How to Build Endurance: Four Simple Steps

Posted on:

When you first start an intense aerobic activity like running, you might find that you’re huffing and puffing. Those first few times, it can feel like a struggle to complete a mile or finish a few laps. If you keep up with your exercise routine, it becomes easier because the human body is designed to adapt.

What Is Cardiovascular Endurance?

To endure something, whether it’s a three-mile run or three-hour traffic jam, means to live through a period of discomfort. Building endurance is a matter of becoming more comfortable.

You build cardiovascular endurance by challenging your heart and lungs to work harder to circulate blood and oxygen. As they become more efficient, you can breathe easier and run, walk, swim, cycle, or dance longer. One mile becomes three miles, five miles — maybe even a marathon!

Bottom of Form

Record Your Baseline

To know how well you are building endurance, you need to know where you’re starting. The American Heart Association recommends that you take these two key measurements:

  1. Your pulse rate just before and right after walking one mile. (A normal resting heart rateis between 60 and 100. As you build more endurance, your resting heart rate may get lower.)
  2. How long it takes you to run or walk one mile.

Take these same measurements after six weeks, 12 weeks, and 6 months, to see how far you’ve come.

Set a Goal

Do you have a specific goal, like being able to complete a 5K race? Or are you working toward a general goal of getting in shape?

For a more general goal, you could start with these basic guidelines from the U.S. Department Health and Human Services (HHS). The HHS advises that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity such as walking at a brisk pace. You still should be able to comfortably maintain a conversation.

However, if you do 150 minutes a week of vigorous activity — that’s five 30-minute sessions — you will see more health benefits, including a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Vigorous activity includes running, swimming laps, or bicycling faster than 10 m.p.h.

Try the Add/Subtract Method

The reason novice runners are able to train for marathons is that they build mileage —and endurance — slowly. Many years ago, a running coach created a popular training program for beginners. It involves two weeks of adding mileage to a weekly long run, followed by a week of decreasing the mileage.

If you don’t challenge your body, it will adapt and you will plateau. But if you challenge it to do too much or go too fast, you run the risk of getting hurt. The add/subtract method is a good way to build endurance systematically and sensibly.

You don’t have to be training for a marathon to follow the add/subtract technique. For example, a beginner using a walk/run combination and exercising five days a week for 30 minutes might follow this routine:

  1. Week 1: Your first time out, start with five minutes of running/25 minutes of fast walking. By the end of the week (equivalent to your “long run”), try 15 minutes of running/15 minutes of fast walking
  2. Week 2: Do 10 minutes of running/20 minutes of fast walking during the week. Try 20 minutes of running/10 minutes of fast walking for your long run
  3. Week 3: Continue with 10/20 during the week, but drop back to 15/15 for your long run
  4. Week 4: Continue with 10/20 or 15/15 during the week. For your long run, try 25/5
  5. Week 5: Continue with 15/15 during the week. Try 30 minutes of straight running for your long run

Once you can comfortably run for 30 minutes (about three miles for most people), it can become a baseline for your weekly runs. Then, you can continue to add distance to a long run, stepping back down every few weeks.

You can also try adding speed. That’s where this next tip comes in.


Try Fartlek Training

This funny-sounding word means “speed play” in Swedish. Fartlek training involves adding short bursts of random speed into a run, ride, or swim.

For example, if you listen to music, you might pick up your pace each time the chorus of a song comes on. Or set your sights on a tree in the distance and do a mini sprint to get there. Fartlek is unstructured and adds some fun and interest to a workout. It’s also a good way to challenge your body and build endurance faster.

To learn more about our running services or to schedule a running assessment, visit or call 1-855-93-SPORT (77678).


About Sports Medicine

Sports bring with them a potential for injury. And if you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. We serve athletes from a wide variety of sports across every demographic: young or old, male or female, pro or amateur. We partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and over 60 high school, college, and regional teams and events. We’re working to build better athletes. We use cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques to help you recover and provide education on how to prevent injuries.