Cardiovascular Endurance Training Tips And Benefits, From Experts

Farma Darya

If you told high school me that I would one day run a marathon, I would have called you crazy. I wanted to believe it, but my cardio endurance was meh. A few not-so-quick miles on the treadmill felt taxing enough. I was seriously impressed by anyone who could run for distance (lookin’ at you, cross-country athletes!).

I started running more consistently in college, logging longer and longer distances. And I did cross a marathon finish line. So, what changed?

A lot. For one, improved cardiovascular endurance came into play. Cardiovascular endurance allows you to sustain a particular pace or workload without overtaxing your heart, according to Stacy Sims, PhD, a female athlete performance physiologist and member of the Women’s Health Advisory Board. (Think: You start out being able to run at a certain pace for just a few minutes at a time, and after a few weeks you can go for multiple miles.)

Meet the expert: Stacy Sims, PhD, is a female athlete performance physiologist, nutrition scientist, a member of the WH Advisory Board, and author of Next Level.

Cardiovascular endurance is an important piece of overall wellness, and it goes way beyond the race course. In fact, you can think of it as the base of the fitness pyramid, according to Sims. And solid cardiovascular endurance comes with a long list of potential benefits, too, from making daily life a little easier to warding off illness.

Intrigued? I thought so. Here’s everything you need to know about cardiovascular endurance from experts, including the best ways to build yours up, how to measure it, and what ah-mazing benefits you’ll feel in and out of the gym.

What is cardiovascular endurance?

First, you need to understand exactly what the term means. Cardiovascular endurance (or, your cardiorespiratory ability) is what allows you to sustain a particular pace or workload without overtaxing your heart. Basically, it depends on how fast you can bring oxygen into circulation, explains Sims.

To break it down further, consider what happens in the body when you work out. As you start exercising, Sims explains, your heart rate increases so you can get blood away from the digestive system and nonessential organs and to the right places, namely your working muscles and skin (to offload the heat your muscles are producing). That blood flow does a few things for your muscles, she adds; it removes waste, and it provides oxygen to be used for aerobic energy creation.

Eventually, you reach a point where you have to stop and recover. But, over time, you’re able to sustain your pace for longer before that happens. Why? One of the reasons is that you’ve improved your cardiovascular endurance—your heart has gotten stronger, and your vascularization (more blood vessels) has improved, according to Sims. In other words, your heart can more efficiently pump blood, and that blood can get where it needs to go more efficiently.

What are the benefits of cardiovascular endurance?

First, it bears repeating: Building your cardiovascular endurance helps you to exercise longe (picture yourself being able to do back-to-back Peloton classes or sprinting through a whole rec league game or leading the pack on a long hike). But, this performance benefit is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are a few more perks of cardiovascular endurance:

  • Better sleep. The fitter you are, the better your sleep patterns, Sims says. A study published in 2010 evaluated the link between sleep quality and cardiorespiratory fitness in adolescent girls. Those classified as “fit” were more likely to report better Zzz’s.
  • Less illness. Higher cardiorespiratory fitness is also associated with lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, diabetes, and heart failure, according to a 2018 review. Plus, when you get better sleep, Sims notes, it helps your immune system. In fact, according to an article from Mayo Clinic, people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to get sick following exposure to a virus. So, a bolstered immune system is an indirect benefit of having good cardiovascular fitness.
  • Everyday life upgrade. Finally, Sims notes that better cardiovascular fitness can help you with seemingly simple daily tasks, like carrying heavy groceries, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, keeping up with your kids, and much more.

    What exercises build cardiovascular endurance?

    Think running is the only path to cardio prowess? Actually, cross-country skiing and rowing are the gold standards for building cardiovascular endurance, according to Sims. Running, cycling, and swimming are also good options.

