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The Truth About Endurance Training And How Too Much Can Ruin Your Health

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 15 November 2017
Hits: 8120

Over the past 10 years there has been a really strong push into health and fitness with many new franchise gyms opening and introducing people to strength training for the first time. It started with Curves & Contours and more recently with 24 hour gyms and Functional Fitness studios like F45 and Crossfit boxes. This is a big shift from the old days of aerobics classes and Les Mills type classes like body pump, body attack, body step etc held at the big gyms which were mainly attended by females while the blokes did body building exercises in the gym on machines or with free weights. I think the public has started to become more aware of the benefits of strength training, and the need to incorporate this into their weekly is seen as vital as eating healthy. However, ALL of the current approaches that I listed for strength training emphasize the same thing - ENDURANCE! And while this may seem like a great thing, it has hidden within this many potential problems that begin to create havoc on people's health. This article I will explain why.

What Is Endurance Training & What Does It Do To You?

Firstly I will take this opportunity to say I am not a cardio hater, and I am not necessarily and endurance hater either. In fact I have spent much of my life competing in endurance events from half marathons to 200km cycling races and all day adventure racing. I am no stranger to the demands of endurance training, but I do understand exactly what it does to my body, and I make modifications to my training to counter this excessive damage and at times I avoid it all together. This article is not even directed at cardio, (article on cardio vs weight training you can read by clicking here) but more so how endurance has become such a big part of most fitness programs, and most people are unknowingly making themselves slower, weaker, and more prone to injury, instead of what they thought they were doing which was becoming stronger, faster and less likely to be injured.

Firstly let's define endurance.

Endurance is defined as: "the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way", or in training context "denoting or relating to a race or other sporting event that takes place over a long distance or otherwise demands great physical stamina." It also is classified as LOW INTENSITY. Many people get low intensity and high intensity confused. Crossfit programs and F45 workouts with endless circuits of exercises with high repetitions and little rest that make you want to spew are by definition low intensity. Whereas completing barbell squats with reps of 3-5 or sprinting 100 meters and resting for several minutes is HIGH INTENSITY.

  • Low intensity = high volume of reps or sets and minimal time to rest is linked with endurance and slow twitch muscle fibers.
  • High intensity = low volume of reps or sets and long periods of time to rest and is linked with pure strength, speed and power and fast twitch muscle fibers.

I think it is great to have mental toughness as seen in the first picture at the top of the old guy running. And at times endurance training is fantastic for doing this. But it is not healthy, this is fitness but it is not health. Training with low intensity and high volume may give you some additional strength gains, but they are minimal in terms of your actual capacity. The main thing you are really getting great at is MOVING SLOWLY for long periods of time and developing stiffness in muscles that have a high slow twitch fiber capacity known as tonic muscles. These muscles are where muscle stiffness, trigger points and muscle imbalance will surface as they are prone to overworking and eventually becoming stiff and tight. Sure you may be able to last a long time, but you are now on the track to developing postural problems and losing the fast twitch fiber capacity that in all honesty is so hard to get. The very few you had, you are now going to lose and this is now speeding up the ageing process. These fast twitch muscles also known as phasic mucles are prone to weakness and laziness and being inhibited by the dominating tonic muscles. A program that tries to develop the tonic muscles always leads to potential muscle imbalance and problems.

The skills we really need not just to look good, but move well in life are always harder to attain. These things are pure strength, speed and power and these can only be developed with high intensity training. Now if you think this is only for sporting athletes you are greatly mistake, in fact these things are exactly what we need to use with older adults to prevent falls and improve daily function, and also in rehabilitation with injuries like a disc bulge and the person learning how to lift objects safely. Obviously we do not rush to this stage but we know that if this type of training is developed well these people will never have problems again.

Now we have defined endurance we need to define strength.

Strength is defined as: "the capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure".

The definition itself gives you a clue as to what you really need to do in order to build strength. "Withstand a great force or pressure". A great force, not a somewhat medium force, but a great one.

What Is Harder To Learn - Weight Lifting Or Marathon Running?

This is a great way to see where problems are created. There is a great sense of irony which you are about to see.

