Aerobic Endurance Training Strategies

by NSCA's Guide to Program Design
Kinetic Select May 2017


Various aspects of resistance training, such as specific exercises chosen, workout structure, resistance used, volume (repetitions and sets), rest intervals between sets, and training frequency, can be manipulated to mold the strength training program to best meet an endurance athlete’s goals.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from the book NSCA's Guide to Program Design, published by Human Kinetics. All text and images provided by Human Kinetics.

The structure of any training program is instrumental for athletic success, injury prevention, and individual confidence. As with any sport, a variety of training methods can be implemented to promote the greatest physiological adaptations. However, it is essential that training programs be designed to be specific to the sport, season of competition, and the individual needs of the athlete. Aerobic endurance training programs in particular require thought and creativity, due to the broad range of activities that fall under the umbrella of aerobic endurance. Creative use of the principles of aerobic endurance training program design should focus on reducing the risk of overtraining and enhancing endurance performance.

New research in the lab and on the field has utilized a complex strategy of strength, speed, and stamina to demonstrate the importance of training multiple physiological components, debunking the idea that long, slow distance is the only way to train. This evidence suggests that combining traditional long-duration training with moderate-intensity training and short-duration, high-intensity training may yield the same (if not better) results in performance adaptations. Although these three primary training strategies are all important to a balanced training program, specificity and variety are key to an enjoyable experience and a successful outcome.

Static stretching exercises, in which a body position is held stationary for a predetermined period of time (typically 10-30 seconds), are habitually recommended by some sport coaches to improve range of motion within joints, enhance performance, and reduce the risk of injury prior to activity (30, 36, 46). However, conventional beliefs regarding the routine practice of pre-event static stretching have recently been questioned (48, 50, 53).

Long-Duration, Moderate-Intensity Training

The most common type of training identified with aerobic endurance sports, often referred to as long, slow distance (LSD) training, is characterized by moderate intensities (i.e., 60% to 70% of VO2max or HRmax) maintained for long periods of time. Typically, the training distance is greater than the race distance by at least 30 minutes (9). Moderate-intensity training (i.e., LSD training) generally constitutes a major portion of an aerobic endurance athlete’s training volume. This is sometimes referred to as base training. It allows athletes to participate in a relatively large training volume without imposing a high level of stress on the musculoskeletal system. In addition, base training helps enhance the basic cardiorespiratory and cardiovascular adaptations that are expected to occur with aerobic endurance exercise (7, 18). Such adaptations are necessary to allow for progressions in intensity, duration, and volume during training as the competition phase approaches. Building a base level of aerobic capacity also improves the ability to recover between training sessions (17). Prolonged activities have been reported to induce muscle glycogen depletion and to acutely increase the rate of fat metabolism, while chronically leading to an increase in stroke volume, mitochondrial density, and a more efficient oxidative capacity (7, 18). Furthermore, some aerobic endurance athletes have suggested that continuous long-duration activities equal to or greater than competition lengths may have psychological benefits.

Moderate-Duration, High-Intensity Training

This type of training is usually completed at intensities higher than race pace, which may correspond to an intensity at or slightly above the lactate threshold. An athlete’s lactate threshold (LT) is associated with an exercise intensity at which lactate begins to accumulate and available aerobic energy sources can no longer keep up with the high rate of energy demand. This ultimately leads to fatigue (29). Training at this intensity can be completed at a constant, steady pace that is often called pace/tempo training. Pace/tempo training is done at intensities near the LT. It lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, inducing both aerobic and anaerobic physiological adaptations (9).

At this same intensity, an interval training approach may be utilized that consists of a series of short working episodes separated by brief recovery bouts. Aerobic/anaerobic interval training, which is commonly called Fartlek training (1), is primarily used to establish a sense of the race pace, increase the LT, and augment the body’s ability to maintain higher intensities for longer periods of time. Specifically, Fartlek training involves periods of moderate training (~70% VO2max) combined with short, fast bouts (or hill running) at higher intensities (~85% to 90% VO2max or HRmax). Fartlek training can be applied to all sports by combining LSD training and moderate-duration, pace/tempo training. For example, a cyclist may choose to sprint a distance the length of one city block and coast the next block, continuing in a cyclical fashion.

Short-Duration, High-Intensity Training

Interval training has become very popular as a time-efficient training strategy for aerobic endurance athletes. Interval training involves intensities at or above VO2max, typically lasting between 30 seconds and 5 minutes (10). For an aerobic endurance athlete, the rest times between intervals are typically equal to or less than the work time itself, which keeps the work-to-rest ratio at 1:1 or 2:1. A variety of work–rest combinations can be used throughout different points of an athlete’s season. The primary benefit of interval training comes from the increased volume of training at intensities that otherwise could not be sustained for prolonged periods of time.

Much research has been devoted to the short-term and chronic benefits of interval training (15, 37). Similar to traditional aerobic endurance training, interval training can result in improvements in cardiorespiratory and cardiovascular fitness, blood volume, LT, and muscle-buffering capacity (16). These factors are necessary for improving performance and are similar to those adaptations seen with LSD training. Therefore, if similar adaptations in aerobic endurance performance can be achieved using interval training for 20 minutes versus LSD training for 45 to 60 minutes, then interval training is clearly more efficient. It also results in less stress on the body (34).

Resistance Training

Research supporting the implementation of resistance training in an aerobic endurance training program has expanded as an efficacious strategy for preventing injury and increasing strength, power (i.e., kick at the end of a race), and stamina (28). As with any program, a resistance training program should be designed to enhance the sport-specific goals of the athlete. Athletes and strength and conditioning professionals typically implement strength training as a method to alter body composition, rehabilitate injuries, and improve muscle balance, speed, and local muscular endurance (22). Traditional resistance programs for aerobic endurance athletes have been designed using low-intensity exercises (<67% 1RM), high repetitions (>12), short rest times (30-60 s) for two or three sets. These can be performed one or more days per week, depending on the training season (1). Although this type of workout improves muscular endurance, more recent evidence suggests explosive-strength training is a more effective method for improving running economy and performance (i.e., 5K/10K) (28).

Various aspects of resistance training, such as specific exercises chosen, workout structure, resistance used, volume (repetitions and sets), rest intervals between sets, and training frequency, can be manipulated to mold the strength training program to best meet the athlete’s goals. For example, incorporating the squat exercise into an aerobic endurance athlete’s training program may reduce the risk for lower body injury, which is common to endurance athletes. It may also increase the athlete’s strength and power ability for the sprint during the last stage of a race.

Developed by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), this text offers strength and conditioning professionals a scientific basis for developing training programs for specific athletes at specific times of year. The book is available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at the NSCA Store.

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