Your Comprehensive Guide To Improving Running Endurance
It's about training yourself both physically and mentally.
Whether you just started jogging or you’re training for a marathon, you’ve likely thought about how to improve your running endurance. This might mean jogging 10 blocks without stopping instead of three, or perhaps making it the whole 26 miles to the finish line. Whatever your goal may be, running experts say building endurance is about training yourself physically and mentally so that you can run longer distances.
“I like to refer to endurance as ‘the ability to endure’ — moving forward with a consistent effort toward a specific goal,” says Meg Takacs, a running coach and founder of Mindful Miles. Endurance is about training your muscles and building cardio strength, but she says it’s also about pushing through and taking one more step, even when you don’t really want to.
“I always preach to my clients that running is a mental game,” adds Kelly Whittaker, a USATF and V02-certified run coach and chief instructor at Barry’s. While this doesn’t mean ignoring injuries or doing too much too soon, you do have to think good thoughts as you jog — it truly affects how you perform. Here, running experts share everything you need to know to improve your endurance.
Why Is Endurance Important?
Build endurance as a runner and you’ll eventually get to a point where you can run comfortably without getting super fatigued. Endurance isn’t about running fast, Takacs says, but about improving your stamina so you can sustain a consistent effort for an extended period of time.
As you work on your endurance, you’ll notice that you can go a little further each run, each week, and each year, Takacs says. It’s about feeling comfier as you stride along, and it’s also about taking your running game to the next level. “This is why runners often set a goal to run a specific time or distance, hence why we have races — everything from 5Ks to 100 milers,” she says.
How Long Does It Take To Build Endurance?
Not everyone is born with natural endurance, says Takacs. It’s something you’ll likely have to build up over time, and how long it takes will depend on your consistency as well as your starting point. “If you’re consistent with a training plan and you get out there regardless of how fast or slow you run, you may see improvements within two to three months,” she explains. “Most people think it’s more like two to three weeks, but building endurance — just like being able to endure — takes practice and time for the body and mind to adapt.”
How To Build Running Endurance
1. Start Small
While it’d be nice to run 10 miles off the bat, it’s best to start small with a few short, easy runs a week. “Plan your routes ahead of time and don’t try to go too long or too fast,” Whittaker says, as that’ll up your risk of injury and burnout.
According to Scott Brown, the vice president of fitness at Orangetheory Fitness, it’s best to aim for a 10% increase week after week. “Typically, this equation is applied to the total distance or the total duration every week,” he tells Bustle. “If you ran a total of five miles in a week, the next week you should run 5.5 miles.”
If running the whole time through your set distance or duration feels tough, you can alternate between running and walking to start, says Amanda Mae Renkel, a UESCA-certified run coach and owner of Mae's Miles and Music. “Running is great, but using the run/walk method is a suitable alternative,” she tells Bustle. “That time spent on your feet is helping your body build the necessary endurance to cover the distance.”
2. Run Slowly
The saying “slow and steady wins the race” really applies to distance running. It’s why endurance trainer Taren Gesell recommends spending 70 to 80% of your total training hours each week running at a pace that keeps your heart rate relatively low.
“This has been proven to be the key factor that drives success in endurance events,” he tells Bustle. “The effort level should be really easy — your breathing shouldn't be strained whatsoever and you should be able to easily talk without taking breaks.”
There’s science-y stuff going on here: “This [tactic] will increase the number of mitochondria in your body, allowing you to produce more energy,” Gesell explains. Pick up the pace for the other 20% of your runs with sprints, speedy jogs, or fast-paced interval training to help your body adapt.
3. Strength Train
Strength and mobility are both necessary to run long distances, so aim to hit the gym two to three times a week for strength training workouts and stretches. The goal is to get a little bit stronger so you feel supported and stable, and a little more mobile so you can move without limitations or impingements, Gesell says. “Strength workouts for endurance athletes should be slightly challenging, but not so difficult that you feel sore afterwards,” he notes.
Run coach Tori Williams suggests a five-minute warm-up followed by deadlifts, single-arm bent-over rows, single-leg glute bridges, and a round of planks. While any type of cross-training will mix well with a run routine, exercises like these will train your running muscles to help propel you forward.
4. Make It Fun
Finding ways to make running more fun and engaging is so important, especially as you start to get used to logging more miles. To keep it spicy, Whittaker recommends a fun run playlist, taking a new route, listening to an interesting podcast, or even coming up with a few mantras you can say to yourself during long runs.
