Becoming An Endurance Athlete: The Lessons I Learned Along The Way

Whether you want to climb big mountains, run a marathon, or do both, your best chance of success is to adopt an endurance specific training style.   

As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, endurance is “the ability to withstand hardship or adversity; especially: the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity.” 

Here are some key lessons that I have learned along the way to becoming an endurance athlete.


Once I made up my mind that I wanted to climb “big” mountains, run marathons, and maybe even an ultra-marathon, I knew I needed to step up my endurance training.  However, doing so would mean changing up my current programing that had focused more on increasing my speed and strength. Endurance athletes can still be fast and are most definitely strong; however, due to the different muscles that are targeted during endurance training don’t be surprised if short "burner" workouts feel more difficult than before.

If you are looking to be the fastest or the strongest in the gym you may want to look at different styles of training which focus on building fast twitch muscle. But if your goal is to be able to maintain a methodical pace while climbing a glacier or running a marathon, you will want to adopt a programming style which focuses on developing slow twitch muscle. 

Training to be the strongest in the gym while also training to run long distance can be counterproductive and can result in just being average at both. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but again, look at what your short-term and long-term goals are and take the appropriate steps to increase your chance of reaching these goals.  I had to check my ego at the door and accept that my training was going to prepare me for different results compared to my friends who were working to have a body builder’s physique or simply gain more muscle mass.


For many of us knowing where or how to start can be overwhelming.  Don’t be surprised if after doing your due diligence and reading up on various training styles you feel just as confused as before. Try talking to people at your local gym to see if they can recommend a coach or trainer who knows endurance programming.  If nothing comes of that look for coaches who work with athletes remotely, as was the case for me.  I was able to find a coach who provides customized programming based on my goals.   He sends me weekly training schedules that we communicate about daily, and if things need to be adjusted he does so accordingly.

If it were up to me I would have just increased the number of miles I ran each week thinking that was enough; but as a result of working with my coach I have learned that there is a lot more to endurance training than just working on your cardio. 


Set realistic expectations for yourself and your training. I work full-time and have a family so training for endless hours every day is simply not an option.  When designing your training program make sure it is realistic and one you can adhere to; i.e. determine how much time per day or week you can devote to good quality training. It is easy to let the excitement of getting started get the better of you and cause you to “jump into the deep” too soon. Starting out too hard and too fast can result in injuries or burnout.    

When I first started my endurance programming I was already in decent shape so my coach started me with 20-30 minute workouts 5-6 days a week with additional, high rep low weight, strength training 2-3 times per week.  As time has gone on the length, intensity, and total number of workouts per week has increased. I still work out 5-6 days per week but my workouts tend to be a longer, harder, and more demanding...unless I am tapering for a race or climb.


As your programming increases so will your sacrifices, i.e. fewer late nights out with the girls.  Let’s face it, there are already not enough hours in the day and to add one more commitment to the list usually means you have to give up something else.  Many of us have families and/or full-time jobs which makes it next to impossible to go for 20 mile runs every day.  Thankfully not every workout needs to be an all-day affair.

While the bulk of an endurance program tends to be longer workouts which develop slow twitch muscles, you don’t want to neglect the fast twitch muscles all together; you will need them for the crux of a climb or the sprint to the finish line. Incorporating interval training and strength training is important and allows for some variety.  In addition to the 5-6 endurance specific workouts I do per week, I also incorporate 2-3 CrossFit or CrossFit style workouts per week to round out my training and keep things interesting.

Involving my family in my training whenever I can is another fun way to change it up. My husband and I work out together whenever time allows and we go for family hikes as often as possible.  The family hikes are typically a lot easier than I would normally do but are a perfect activity for my rest days. 


Listen to your body, be cautious of over-training, and be sure to get enough calories and sleep.  The point of working out is to breakdown your muscles so they can rebuild stronger than before.   Providing your body with the proper nutrients and rest is crucial to not only recover, but ensure you can continue training.

There are many schools of thought when it comes to a “proper diet” so all I will say is find one that helps you feel good, perform well, and is something you can maintain. Sleep also plays an important role in recovery as your body does its best healing when you are asleep.  Not everyone needs a full 8 hours of sleep every night, but listen to your body and if you are always fatigued or your performance starts to suffer, try to bump up the number of hours you sleep each night to let your body get the rest it needs. 

Try to have at least one day per week as a “rest day” or a day for some active recovery. This does not necessarily mean sitting on the couch doing nothing all day.  These days are perfect for getting in an easy family hike or walk, taking a yoga class, and/or spending more time stretching and mobilizing.  Active recovery helps to work out some of the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles and will help to maximize your recovery.

Finding an endurance program to help you reach your goals may appear overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be.  Remember to have a specific goal to train for, seek help if needed, start slow, vary your workouts, and be sure to give your body what it needs to recover. Balancing life and training is hard but when you are willing to make short-term sacrifices and train hard in order to reach the summit or cross the finish line it is worth it, trust me!