all contribute to decreased endurance. Inadequate training and over-exercising can also hinder progress and even result in injury.
Other habits that lead to poor endurance include:
- Dehydration: Staying hydrated is critical to increasing your stamina and endurance. When you exercise, you lose water through sweat. And forgetting to drink water during your workout limits your body’s ability to stay cool. This causes your heart rate to spike and your body to burn through its stored energy.
- Inadequate Sleep: Rest and recovery are crucial for endurance athletes. Sleeping gives your body time to replenish its reserves and restore energy levels back to normal. It’s also the time your body spends repairing the small tears in your muscles resulting from your workout. Most adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep to recover to optimal endurance levels.
- Improper Nutrition: Would you fill your Ferrari with unleaded? (Answer: please, no). So then why would you fuel your body with poor nutrition and expect it to perform well? For optimal endurance, you should focus on a diet that has a healthy balance of carbs, protein, and fats.
- Stress: Endurance training already has a significant impact on your cortisol levels (the stress hormone). So constant exposure to stress outside of training is only going to deplete your body’s adrenal system faster. Leading to chronic fatigue and poor endurance. Try to include less taxing forms of exercise into your routine, like low-impact cardio or yoga.
Why is Endurance Training Important?
There are countless benefits to both muscular endurance and cardiovascular endurance training. Aside from the obvious benefits of helping you burn calories and maintain a healthy weight, endurance training also helps:
Build Bone Density
This is especially important for older athletes. Because the older we get, the more our bones weaken. The good news is, the same way you build muscle during weightlifting, you can also build back bone density.
Improve Heart Health
Endurance training enhances your heart health and makes it more efficient at pumping blood. This also increases your VO2 Max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during an exercise. Increasing your VO2 Max will allow exercise that once felt hard, like running a mile, to feel easier over time.
Catch More Zzz’s
Sleep impacts exercise, and exercise impacts sleep. A 2013 study from Sleep in America showed that between 76-83% of people who engaged in light, moderate, or high-intensity exercise reported better sleep quality than their sedentary counterparts.
Improve Your Immune System
Want to increase your chances of fighting off bacterial and viral infections? Studies show that endurance training can boost your immune system by creating higher levels of an immune signaling protein that defends against illnesses.
5 Tips to Increase Your Endurance As a Runner
Long-distance running. If it was easy, everybody would do it.
For those of us that aren’t born marathon runners, there are steps you can take to increase your running stamina and go longer before burning out.
1. Consistency is key
This one is number one on the list for a reason. Practice makes perfect. And you can’t expect to be the next Eliud Kipchoge without putting in a little work. Consistent running helps increase your aerobic capacity (oxygen to your muscles) and builds cardiovascular endurance. Aim to complete 3-4 runs per week (beginners, shoot for 1-2 a week to avoid injury).
2. Slowly Add Miles
Going too hard too soon is a surefire way to tank your training program. Aim to increase your weekly mile count by no more than 10% each week. This allows you to progressively overload your muscles and prevent an injury that will lead you to feel discouraged.
3. Add in Tempo Runs
Tempo runs, or interval training, are a great way to improve running endurance. You’ll perform this technique over a shorter distance, but at a faster pace and higher intensity than how you usually run.
4. Incorporate “Long-Runs”
This doesn’t mean signing up for your nearest half-marathon. Instead, one day a week you should try to incorporate a run that has a higher mileage count than your normal training days. This session will push you harder than you’re used to, increasing your aerobic capacity and cardiovascular endurance. Don’t be surprised when your other runs start to feel easier.
5. Rest + Recovery
All the running stamina you’ve built gets thrown out the window when you don’t focus on rest and recovery. Not only will you feel more fatigued during training, but you also have a higher chance of getting injured. Be sure to stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep (between 7-8 hours), and stretch!
6 Non-Running Endurance Builders
For anyone that refused to run the mile in high school, these are for you.
1. Interval Training
High-intensity interval training is a great way to build both cardio and muscle endurance. During HIIT training, you push as hard as you can for short bursts of time (usually 20, 30, 45, or 60-second intervals) and then recover for the same length of time. These workouts are most effective when you focus on full-body or compound movements, like burpees.
2. Decrease Rest Between Sets
Rest between sets is beneficial for strength training athletes looking to increase their 1RM. But when you’re trying to build your engine and increase stamina, limiting your rest between sets is a great solution. (That means phones away and no social media between sets, sorry).
