Physical endurance is key to many sports and activities but it’s also the thing that will help you to live longer, be healthier and work harder – here’s how to build your own stamina
Words: Matt Ray
The best way to build stamina is to use it. Your body is already primed to increase its endurance – it just needs the stimulus of you exercising it. This will cause your lungs to process oxygen more efficiently, your blood vessels to improve their carrying capacity, and your muscle fibres to adapt for stamina.
Your psyche will also be trained, increasing your mental capacity to take on endurance challenges. A common misconception is that some people are born with bucketfuls of stamina hard-wired in. This is not true. They had to train it up, just like everyone else.
Life being what it is, the time, energy and motivation to do this can be elusive, so how can we stack the cards in our favour to help us stick to an effective exercise regime?
Stamina’s sneaky secret
If there’s one thing that stamina hates, it’s inconsistency. If you kick off a new exercise regime at 100mph, with daily workouts and a militant nutrition plan, but then crawl into week three, where the wheels fall off, then you will struggle to make endurance gains.
Take the long view and decide how many workouts you can realistically fit into your life, week in, week out, practically forever. Then do those, consistently, and well. You will get measurable results by doing this, so long as you increase one of three areas every two to three weeks: duration, distance/volume, or intensity. Known as progressive overload, this method of gradually increasing your training load is the key to endurance gains.
Keep a log of your workouts and some metric to measure against your own rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. You can track your heart rate for this, or do a VO2 max test to measure the maximum volume of oxygen you can inhale. Put simply, the less out of breath you are for a given effort, repeated over time, then the greater stamina you have built.
If you find your energy levels flagging, know that pushing yourself to complete a workout may actually reduce your fatigue, rather than increase it. A University of Georgia review found that 90% of people completing an exercise programme had reduced levels of fatigue, compared to those who did nothing.
Often, the most effective way to improve your mental stamina for exercise is to find an aerobic activity you enjoy. Then it won’t feel like exercise, because you’re so wrapped up in the moment.
This could be something like rock climbing, for example. The mental demands of a long rock climb, where you are required to puzzle out sequences of movements between holds, make it feel more like solving a brain-twisting riddle than a workout, even as your forearms burn with lactic acid, and your feet push so hard into the wall that your toes go numb.
Another way to get into the zone and make your workout feel effortless is to listen to music; it can even improve your performance. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Physiology, Pathophysiology and Pharmacology found that listening to fast and loud music significantly increased exercise duration, and therefore endurance, as well as raising maximal heart rate.
Not every workout can be fun, but the way you approach them can turn your whole regime into a game, says PT and founder of Train Badass, Max Cotton (trainbadass.co). He finds that going on a ‘streak’ of completed workouts helps him to complete his planned sessions. ‘If I have four days of gym training a week on my programme and I hit all four in a week, then I’m on an unbroken streak. I don’t want to break the streak, because it feels good. I take down another week and it feels really good; it’s now a habit.’
Cotton adds that this gamification of his workouts helps him to train more consistently, and actually achieve his goals.
If the idea of slow and steady training bores you silly, or you just don’t have time for it, don’t fret. There’s a handy hack to reduce overall training time. You just need to be prepared to work harder.
Intensity is the one thing missing in many workout spaces, but short periods of high intensity work broken up by short rests can raise your lactate threshold, and aerobic capacity (V02 max), as effectively as longer workouts. In fact, studies have shown that six to eight weeks of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be more effective in raising aerobic capacity than the same period of moderate intensity continuous training (MCT).
For HIIT to be effective, you need to work at around 80% of your capacity in several bursts of 60 seconds or less, spaced out by active rest periods of around two minutes. If you’re new to HIIT, you will need to be supervised (due to potential heart risks). However, you can ramp up the intensity of workouts by reducing the rest periods, working harder during particularly banging tracks on your gym playlist. Or you could aim to cover more distance in a shorter time.
While increasing workout intensity is a sure fire way to up your game, it’s important to strengthen your joints at the same time. Separate stabilisation exercises, such as single-leg bodyweight squats, or yoga, will help prevent injury.
The benefits of consistent endurance training don’t stop at giving you more stamina. Regular exercise is also a proven way to boost mental focus, memory and productivity. One British study found that if you work out on a work day, your concentration increases by 21% and your motivation soars by 41%.
But the most significant effect of following a life-long exercise plan, as part of your lifestyle, is that you will probably live for significantly longer. We already know that exercise improves the odds of avoiding heart disease and cancer, and V02 max is shown to be a strong predictor of future health.
Now, a 2019 study published in Cell Reports, found that decades-long exercise regimes change the activity of a gene which governs your metabolism, making it more effective and healthier. This, in turn, will improve your stamina. What’s more, the change starts to occur as soon as you start an exercise plan, which means it’s never too late.
So whatever your sport or workout activity, make sure you keep doing it, because exercise really is the gift that keeps on giving.
Stamina on order
Try these products to support your exercise regime.
USN Ashwagandha Recovery Aid (£17.99, 30 capsules, 68 Rewards for Life points)
This naturally growing herb has been shown to raise mental energy levels. Buy now
PE Nutrition Performance Pre-Workout (£20, 440g, 80 Rewards for Life points)
Loaded with BCAAs, L-glutamine, caffeine and taurine, this pre-workout fuel helps you fight off tiredness and fatigue. Buy now
Two Wise Chimps Natural Caffeine Chewing Gum (£2.30, 9 pieces, 8 Rewards for Life points)
Charge up your workouts with this easy-to-absorb caffeine gum, with added vitamin B5. Buy now
Find more expert fitness advice in the latest issue of Healthy For Men, on sale now in Holland & Barrett stores and online at hollandandbarrett.com