Strength and endurance are cornerstones of human health and fitness; any imbalance prevents us from reaching optimal human potential.
Today’s humans, just like our ancestors millions of years ago, are endurance animals. Unfortunately, and despite being born endurance athletes, we lose that quality if we succumb to the modern world of elevators, moving walkways, motorized vehicles and other so-called conveniences that reduce overall physical activity. This makes us even more vulnerable when we have to sprint across a busy road to escape a tiger, run fast to avoid an impending lightening storm, or, for too many others, just walk up a flight of stairs.
Everyone needs strength and many lack it. In addition to muscles, our bones and soft tissues must function with sufficient power for a long, active, healthy life. In a natural environment where we would grow our food, raise animals and spend a good amount of time outdoors moving, lifting and dragging heavy objects, we would develop a good balance of endurance and strength. But most don’t do this and must rely on exercise.
Modern humans potentially fall prey to two conditions. Some lose their endurance capacity. This may be the result of too little physical activity, and in others the extreme of over-performing hard activities overtaxes the body’s endurance mechanisms. Second, many have lost both bone and muscle strength. Others never really developed either.
Reductions in bone strength are associated with obvious problems such as stress fractures and osteoporosis. Muscle weakness is associated with various injuries, ill health and reduced performance, not just in athletic competition but also day-to-day activities.
The Balance Game
The remedy for reduced endurance and or poor strength is to establish balance—something that normally happens when we live off the land. Today, however, we must be acutely aware of balancing the quality of each endurance and strength workout to avoid too much of one and not enough of the other.
Endurance is developed with ongoing lower intensity training, and strength by physically challenging our muscle power. To simplify the concept of balance, we can use the terms aerobicand anaerobic. While scientists have not made these two names easy or practical to implement in an exercise program (see, “Think you know what aerobic means?”), they may be the best ones to use until a consensus is established. For now, here is how I define them:
- Aerobic refers to lower versus higher intensity submax training including running, walking, cycling, and swimming. Recovery usually occurs within 24 hours. Aerobic development improves submax speed through increased muscle development and relies on fat burning for energy—so in addition to physical development bodywide metabolic benefits occur too. Without training it regularly, our aerobic function can quickly diminish.
- Anaerobic refers to higher intensity training, which can also be performed by running and cycling, for example, and also include most power-type workouts like weight lifting. Anaerobic training leads to higher levels of fatigue, with weight-type power workouts increasing muscle mass (hypertrophy). This approach is associated with a higher stress response requiring much more recovery time, often 48 hours or more. Trained or not, we usually maintain good sprint-type speed that is part of our natural fight-flight mechanism.
- Let’s differentiate a third workout category: MAF strength training. This mimics natural lifting of heavy objects on the farm, for example, and can also be performed as a strength workout that does not produce excess fatigue, muscle weight gain or high stress. While this training would not be considered aerobic or anaerobic by our definitions, it could significantly promote whole body bone and muscle strength.
Obviously, all physical activities influence the entire body to some degree. The difference in emphasizing one over the other is based on the needs of the individual. While balancing aerobic and anaerobic training is an ultimate goal, over-working one or the other can reduce health and impair fitness, leading to injury, illness and poor performance.
Any combination of aerobic over- or under-training, or anaerobic over- or under-training can create an imbalance. Here are the four possibilities:
- Aerobic Deficiency. A poorly functioning aerobic system is all too common in inactive people and even athletes. Signs and symptoms include increased body fat (and or weight), low energy and physical injuries from minor aches to more painful serious ones.
- Anaerobic Excess. The anaerobic system is frequently overworked, with similar signs and symptoms as above including fatigue, injuries and reduced performance. Poor sleep, elevated resting and training heart rates, mental stress and hormone imbalance are characteristic features of this condition.
- Aerobic Excess. Much less common is aerobic overtraining, which typically arises from too much low intensity training volume.
- Anaerobic Deficiency. A common version of this imbalance is poor strength, even in those performing a lot of anaerobic endurance training. Runners, for example, often lack muscle strength, even when performing regular hill repeats or interval workouts.
While a good assessment of abnormal signs and symptoms can usually help determine an imbalance of aerobic and anaerobic function, here are two important tests that can also guide you.
1. Vertical Jump Test for Strength
The majority of endurance athletes performing the standing vertical jump test won’t get higher than twelve inches or so, well below the athletic average and significantly lower than sprinters and middle-distance runners. The answer to this problem is not to become a sprinter, but to get more strength.
This test is easiest in the presence of another person helping to mark your jump height:
- While standing next to a wall flatfooted and barefoot, reach your arm up as high as possible and mark the wall (or place a piece of tape) at the highest point of your fingertips.
- Stand in the same location next to the wall, and jump up as high as possible and make a second mark on the wall at your highest point (or place a piece of tape). Be sure to bend the knees well before jumping to obtain the best possible results.
- Perform three tests and record the highest jump by measuring the difference between the low and high mark on the wall. This is your vertical jump height.
- Perform this test every couple of months to make sure improvements are being realized in your training.
2. Submax Testing
There are many ways to measure submax performance improvements, but none are better than the MAF Test, which is also the easiest, most convenient and least expensive. Monthly tests should show faster run paces, bike power or other measurements at the same submax heart rate. If you don’t see these results some factor(s) is blocking your ability to develop endurance. (See “The MAF Test.”)
For those needing more full body strength, performing it in a way that does not impair endurance, such as increasing muscle weight, which reduces economy, is obviously very important. This is discussed in my series of Strength Training articles. For those whose endurance has stalled, aerobic-only training for a period of three to six months at the proper intensity can build aerobic speed. Both can also be implemented at the same time.
Of course, the food we eat plays such a key role in both endurance and strength that if this is not balanced, fitness training will not develop maximally not matter how balanced the schedule. This is especially true with endurance progress, which relies on fat burning for fuel (see The Fat Burning Journal). The same can be said for controlling stress. Both make up the other two cornerstones of optimal health and fitness.