Firstly let's take a look at the Olympic Weight Lifter. To learn the sport of competitive weight lifting requires complete dedication 100% of the time when they train, requires discipline with looking after their body and all the joints when they train. The weight lifter and the operates at such a high intensity that technique, skill, stability and mobility of the entire body must be precise to perform the movement they want to do. They cannot cut corners, they cannot get sloppy or attempt to train at this intensity if everything is not perfect. Technique is everything! A beginner level Olympic weight lifter may not get to touch a barbell until 12 months after beginning his or her training program!

They have to spend hours and hours improving many facets of their body to make lifting safe and also to perform at such a high level. These include.

  1. Improving mobility in joints like the ankles, hip, thoracic region and shoulder.
  2. Master skills of core activation and breathing
  3. Move perfectly with Functional Movements like deadlifts, squats, lunges using their bodyweight. It is too risky to train with loads until they can prove they can achieve positions of great form.

They must "EARN THE RIGHT!" Technique is everything and they know it. But once they improve their movement skills and all the small things, they are then able to generate huge strength and muscle gains without risk of injury.

All their joints remain flexible, but also perfectly stable. They develop strength without imbalance, without learning poor form, and not just the legs, but also the upper body posture and shoulder mechanics that are lacking so many people these days from sedentary jobs. Their understanding of creating intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize their spine is incredible. When you think of how many people will suffer back pain their life, 85%, you could see how great it would be if you learned weight lifting early on. A great chance of never hurting yourself. The only thing they probably lack is athletic prowess, with running or throwing as with tennis or golf. But the benefits to learning to move and the ability to add muscles is astounding.

The amount of time devoted to health is incredible for an action that will be over within seconds. To learn this sport is very difficult, there is no shortcuts. There is only perfection or not at all.

Another sport that shares similar traits but with many more disciplines and skills would be gymnastics. Again to learn this sport takes hours and hours of dedication to perfect movement that requires both mobility, stability and high degrees of strength. Technique is everything in this sport as well. One small mistake or loss of concentration will result in potential disaster.

In both sports the intensity is high and the body is really learning how to move at a peak level.

Now let's compare this to the marathon runner.

The marathon runner will still need to have a dedication and discipline to their training to log the endless miles required to train their body to last hours without cramping up or fatiguing. Mental toughness becomes a big factor here as the mind constantly tells you to stop, or to give up. But where things really differ to gymnastics and weight lifting is technique can be compromised. The better your technique the more likely you are to run faster and not develop injuries later, but you can still complete a marathon with the worst technique in the world. How many people who undertake a marathon have any running technique lessons from a running coach? How many people even know what the ideal running form is? Not many.

What about the other extremely critical factors the weight lifter and gymnast has to devote hours to learn before progressing to the difficult parts of the sports? Does the runner have to worry about these things:

  1. Mobility training?
  2. Stability training?
  3. Learning how to breathe correctly
  4. Learning how to perfect functional movement skills?

NO! All of this can be ignored. There is no "earn the right" there is just go out and get it done! Understand that I am talking to you from a position where I see people everyday with chronic injuries of all types and in EVERY case we have to address the things I just listed the marathon runner usually avoids. Elite marathon runners do implement these things, but novice amateurs and the everyday person do not and suffer problems as a result.

We all stand back and say, "wow how fit are you and how awesome is that", but really they are ignorant to health, and actually skipping the health stage to get to the fun stuff of fitness. If you have a strength program that includes all of the things above then great, I applaud you. But in most cases this is not.

It is ironic that it is so easy to become a marathon runner, but it is extremely difficult to become a gymnast or weightlifter!

But It Is Not Just Runners Who Do This, Many Strength Programs Apply These Same Principles

I mentioned in the beginning that this article was not directed at cardio, and more at the use of endurance methods in strength programs.

When people start out with exercise they are very much like the beginner weight lifter or gymnast, they lack skills to do intense training safely. It is at this point you come to a fork in the road and you have two choices.

  1. They can devote time to learn the necessary skills and techniques and master these in preparation to do more highly skilled exercises and movements. Great results will be provided but will take considerable time to reach this stage.
  2. They can skip technique and reduce the intensity of the exercises to make it safer where you can make mistakes and no immediate consequence will result. Poor to average results from this will be achieved, but you can start instantly.

