If you had told me in high school that one day I would run a marathon, I would have said you were crazy. I’d like to believe that, but my aerobic endurance sucks. A few not-so-fast miles on the treadmill felt exhausting enough. I’m impressed by people who can run really far (look at you, cross country athletes!)
In college, I started running consistently and running longer and longer distances. I did cross the marathon finish line. What changed?
A lot. First, improving cardiovascular endurance plays a role. Cardiovascular endurance allows you to maintain a specific pace or workload without overloading your heart, says Dr. Stacy Sims, a female athlete performance physiologist and member of the Women’s Health Advisory Committee. (Imagine: You start out being able to run a few minutes at a time at a certain pace, and after a few weeks you can run several miles.)
Meet the expert:Dr. Stacey Sims, a female athlete performance physiologist, nutritionist, WH advisory board member and author of the book The Next Level.
Cardiovascular endurance is an important component of overall health that extends far beyond competition. In fact, according to Sims, you can think of it as the foundation of the health pyramid. And with solid cardiovascular endurance comes a long list of potential benefits, from making everyday life easier to ward off disease.
Interested? I think so. Here’s everything you need to know about cardiovascular endurance from the experts, including the best ways to boost your cardiovascular endurance, how to measure it, and what amazing benefits you’ll feel in and out of the gym.
What is cardiovascular endurance?
First, you need to understand exactly what this term means. Cardiovascular endurance (or your heart’s ability to breathe) allows you to maintain a specific rhythm or workload without overburdening your heart. Basically, Sims explains, it depends on how fast you bring oxygen into circulation.
To break it down further, consider what happens to your body when you exercise. Sims explains that when you start exercising, your heart rate increases so you can get blood from your digestive system and non-essential organs to the right places, which are your exercising muscles and skin (to release the heat produced by your muscles). She adds that blood flow has some benefits for your muscles; it removes waste and provides oxygen for aerobic energy creation.
Eventually, you reach a point where you have to stop and recover. But, over time, you’re able to keep up the pace longer before that happens. Why? According to Sims, one reason is that your cardiovascular endurance has improved – your heart has become stronger and your blood vessel formation (more blood vessels) has improved. In other words, your heart can pump more efficiently, and blood can get to where it needs to go more effectively.
What are the benefits of cardiovascular endurance?
First of all, this needs to be repeated:Increased cardiovascular endurance helps extend workouts (imagine yourself being able to take consecutive Peloton classes, or sprint in a recreational league race, or lead a long hike). However, this performance advantage is only the tip of the iceberg. Here are some additional benefits of cardiovascular endurance:
Better sleep. A study published in 2010 evaluated the link between sleep quality and cardiorespiratory fitness in adolescent girls, says Sims. Those who were classified as “healthy” were more likely to report better sleep quality.
A 2018 study showed that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were also associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and heart failure. In addition, Sims notes that when you get better sleep, it helps your immune system. In fact, according to an article from the Mayo Clinic, people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to viruses. Thus, a stronger immune system is an indirect benefit of good cardiovascular health.
Daily life upgrades. Finally, Sims notes that better cardiovascular health can help you accomplish seemingly simple daily tasks, such as carrying heavy groceries, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, keeping up with your kids, and so on.
What exercises can increase cardiovascular endurance?
Think running is the only way to get aerobic exercise? According to Sims, cross-country skiing and rowing are actually the gold standard for building cardiovascular endurance. Running, biking and swimming are also good choices.
“The more muscles involved in the exercise, the more stress the body is under,” Sims explains. “So the more blood it needs, the faster the endurance aspect comes into play.” For example, when you row, your body has to push blood to the upper body muscles, lower body muscles and core muscles, she says.
Go-to exercise modalities to boost cardiovascular endurance:
- Cross-country skiing
- High intensity interval training
Note:You don’t need to stick to long, slow sessions to see a lift. Sims says: “There are many studies that show that short, high-intensity sessions contribute more to cardiovascular health and endurance than 30 minutes of running.”
For example, low-volume HIIT can produce similar, if not greater, improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness and heart function (among other things) than high-volume HIIT and moderate-intensity continuous training, according to a review published in 2021 in The Journal of Physiology. Sims says high stress requires the body to adapt quickly.
Pro tip:Sims says it’s a good idea for beginners to work with a trainer to improve cardiovascular endurance, learn how your body moves and how to replenish energy. And, those who tend to overdo it may also need a professional to take charge and help them take it back when necessary.
Varying your running speed during training can also help reach your endurance goals. Sims recommends slowing down on long runs so that long runs become fun rather than difficult. Then, speed up or tempo run to a faster pace than your race day goal on shorter track legs. It trains your body to work more efficiently at a faster pace. “Then, when you hit your marathon pace, it all becomes much easier,” she says.
How do you measure cardiovascular endurance?
There are many different ways you can monitor cardiovascular endurance right at home. Sims recommends two DIY methods.
Do a timed test once a month. Sims says this is a particularly good option if you don’t have the help of technology. For example, you could run 5 miles on the same terrain every month, recording your pace and how intense you feel. As cardiovascular endurance improves, she explains, your time will decrease. Of course, your time may be affected by a variety of factors, so this is not a perfect measure – but it will at least give you an idea of your endurance trends.
Monitor your heart rate. According to Sims, you can also track a number of different metrics, namely resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV). As your cardiovascular endurance increases, your resting heart rate decreases. On the other hand, higher heart rate variability indicates greater cardiovascular fitness and stress resistance, according to Harvard Health.
Both of these are data that many fitness watches or health tracking apps can store for you. Or, you can manually measure your pulse to get a resting heart rate. (Put your finger on your pulse first thing in the morning and time it with a timer.) “I like to watch weekly or monthly trends,” suggests Sims. But keep in mind:Both RHR and HRV can be affected by the menstrual cycle, she says. So if you’re tracking these indicators, keep that in mind.
How long does it take to improve cardiovascular endurance?
The exact time depends on your current level of fitness. For beginners, there’s good news. Sims says: “At the end of the second week, if you stick with it, you’ll notice a big improvement.” For example, she explains, you may notice that you can run a little longer or that your heart rate isn’t as high while you’re running.
If you’re more experienced, the timeline changes even more. She notes that it may take nearly a few months as your body gets used to the stress. In this case, she recommends interval workouts in long, slow workouts to increase the stress on your body and keep the momentum going.
Got 20 minutes? Try this aerobic kettlebell workout:
What happens to cardiovascular endurance if you get injured?
Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to maintain your endurance. Sims says you can use other forms of exercise that will both relieve your injury and trigger cardiovascular stress.
Her advice is to alternate workouts only two days a week to what you feel is normal intensity. She adds that if you’re trying to build endurance after an injury, then you need to work out more than two days a week, but not too fast, or you risk re-injury. Of course, consult your doctor for clearance to exercise and make sure other options are safe to try during recovery.
In summary:Cardiovascular endurance is an important aspect of health – no matter where you are in your health journey. There are many ways to build it and keep track of it on your own or with a professional.