3. Ride a Bike
Studies have shown that cycling, both indoor and outdoor, is a great way to build endurance. The repetitive movements and variable resistance in cycling, as well as the cardiovascular requirements, make it a great stamina substitute for running.
4. Take a Walk
The ultimate endurance builder for beginners. A walk of 30-60 minutes is an effective form of low-intensity steady-state cardio. LISS is wildly beneficial for burning calories and fat and improving cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
5. Increase Time-Under-Tension
TUT or Time-Under-Tension is a great way to teach your muscles to take on heavier loads and improve muscular stamina. Isometric exercises, like planks and pause squats, are an effective way to incorporate TUT.
6. Add More Reps
Also known as progressive overload, adding extra reps or time to your weekly workouts will help your body become accustomed to a heavier load and expect it as the norm. Like adding miles to your run, adding more reps to your workout will help enhance endurance.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between stamina and endurance?
Stamina is the maximum amount of time your body (or muscle group) can perform a particular physical activity at its maximumforce. While endurance is only the maximumamount of time your body can perform a certain activity, at any force. Think stamina = sprints, endurance = marathon running.
What are the three main endurance categories?
We can break endurance down into three buckets: cardiovascular endurance, anaerobic endurance, and muscular endurance.
What are the main causes of poor endurance?
A lack of endurance and stamina is often caused by poor lifestyle habits or genetics. Certain medical conditions, such as asthma, thyroid disease, or blood sugar imbalances, all can impact your cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Lifestyle choices like poor sleep, improper nutrition, stress, and dehydration are also factors.
Why is endurance training important?
Improving stamina and endurance is helpful for burning calories and weight loss. Some other benefits include building bone density, enhancing heart health, improving sleep, and aiding your immune system.
What are some of the best ways to build endurance?
You can build endurance by incorporating interval training, decreasing rest time between sets, cycling, and being consistent. Don’t forget to rest and recover!
Building endurance is a journey that requires patience, consistency, and hard work. And that journey starts by adopting a balanced training approach that includes:
- Cardiovascular exercise
- Strength training
- And proper nutrition
Remember to start slowly, set realistic goals, and stay motivated throughout the process. Through these steps, you’ll achieve success in building your endurance and increasing your stamina.
 “Four Types of Exercise Can Improve Your Health and Physical Ability.” National Institute on Aging, https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/four-types-exercise-can-improve-your-health-and-physical-ability. Accessed 16 Mar. 2023.
 Ahmetov, Ildus I., et al. “Genes and Athletic Performance: An Update.” Medicine and Sport Science, vol. 61, 2016, pp. 41–54. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1159/000445240.
Watson, Bill. “How Genes Influence Endurance?” Xcode Life, 9 Feb. 2021, https://www.xcode.life/genes-and-fitness/how-genes-influence-endurance/
 Popovic, Bojana, et al. “Acute Response to Endurance Exercise Stress: Focus on Catabolic/Anabolic Interplay Between Cortisol, Testosterone, and Sex Hormone Binding Globulin in Professional Athletes.” Journal of Medical Biochemistry, vol. 38, no. 1, Mar. 2019, pp. 6–12. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.2478/jomb-2018-0016.
 Snow-Harter, C., et al. “Effects of Resistance and Endurance Exercise on Bone Mineral Status of Young Women: A Randomized Exercise Intervention Trial.” Journal of Bone and Mineral Research: The Official Journal of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, vol. 7, no. 7, July 1992, pp. 761–69. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1002/jbmr.5650070706.
 “How Can Exercise Affect Sleep?” Sleep Foundation, 25 Feb. 2013, https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-activity/exercise-and-sleep.
 Boston, 677 Huntington Avenue and Ma 02115 +1495‑1000. “How the Immune System Helps Endurance Athletes Keep Pushing.” News, 11 June 2020, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/how-the-immune-system-helps-endurance-athletes-keep-pushing/.
Devon Gonzales is a former NPC competitor and fitness junkie living in Tampa Bay with her husband and two pups. She is passionate about providing fitness tips and health advice to help others live their best life.
Devon offers freelance copywriting services and specializes in offering content and digital marketing to the health and fitness industry. You can find more about Devon at DG Writing Co.