Most people pick option two. Why? Mainly because it is easier, less risky and much faster to get into. Even though it produces significantly less results and definitely not the things you really need, people will still pick this choice because it is easy.

With regards to running this is where you see people participate in fun runs of 10km or more instead of joining an athletics club and learning to sprint or do the long jump.

When it comes to strength training this is where you see the endless circuits of high reps such as

  • 100 squats
  • 10 burpees
  • 20 push ups
  • 20 crunches
  • 50 kettlebell swings

The emphasis here is on how fast you can do it, not on technique. "Feel the burn", "No pain, no gain" all this type of thinking which is only reinforcing poor movement strategies and development of slow twitch muscles. This is all high volume low intensity garbage exercise. The only thing that is greatly improving is endurance. Yet it is so easy to improve endurance. I can see a beginner who has never exercised before, and within 4 weeks they will already notice significant difference in their endurance. However to improve someone's speed or power can take 2 years for me to be able to change. Even balance and agility is much more difficult to train than endurance.

I cannot tell you how many sporting athletes who come to see me to improve their speed and explosive power and their training regime looks something like I just described. No wonder they do not improve for they are training the completely wrong energy systems with the worst type of exercises. Yet even when I explain this they are still stuck in the mindset of "feel the burn" and do not want to put in the work that moving fast demands. They have to go backwards and learn fundamentals before getting to the fun stuff.

So does this mean you need to become a gymnast or weight lifter! No, not at all. But you do need to learn how to execute key movements at a level of intensity that will test your capacity for perfect technique.

You must learn how to MOVE WELL, before you MOVE MORE!

And this can only be felt with high intensity training, and not the endless volume of "junk training" we see in most gyms. Key movements include Deadlifts, Squats, Lunges, Single leg exercises along with pushing, pulling and twisting movements must be learned and perfected. Below is a FREE Report on Functional Training I encourage you to download that gives you stacks of information about how to do this.

You can also see more about how to do this in the video below or read more about the 7 key movements in the article Functional Movement Needed For Life

Even Older Adults Need To Improve Speed & Power

This applies to EVERY PERSON! Even if you are an older adult in your 70's this is still important to you. In fact I would go as far to say it is more important to you than anyone else! Yes that you did read that right, and no I am not crazy. The video above is a must watch and shows a 79 year old client of ours completing sprinting training.

The ability to move fast is lost faster than you think. When an older adult loses the ability to move quickly is when you see someone slip and not be fast enough to recover and end up splitting their head open or fracturing a hip. Apart from the changes in walking with shuffle and being unable to do many everyday tasks that create stiffness and eventually pain, the potential instant danger to them is apparent to everyone. They MUST preserve this skill by always training it, and if they have lost it be exposed to training methods to get it back. You cannot improve speed and power by training at slow speeds. And unfortunately this is exactly what you see with most older adults exercise programs as pictured below. This sort of stuff is a complete waste of time. If they were disabled fair enough but the fact these people can stand up, tells you that this training is making the worse not better.

Speed as with power declines faster than strength, meaning if it is not trained correctly you will experience rapid declines in performance.

Research shows that we will all experience a 10% decline in muscle mass (sarcopenia) between the ages of 25 and 50 and a further 45% decline by the time we are in our 80's – if we do nothing about it. Strength training can reverse this or at least halt the decline. Unfortunately, for speed the news is not so good! Fast-twitch muscle fibre, that most precious of commodities for speed and power, displays a much more marked decline than slow-twitch fibre as we age. Fast twitch fibre can decline by as much as 30% between the ages of 20 and 80.

You can read more about this here in the article Can You Slow The Ageing Process?

There is also a great free report for older adults you can get at the bottom of the page.

You Must Learn Skills First But Make Sure You Progress

Now obviously you are not going to go out on your first session and start trying to do 1 rep max deadlifts and squats. Just like the beginner weight lifter you must learn skills. But........ You must not get stuck here. This is where the Pilates and endless bodyweight programs like TRX training get stuck. They NEVER PROGRESS from mobility and stability training, to preparing your body for high intensity loads that are completely different skills and abilities. You are kidding yourself if you think you are strong and all you lift is your own bodyweight or some rubber bands while lying on a floor. Your chances of being hurt in the real world are very high. The demands on life are actually higher than your ability to train. Lifting your shopping bags into the car or hitting a golf ball off the first tee are both examples of real life movements demanding power and strength that are significantly higher than a body weight fitness class.

