We all want the energy and capability to work and play as best we can for as we need to. That’s why caffeine is the number one consumed drug in the world! Yet, I’m sure most of us recognize that exercise is a healthier, more sustainable way of improving stamina than slamming down a ton of coffee and energy drinks.
So how do we train for more endurance? The first things that likely come to mind are marathon runners, Ironman triathletes, or trekking up Mt. Everest. Do we have to train like those folks? They are certainly examples of the highest levels of stamina and conditioning.
But stamina can also mean making it through a hard day at work, then running errands, starting laundry before getting dinner started….
It’s a good marker of health and capability. Getting wiped out and unable to catch your breath in a couple minutes going up a few flights of stairs isn’t a great sign.
But is training for a marathon what you should do to improve your stamina? If your goal is to participate in one and you enjoy it then it is! You should do it!
If that’s not something that inspires and motivates you, then nope, please don’t let anyone force you to do that for the purpose of “getting fit.”
First it’ll be helpful to define the basics of the physiology of being able to do things for a long period of time. There’s Systemic Stamina and Activity Specific Stamina.
-If you are eager to skip to an example of how we would structure a locomotion based conditioning session here’s the video! We’ll go into the specifics later in the article, hopefully you come back and read on after you watch 😀 –
By systemic, I’m referring to your body’s overall capability to endure in prolonged activities. There are a lot of physiological details but to make it simpler, yet still accurate, there are two main types of systemic stamina: aerobic and muscular endurance.
This is the ability to perform low to moderate intensity activities for long periods of time. Think of jogging, hiking, and biking. These are activities that you can do for hours at a time if needed. And the primary limitations are your cardiovascular system’s capability to keep up with the activity load over the chosen amount of time. It’s what we mean when we say our heart and lungs are stopping us from doing more.
This type of stamina is generally more related to moderate to higher efforts. For example, your regular morning walk is pretty easy even at a fast pace, but then you hit a big hill. A couple of minutes up the steep slope you feel your legs burning more and more until eventually your muscles can’t take anymore. Your heart and lungs were okay but your legs were not ready!
This is different from lifting a heavy weight a few times and then being unable to lift it again. Instead, it’s the ability to sustain your strength for a longer amount of time. Another example is moving boxes out of your storage unit and the elevator is broken. You can easily lift the boxes but now you have to go up and down stairs at the same time. Here your main limitation is your muscular endurance.
That all makes sense, especially when we have in mind those marathon runners and Tour de France riders trudging up steep hills. Thinking this way, we just need to run several miles a day, do lots of squats and pushups and in general just do more more more!
But there’s a better way of wrapping our heads around what stamina really means to us personally, and that’s the activity specific definition.
Activity Specific Stamina
In this concept, your level of stamina in a particular skill corresponds directly to how well you are able to do the skill. It’s the QUALITY of your performance that affects how tired and exhausted you get. Factors such as mental effort, breath control, and coordinated muscle usage are all a part of this.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced this before, you learn or work on something new, you’re concentrating hard, tensed up, and even hold your breath without knowing. I remember changing the faucet in our kitchen sink, and yes there was some physical effort in contorting myself into the small space, wrenching and lifting up parts, but nothing like running a mile. But all the mental effort of trying to do it correctly and tensing up everywhere made it seem as if I just put in a hard mile!
Another specific activity related example is when my family and I participated in the Big Climb – a blood cancer fundraising event – walking up Columbia Tower. I maintain pretty good conditioning year round with my martial arts training, I can spar and drill at a good pace for hours. But the first year we did the event, I was woefully unprepared! I learned my lesson and for every year after that, I added stair climbing sessions into my routine for a few weeks prior to the Climb. It was still no joke, but much less stressful.
Skill Acquisition and Mental Effort
Now instead of swapping out a kitchen sink faucet, let’s try stringing together new and unusual body movement patterns together. Whether that’s learning a new sport or simply trying new exercises.
It takes significant effort and mental focus during the process, especially at the beginning. The initial stages of skill acquisition require conscious attention, deliberate practice, and repeated attempts.
|Motor Learning Stages
|- Initial learning
- First 1 to 3 sessions dependent upon complexity and familiarity
|- High effort
- Inefficient muscular contractions throughout body
|- High level of concentration
- Mental Strain
|- After several sessions
|- Less effort
- Improving coordination
|- Less concentration
- Initial instances of "automatic action"
|- A few days to months dependent upon complexity of skill and physical attributes
|- Effort level more related to further improving performance
|- Concentration level more related to further improving performance
- Nearly all actions are automatic
During this learning phase, your stamina may appear low because your nervous system is working on overdrive just trying to figure out what to do! Here it’s really easy to think “wow I’m seriously out of shape!” Or even worse, thinking this is how it’s going to be every time you try and do the movements again.
Let’s reframe that and acknowledge it as a reflection of the mental effort put forth during the early stages of skill development. You can’t separate mental and physical efforts, they both affect your energy and stamina.
