Updated: Apr 21, 2022
By definition, muscular endurance is “the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions against a resistance for an extended period.” Applying this definition to endurance sports like running and cycling means the ability to maintain the pace or bike speed for as long as possible.
We all have experienced the “burnout” sensation in our legs during a race or a workout. That feeling means that our legs cannot keep moving at the planned or desired pace or speed. If our plan is to race at a planned pace, we need to think about muscular endurance as the foundation of the training plan, even before thinking about lactate tolerance.
In endurance sports, muscular endurance has to be planned on an aerobic base. It will help create the proper environment at the cellular level to produce more aerobic enzymes, mitochondria, and blood vessels. It will also produce more myofibrils--the sum of all these adaptations. All this increases the potency that our muscles can build and sustain for the period we planned, and as a consequence, we can keep our desired swim, bike, or run pace.
In our plan to create muscular endurance, we must include a muscular strength plan using a strength training program. Muscular endurance is “how long our muscles can perform repetitions against a resistance,” and muscular strength is “how hard our muscles can perform.” So, we will train to increase the strength of our muscles, and at the same time, we will train to increase the time our muscles can sustain the new strength they have gained.
For example, the muscular strength training plan will help us reach the 200 or more watts when pedaling that we want, and muscular endurance will help us sustain that wattage for the longest possible time.
The muscular strength or muscular resistance plan must be initiated during the base phase of our training cycle. We must keep it during the next mesocycles as a maintenance workout. It must include 3-5 series of 20+ reps of exercises that target the muscles involved progressively. Some exercises that effective strength training programs use include lunges, squats, extensions, or presses.
Typically, it’s beneficial to include up to two muscular endurance workouts per week during the base period and at least once per week during the next mesocycle of your training.
The resistance we can use in our planned running muscular endurance workout is “elevation” in the treadmill or hills or stairs while running outdoors. For the bike, this looks like upping the resistance level or using a “heavier” gear on the flats, or adding hills if you have access to them.
Zone 3 intervals are one of the best ways to train for muscular endurance.
In my coaching programs, I typically prescribe progressive intervals to the greatest resistance my athletes can sustain and maintain their aerobic zone to help build their muscular endurance.
During different mesocycles of the training program, I modify the variables involved in the workout, such as elevation, resistance, cadence, cardiac frequency, and time. These variables can be adjusted depending on the different tests I apply to measure the muscular endurance training progression throughout the training plan.
Most athletes I coach see very encouraging results in their pace, power, and overall endurance. Many have celebrated personal bests in races when following this approach to strength training for muscular endurance.
Manuel Delgado Gaona is a USAT Level II and Youth & Junior Coach, FMTri Level II Certified Coach, an ACSM Exercise Physiologist, and a Physician specializing in Anatomic Pathology. His coaching philosophy is based on exercise efficiency. Coach Manuel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.