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Endurance Running

The 1896 Olympics featured the first marathon. Frenchman Michel Breal constructed the race to follow the legendary route of Pheidippides, a trained runner, who in 490 BCE is believed to have been sent from the plain of Marathon to Athens in order to announce the defeat of an invading Persian army. The marathon race became the highlight of the 1896 Olympics and was won by Spyridon Louis of Greece, who’s victory earned him eternal admiration from his nation.

It is estimated that ancient humans ran about the same distance as a marathon every day in their pursuit of food. Endurance running was crucial towards tracking and taking down prey. Humans are built for running and scientists believe we were once much better at it, but the modern day amenities of horses, cars, and even wearing shoes has severely eroded away are ancient endurance abilities. In recent times, non-competitive running hasn’t always been an activity relished by the majority of the population. Running for leisure began in the United States as a sport enjoyed only in youth programs, colleges, or at professional levels. But in the 1970’s a running movement formed as the nation rapidly grew interested in participating as amateurs in the sport. The union of Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight formed Nike, which marketed athletic celebrities such as Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit. Part of running’s popularity in America was also spurned by academics that began to take a great interest in running. Publications taught and argued for the benefits of jogging. Jogging was no longer done only for necessity. Running became mainstream and fun… even meditative.

Endurance running is both simple and complex. At its simplest form, endurance running is just a matter of one athlete covering a specific distance as fast as they can. But from a physiological perspective, endurance running employs the widest range of energy systems and heart rate zones. The endurance runner is most affected by nutrition and hydration before, during, and after their race. 800 meters and greater is considered an endurance race (middle distance and long distance), and biomechanical skills alter greatly depending on the distance.

While obviously high levels of endurance and a good cardio base are required for endurance running, good sprint mechanics and the development of pure running speed are highly recommended. Running mechanics greatly influence aerobic capacity, anaerobic efficiency, and running economy. The best way to improve mechanics is through the correct application of sprint drills and hill sprinting. With a few exceptions, the running mechanics in middle and long distance races resemble maximal velocity (sprint) mechanics, even though the features are not as pronounced. Here are some tips for proper running mechanics:

Single lady running on bridge

-the head should be kept in a constant neutral position with respect to the spine; lordotic, or “butt-out” postures, reflective of pelvic tilt should be avoided

-the pelvis should move slightly, but never deviate greatly from a neutral position

-ground contact occurs under the body’s center of mass

-overstriding in which the foot lands substantially in front of the center of mass should be avoided by increasing knee lift, push-off, and stride frequency

-upper-body action differs from sprinting in that generally the arms are held close to the sides, with slight movements of the shoulder axis in the transverse plane

Health Benefits

Endurance training is also referred to as “cardio”, which is a shortened term for the cardiovascular system. The cardiovascular system is essentially the blood pump system in which blood circulates through the body, using the heart, veins, arteries, etc. as the tools. People that engage in chronic exercise programs improve cardiovascular function. Both healthy people and those at risk for cardiovascular diseases benefit from exercise. Even the elderly can lower systolic, diastolic, and median blood pressure through cardio training. The health benefits of an active lifestyle are multifaceted, and include not only biological adaptation but also changes in other social habits, such as a decrease in excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. Other benefits of cardio training include reducing body mass index, increases in muscle strength and endurance, increases in antioxidant levels, and increases in good cholesterol (HDL) while decreasing bad cholesterol (LDL). Furthermore, it can help prevent, slow down the progression, or even cure type II diabetes by increasing insulin sensitivity as well as glucose uptake.


The first concern when increasing endurance capabilities is developing the aerobic (cardio) base. After this has been achieved, the focus shifts towards developing race- specific energy sources. Training for a 5k and marathon are vastly different. Progressive training in a specific distance results in increased aerobic power and VO2 max. VO2 max is a term frequently used in endurance training that refers to the maximal rate at which the body is capable of taking in and consuming oxygen; VO2 max is the best indicator of aerobic power. Due to the involvement of both aerobic and anaerobic energy in running, VO2 max training best develops runners. After a period of training that emphasizes aerobic development and VO2 max, intervals and then repetitions establish the buffering in the blood needed to tolerate lactic acidosis.

Running on bridge

Endurance training programs must develop the neuromuscular system and elicit changes in blood chemistry just as training programs for the speed and power events do. But endurance training programs must also produce radical changes and improvements in the energy and blood delivery systems. Every endurance run uses aerobically and anaerobically produced energy varying in proportion; all of the energy systems function at the same time, but proportion depends on intensity and duration. Running 800m as fast as you can will produce more lactate and the anaerobic energy system will take precedence, while jogging the same distance in a relaxed state will activate more of an aerobic energy system. Because of this, training for endurance races must be well planned and follow specific guidelines. Heart rate increases as the level of work and speed increases, therefore, heart rate can be used as an indicator of the intensity of the workout. Because of this, most of the training intensities and levels of work referred to are defined by heart-rate zones.

Running group

Here’s something to take note of: in endurance races, when athletes train higher than their targeted intensity and push the workout into a higher-intensity zone than intended, they incur all of the fatigue and risk of the higher zone but only the training benefit of the lower zone – and often less because they are unable to finish the workout. For instance, using the 800m as an example again…. Running the 800m at higher level of intensity that is unsustainable is inefficient. What a runner should do is run the 800m below their lactate threshold in order to train the body to process the lactate as fuel. By pushing too hard, the runner may actually decrease the effectiveness of the workout and increase wear and tear on the body at the same time.

Although much of the training for endurance events focuses on energy system development, other biomotor skills have a sizeable effect on performance. Acceleration, speed, power, mobility, strength relative to body weight, and other abilities are important for high performance in these events, especially in middle distance races. A certain portion of training should be dedicated to developing these other biomotor abilities.

*ONE LAST TIP – Hill work is an excellent tool for anaerobic training for endurance runners. Hill work can be used to train both the anaerobic glycolytic and anaerobic alactic energy systems. Hill work has been shown to improve running economy by forcing proper mechanics, as it is very hard to run uphill with poor mechanics. Make sure hill sessions are done on softer surfaces. The degree of incline, distance, and intensity depends on the event being trained. But a marathoner will train at a lower incline at a lower intensity for a longer uphill run, than say an 800m runner who will run at a high intensity on a higher incline for a shorter period during training.

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