But, you should know that as you gain experience and become more proficient you’ll find yourself more “conditioned” and the efforts become easier. You didn’t need to increase your V02max, you just needed to get better at doing the thing!
Breath Control and Stamina
Here’s another example that’s likely obvious when you look back and analyze your practices. It’s a really common thing for your breath to become shallow and even stop entirely with novel and more difficult efforts. Part of it is the physical and mental “bracing” in the effort. It simply feels like you need to brace, hold your breath and grit your teeth!
Unfortunately this is one of the worst things you can do, it decreases your oxygen supply and makes you more tired, leading to even more labored breathing. It’s a bad feedback loop that gets you even more fatigued.
A big part of endurance and stamina is breath control. It will improve naturally as you get better at the skills, but you can help yourself along the way by checking in on your breath regularly to see if you are maintaining a steady and even respiration rate.
Breath awareness is key to both modulating your effort and improving your stamina.
Muscle Usage and Stamina
Along with breathing patterns, inefficient muscle tension is a big contributor to premature fatigue. This is also part of that bracing in a new activity. You simply don’t know how to coordinate your muscle action and the specific timings. So you end up contracting every muscle in your shoulders and arms when you reach, and every part of your hips as you bend and step into the next movement.
You’re essentially pushing on the accelerator and brake at the same time!
We see this particularly in high skill efforts requiring coordination throughout the whole body. Ring muscle-ups are a prime example of this. Not only do you have to pull your entire bodyweight, but you have to have the right timing and technique to get over on and top of the rings. People that can do dozens of pull-ups and dips, but can’t do a single muscle-up. We’ve seen it!
Here’s another way of looking at it, you may have seen “endurance tests” like how long a person can hang on a bar, or sit in a squat, or hold an object in front of them. They are definitely exhausting and there is of course some skill required. But these are more “pure” instances of muscular stamina. How long can the muscles involved hold out?
But in more complex coordinated efforts, inefficient motor patterns and co-contractions tend to exhaust you quickly, regardless of how much muscular endurance you have.
This is why properly learning and refining movement technique can help your stamina immediately. It’s not so much that there is the one PERFECT FORM to adhere to, instead it’s more that there are general concepts of improving load distribution and force development that help you figure out the efficiencies and performance details that work best for you.
Improve Your Stamina by Improving How You Move
Feeling out of breath and getting tired very quickly might mean you need to work on your cardio. You can’t go wrong with doing that. But I’d suggest that you’ll also need more practice at moving in a variety of ways.
Especially if bending over to tie your shoes or crawling under your desk to fix computer cables feels as hard as running uphill.
So how would you work on that?
Functional Movement Focused Weekly Routine
When people speak of “functional training”, they often present exercises that simulate what they purport to be “what humans need to do!” But just like we’ve shown that stamina is activity/skill specific, how can there be standard functional exercises that are applicable to everyone and what they personally do?
Does everyone need the ability to stand on one leg and swing ropes up and down? I would say no…
But there are basic movements that do make sense as soon as you see them. We all really do need the ability to squat and kneel down, rotate our upper bodies and reach to the side, and push ourselves up from various positions. This isn’t controversial, it’s simply things we do everyday.
Now we can see that building stamina for everyday function is stringing these movements together and in a variety of ways, practicing until they become much more comfortable. This improved ease, decreased effort, and improved breath control are all a big part of improving your stamina.
Here’s a sample plan -of the exercises in the video above- that incorporates what we’ve talked about, give it a try and see how you feel!
|Functional Movement Focus
|These are circuit style sessions, you go from one exercise to the next (take a rest in between as needed) to complete one round.
|- Set your timer for 1 to 3 minutes each exercise
- 2 to 4 rounds each
- Rest as much as needed in between rounds to keep movement quality high!
|- A-Frame to Squat
- Kneeling Lunge
- Tall Kneeling Arm Raise
|- Quadruped Sidebend
- Quadruped Twist
- Around the World Squat
|- A-Frame to Squat
- Around the World Squat
- Bear to Monkey repeating (20 seconds of one then switch and repeat for time)
|- Tall Kneeling Arm Raise to Side
- Kneeling Lunge
- Monkey to Cartwheel repeating (20 seconds of one then switch and repeat for time)
|- Quadruped Twist
- Around the World Squat
- Monkey to Cartwheel to Bear repeating (20 seconds of one then switch and repeat for time)
There can be lots of other movements to try but this focuses on specific locomotion patterns that our clients and trainers have found incredibly beneficial when added to their training. This was just one example template of the GMB Method for improving stamina and functional capacity.
It’s all about practicing and improving your ability to move – with higher quality! – in a variety of full body actions. The movements should feel immediately impactful and meaningful to you. A lot of clients remark that after the first session they think “this is just what I needed!”
Systematic, Foundational Training
Our Elements program encompasses full body movement patterns to improve mobility and strength in a variety of positions, which also leads to improved stamina and capability for all that life throws at you.