    “The more muscles you get involved in the movement, the stronger stress it is on the body,” Sims explains. “So the more blood it requires, and the faster the endurance aspect comes into play.” When you row, for example, your body has to push blood to upper-body muscles, lower-body muscles, and core muscles, she says.

    Go-to exercise modalities to boost cardiovascular endurance:

    • Cross-country skiing
    • Rowing
    • Running
    • Cycling
    • Swimming
    • High intensity interval training

      Take note: You don’t have to stick to long, slow sessions to see a boost. “There’s a lot of research coming out that [says] short, sharp, high-intensity work helps develop cardiovascular health and endurance better than [something] like a 30-minute run,” Sims says.

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      For example, low-volume HIIT can result in similar—or even greater—improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness and cardiac function (among other things) compared to high-volume HIIT and moderate-intensity continuous training, per a review published in 2021 in The Journal of Physiology. The high stress requires the body to adapt quickly, says Sims.

      Pro tip: It’s a great idea for beginners to work with a trainer to improve cardiovascular endurance and learn how your bod moves and how to refuel, says Sims. And, people who tend to overdo it may also want a pro for accountability and to help them pull back when necessary.

      Varying your running paces in training helps reach your endurance goals, too. Sims suggests slowing the pace for long runs so they’re fun—not hard. Then, speed it up for a shorter track session or tempo run to a pace faster than your race-day goal. It trains your body to work more efficiently at a faster pace. “Then, when you get to your marathon pace, everything’s so much easier,” she says.

      How can you measure your cardiovascular endurance?

      There are a variety of different ways you can keep tabs on your cardiovascular endurance right at home. Sims recommends two DIY methods.

      Do a time trial every month. This is a particularly good alternative if you don’t have the help of tech, Sims says. For example, you could run a 5K every month over the same terrain, recording your pace and your rate of perceived exertion. As your cardiovascular endurance improves, she explains, you’ll see your time go down. Of course, your time could be impacted by a variety of factors, so it’s not a perfect measure—but it will at least give you an idea of how your endurance is trending.

      Monitor your heart rate. You can also track a few different metrics, namely resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV), according to Sims. When your cardiovascular endurance improves, your resting heart rate comes down. On the other hand, higher heart rate variability can indicate greater levels of cardiovascular fitness and stress resilience, according to Harvard Health.

      Both are stats many fitness watches or health tracking apps can store for you. Or, you can take your pulse manually for resting heart rate. (Simply place a finger on your pulse and use a timer first thing in the morning.) “I like to watch a weekly or monthly trend,” Sims suggests. But remember: Both RHR and HRV can be affected by where you’re at in your menstrual cycle, she says. So, keep that limitation in mind if you’re tracking those metrics.

      How long does it take to improve cardiovascular endurance?

      The exact timeline varies based on your current fitness level. There’s good news for beginners. “Around the end of the second week, you’re going to find major improvements if you’re consistent,” Sims says. For example, you might notice that you can keep running for a little longer, or that your heart rate isn’t as high while you’re running, she explains.

      If you’re more experienced, the timeline varies more. It could take closer to a couple of months, she notes, because your body is already used to that stress. In that case, she recommends working in intervals along with your long, slow sessions to amp up the stress on your body—and stay motivated.

      Got 20 minutes? Try this cardio kettlebell workout:

      What happens to cardiovascular endurance if you get injured?

      Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to maintain your endurance. You can use alternate forms of exercise that both accommodate your injury and invoke cardiovascular stress to do so, according to Sims.

      As little as two days of that alternate exercise each week, hitting your typical rate of perceived exertion, is what she recommends. If you’re trying to build endurance post-injury, she adds, then you’re looking at more than two days a week—but don’t build too fast and risk another injury. Of course, consult your doc for clearance exercising at all, and to confirm alternatives are safe to try during recovery.

      Bottom line: Cardiovascular endurance is an important aspect of fitness—no matter where you’re at in your fitness journey. There are plenty of ways to build it and track your progress on your own or with a pro.

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