Rethinking Endurance – Specific Peripheral Adaptations

By on July 7, 2020

We often make the mistake of thinking that the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) doesn’t apply to endurance.

But let me ask you this: who will be better equipped to dig a hole for ten hours straight? A marathon runner… or a farmer?

The answer is obviously the farmer. Likewise, if you want to fight for longer without getting gassed out, then running might not be the best solution.

Rethinking endurance

There is more to endurance than simply your aerobic capacity. And even aerobic capacity is more multifaceted than you think.

Specific Peripheral Adaptations to Endurance Training

Firstly: there are peripheral adaptations that occur as well as systemic ones when you engage in any form of cardio.

Case in point: your lactate threshold – which is the point at which your body is forced to switch from a predominantly anaerobic energy system to predominantly aerobic system, i.e. the point at which you’re forced to back up before you start vomiting – is different depending on the activity.

Swimming, for example, uses different muscles than running. Those different muscles have different ratios of slow to fast twitch muscle fibers, which in turn means they produce differing amounts of hydrogen ions.

When you swim regularly, changes will occur in those muscles that affect the efficiency of the mitochondria, the ratio of slow to fast twitch muscle fibers, and other physical features of those muscles.

peripheral endurance

Other changes will occur around the muscle too. For instance, training with repetitive contractions will increase the number of blood vessels supplying blood to those muscles – your circulatory system is rewiring itself to be able to send more blood to the areas where it is needed!

Likewise, you’ll see an increase in glycogen storage, making energy more readily available to those muscles.

Giving you hundreds of “hearts” located throughout your body.

And did you know that your muscles can even contribute to circulation? Specifically, the “muscle pump” system describes how contracting many large muscles actually increases the pressure in embedded peripheral veins, thereby aiding venous return: sending blood back to the heart.

Check out the excellent book Beyond Training by Ben Greenfield for more on this!

In other words, strengthening different muscles groups may improve your circulation, effectively giving you hundreds of “hearts” located throughout your body.

Endurance in martial arts

So, if you want to improve your endurance for tennis, you might find that combining endurance training focusing on the upper body AND the lower body – such as rowing and running – would be more effective than simply running. Most effective of all though would be lots of tennis!

What’s more, is that training that specifically focusses on longer muscle contractions might actually have useful crossover for endurance. In particular, the use of quasi-isometrics and very long yielding isometrics, may be useful for encouraging adaptations that allow for prolonged use of the muscle.

The same also goes for bodybuilding-style higher rep ranges that target so-called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. There are significant beneficial cardiac adaptations to this kind of training!

How To Benefit From These Specific Adaptations

Personally, I incorporate cardio into my workouts by performing finishers at the end of the session that somewhat mimic the strength training I did at the beginning. In other words, if I was doing a lot of bench presses, then I might end with quasi-isometric push ups and super high-rep push ups.

If I was training shoulders and triceps though, then I might end with some heavy bag work or battle ropes.

Endurance training

Finally, this also makes a great case for circuits and metcon workouts that involve multiple “stations.” This is a form of cardio that uses insufficient recovery times to keep the heart rate elevated. But by switching between movements, you create a formidable and adaptable form of endurance that will prepare you for anything.

Add some resistance cardio or plyometrics to that routine with kettlebell swings or similar, and you just made your training all the more effective depending on your intended goals. By using fast twitch fiber you ensure that you are using the anaerobic system that would be necessary for a lot of explosive sports, and you avoid the conversion to slow-twitch fibers. Of course, if endurance events are what you are training for, reducing the load makes sense.

Add some resistance cardio or plyometrics to that routine with kettlebell swings

For the SuperFunctionate? Use both kinds.

PLUS this also develops your ability to shuttle blood quickly from one part of the body to another. This “shunting effect” increases the demand on your system even more, which is why the most grueling circuits will alternate between upper body and lower body movements.

Systemic Changes: HIIT vs LISS

On top of the local adaptations to endurance, there is also a significant difference in training that targets different energy systems.

I’ve already discussed the difference between low intensity steady-state cardio (like running long distances) and high intensity interval training before on this channel. To cut a long story short: high intensity interval training has many advantages over aerobic training, and especially when it comes to improving the number and efficiency of mitochondria. Many people love high intensity training because it lets them burn calories in a shorter space of time, and provides the lauded “after burn effect.” However, we mustn’t over-state this effect as it isn’t quite as profound as some sources would have you believe (study).

Low intensity steady state endurance

We mustn’t turn against steady state altogether, as this can provide many favorable adaptations when performed correctly (meaning it should be truly low intensity). Not only will it allow for improvements in technique and efficient movement with time, but it is also superior when it comes to developing the size and strength of the heart (study).

This, unsurprisingly, is a useful adaptation for prolonged endurance, but also lowers resting heart rate and improves blood pressure.

Finally, don’t forget the OTHER aspects that contribute to your endurance too. That means things like lung strength and even the efficiency and economy of your technique.

Running endurance training

And remember that improving energy won’t just help you in training. This is something that will have direct, meaningful benefits for your health and even your brain function and focus. Struggling to focus at work? Feel tired at the end of the day?

With greater mitochondrial efficiency, you’ll even sleep better!

Stop looking for a silver bullet hack, and just get fitter. This will be the ultimate force multiplier, that allows you to do more of everything.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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