Pilates might be a great addition to your training to address some of your mobility and stability problems, but it is not strength training. The resistance again is too low. Again just like the older adults we just saw this is strength training if you are suffering severe disability and barely able to walk. But it is not enough of a challenge if you are able to walk around comfortably. True strength is only achieved in standing positions, and when you are exposed to loads or a challenge greater than you can currently do. Just like the weight lifter and gymnast you have to acquire the skills to do this safely. Again most people avoid this for it sounds too hard, they would rather stay with the easy stuff and convince themselves it is strength training.

You must progress. Watch the video below to see more.

I am not trying to bash Pilates or other bodyweight methods here, (I am qualified in Pilates myself) as these have some great things to learn, my point is to be clear that moving your own bodyweight on the floor is not strength training. And you are also only ever learning how to move slowly. The glutes for example are one of our most powerful set of muscles and must be trained that way. It is the responsibility of these muscles to do the big heavy lifting of objects off the floor like shopping bags or pulling a weed out of the garden. If you train this muscle to become slow, it loses it's timing and becomes weak and lazy setting you up for injuries like a disc bulge.

You can read more about this in the articles below

This would be like the beginner weight lifter who never progresses past lifting a wooden stick and doing mobility drills, stretching and improving basic stability. You could not call him a weight lifter yet. He still needs to learn how to move fast with load, and be able to stabilize his body with these demands. The same for the gymnast and the same for the sprinter. Many things can go wrong at this intensity but if you have prepared your body correctly the risk is minimal.

And let me ask you these questions.

  1. Would you prefer to learn how to move at high intensity in a gym environment where you have 100% focus, correct equipment, coaching and an awareness on your form?
  2. Or would you prefer to "wing it" in a real life situation that is usually thrust upon you, where you have many distractions, not the correct equipment or clothing and not consciously able to activate correct technique, but rely on instincts and your ability to get it right?

I know which one I would prefer. This is why people so easily hurt their back when doing gardening or lifting something fairly light off the floor. Do you think the weight lifter would hurt his back pulling a weed out of the garden? Highly unlikely.

Use It Or Lose It

What does all this mean? Well simply put you need to think about what type of training you are currently doing and see how much of this actually uses abilities of speed and  power. If your strength training always uses 3 sets of 8-12 reps look at changing the exercises you are the best at, to 5 sets of 3-5 reps. Maybe learn how to do explosive exercises like plyometrics. You may need a spotter to assist you and keep it safe. And you should look at adding a speed session, whether it is with the bike, running or on the rower. Basically learn to lift heavy loads safely and improve your ability to move fast. We all had the ability to move fast when we were kids learning how to move for the first time. Some of us played sports and learned how to do this well, where others did not and they often move very poorly as adults. I cannot say it enough that you must always be trying to preserve your ability to move quickly if you have it and learn it if you don't.

Technique is everything as the risk is high if you get it wrong. But on the same hand the risk is high if you never use it, for once it is gone it is very difficult to get it back!

Summary

I hope you have enjoyed this article and this really opens your mind up to what strength training really means. Slow boring endless repetitions is called junk training for a reason, so make sure you make your exercise count. Quality over quantity every time. Don't skip steps, make sure your technique is there to progress and if it is try to move forward. Even if it is just learning to sprint or jump onto a box, it does not matter. The key is to preserve your ability to move fast for this is so much harder to get once it is gone. I have worked with over 1000 people in my 13 years as a trainer and all the clients who can comfortably lift heavy loads and be able to move fast were always the healthiest and strongest people I have met. Even 79 year old Laurie Ford featured in the video earlier! The people who move slow all the time tend to aged quickly, always have injuries and poor posture and dysfunctional  movement patterns.

Take the time to get stronger it is well worth it.

If you enjoyed this article and live in Melbourne and would like to know more about our programs you can request a free consultation by clicking the image below.

There is also some free reports below you can get by clicking on the image.