5. Run With Friends
If you’re struggling with motivation, see if a friend will tag along. “My favorite way to build endurance is by slowing adding miles to a long run with friends,” says run coach Jen Steele. “When I'm starting to ramp up for a race, I will show up more often to a local run club with other endurance runners and add a mile or two to my long run each week.”
Not only is it tougher to cancel a run when someone’s waiting on you, but it’s also more enjoyable to jog with a pal. “Having friends to run with helps me not think about the increased mileage as much, and I look forward to our coffee chats post-run,” Steele says.
6. Incorporate Rest Days
When you have a fitness goal in mind, it might feel lazy to take rest days, but Whittaker says resting is a super important as part of your overall training program. Taking two to three rest days a week will help prevent overuse injuries as well as physical and mental burnout.
“The fastest way to sabotage your running goals is to be sidelined by an injury,” Brown tells Bustle. “The easiest way to get injured is by doing too much too fast.” Try stretches, active recovery — like walking and swimming — and chill rest days where you do nothing at all.
7. Increase Your Aerobic Capacity
As you get more into running, you’ll want to think about your aerobic capacity, says Andrew Schillaci, a group fitness trainer at Equinox and personal trainer at Casa Cipriani. “You want your body to turn oxygen into ATP energy efficiently. ATP is the ‘energy currency’ of the cell.”
Schillaci recommends sprinting up a staircase. Run up for 30 seconds and repeat 15 to 20 times. “The incline of running up the stairs gives the heart the challenge of delivering oxygen to the muscles in order to keep going,” he tells Bustle.
8. Work On Your Slow-Twitch Muscle Fibers
You use your slow-twitch muscle fibers (not your fast-twitch muscle fibers) to run long distances. To train them, aim for slow and steady five-mile runs. (Schillaci does his on Saturday mornings with a friend.) “This strategy is to help the heart pump oxygen levels to the muscles over a longer time period,” he says. “You are recruiting more slow twitch type 1 muscle fibers. The power output is lower, but you can work for a longer time period.”
9. Try The Progressive Running Technique
Brown says he’s a huge fan of the progressive run. “It’s as simple as it sounds: Start way slower than you want, then slowly and steadily increase your pace as your body warms up and settles into the rhythm of the run,” he says. “This is a great technique to help manage energy, ensuring you don’t fatigue too quickly and that you have gas in the tank for the end-of-the-run kick.”
10. Pay Attention to Your Form
If you’re out running all the time, good form is crucial. “Regarding general form, I love to cue the basics: tall posture, relaxed shoulders, soft hips, and knees,” Brown says. “Run from your hips and not as much from your knees.”
11. Take Care Of Your Feet
The more you run, the more you have to pay attention to your feet. “Keep your feet in shoes that feel good and offer you the support you are looking for,” Brown says. “Whether you want high-level support or a zero drop and barefoot feel, having the right shoe for your needs, foot shape and size, and running style is a critical component to success.” He also recommends giving your feet a massage, especially if you have foot pain or develop little adhesions — a common occurrence when you log higher miles.
12. Visualize It
“Endurance running is 90% mental,” Takacs says, so try to go into your runs with a positive attitude. Visualizing yourself crossing the finish line, making it to your destination, or simply having a good time can make all the difference. “Whether you need to get through a training run or a marathon, using the power of positive thought and visualization can seriously improve performance,” Renkel says.
13. Be Patient
As it goes with any type of exercise, it’ll take a while to build up your endurance — and that’s OK. Takacs recommends prioritizing presence, patience, and consistency each time you mosey on down the road. Continue to lace up your sneakers and get those jogs in, and you’ll notice that you go further and further each time.
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Hoppel, F. (2021). Ultramarathon Running on Mitochondrial Function of Platelets and Oxidative Stress Parameters: A Pilot Study. Front Physiol. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2021.632664.
Plotkin, DL. (2021). Muscle Fiber Type Transitions with Exercise Training: Shifting Perspectives. Sports (Basel). doi: 10.3390/sports9090127.
Meg Takacs, RRCA, USATF, NASM, CPT/CNC, running coach, founder of Mindful Miles
Kelly Whittaker, USATF, V02-certified run coach, chief instructor at Barry’s
Amanda Mae Renkel, UESCA-certified run coach, owner of Mae's Miles and Music
Scott Brown, vice president of fitness at Orangetheory Fitness
Taren Gesell, endurance running trainer
Tori Williams, run coach
Jen Steele, run coach
Andrew Schillaci, group fitness trainer at Equinox, personal trainer at Casa Cirpriani