If you’re riding in the AIDS/LifeCycle this month you’ll bike 545 miles over seven days. By my calculation that means you’ll be spinning your (bicycle) wheels 421,744 times on the ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It’s a daunting task; even those who consider themselves to be champion athletes might not feel up to it. But there are still four takeaways from this event for all of us.
Types of Endurance
There are two types of endurance we should consider trying to cultivate. First is cardio-respiratory or aerobic endurance. This is a measure of the ability of the lungs, heart and blood vessels to transport oxygen to working muscles and then the efficiency with which those muscles can use the oxygen. Muscles contain stored fuel enough to run for only 1.5 minutes on their own so we all depend on the aerobic system to get anything done. This is also why aerobic exercise, commonly referred to as cardio, is so important to try to maintain continuously.
Your “Mr. Thrifty” Body
Our bodies respond to any type of activity by revising their functions in order to accomplish the given task while minimizing energy expenditure. This is great because it allows us to do more and more without fatiguing. But it also means that to continue enhancing our aerobic capacity, we have to keep upping the ante. If we go for the same walk every day, we’ll get better at it but the conditioning effect will diminish rapidly over time. AIDS/LifeCycle recommends training “in small increments of increasing intensity” and that’s a good general rule. After all, endurance is a relative term – this same approach will apply no matter what our age or our physical condition. The thousand mile journey does indeed begin with a single step … and then another, and another, and another… well, you get the message.
Muscle endurance is a localized phenomenon. It’s the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to exert force against resistance on a repeated basis. Muscle strength is the ability to exert force (overcome resistance) in a single effort; muscle power is strength applied with speed. At various times we’ll want specific muscle groups to possess all of these attributes. A cyclist, for example, will need his glutes and hamstrings to keep contracting for miles on end and still be able to give that extra push to power up any hills he’ll encounter en route. On the other hand, a distance runner will need to focus on the muscles that keep his ankles stabilized. Your sport determines which muscle groups need to be trained for motor endurance, strength and power.
Don’t Peak Too Soon
Remember these words of athletic wisdom – don’t peak too soon (oh, stop snickering!). Even a hamster on a rotating wheel learns to pace himself. It’s easy to let our heads run away with our exercise schedule but our muscles respond better to a gradual buildup. This applies to the day of the event as well. You want to save that last push for the time it’s most needed. If anything, it’s wise to take a training break before any concerted physical effort and then a longer one afterwards before resuming training at a less hectic pace.
These same rules apply to any activity. Keep improving your cardio workout, train for your specific local motor endurance needs, vary your level/incline terrain and pace your periods of activity. And one more very important thing: enjoy the ride!
By Dr. John Sutherland