Even though I’ve run marathons, raced triathlons, and coached plenty of athletes, running up the stairs one day, I was winded. At the top, I had to stop for a break. It turns out while I had plenty of long-distance running endurance, I didn’t have stamina.
That’s why, for even the most experienced athletes, stamina training — or building up your ability to maintain your maximum power and output — is an important part of any training plan. You don’t want to end up winded chasing after your kids, or unable to carry heavy bags of groceries.
Use these stamina exercises and trainer-approved plan to build up your stamina, whether you’re a beginner or not.
What Is Stamina?
“A lot of people use stamina and endurance interchangeably,” says Danielle Lorenson, an ACE-certified personal trainer and UESCA-certified running coach who trains clients with Kickoff, “but there is a difference.”
Endurance is, generally, about how long you can go. Aerobic (“with oxygen”) endurance means how long your lungs, heart, and muscles can maintain an effort. The most common way of measuring this effort is to use heart rate training, which includes five zones:
zone 1 (50–60% of maximum heart rate or MHR) is easy recovery or warm-up effort
zone 2 (60–70% of MHR) is aerobic, where you’re a little short of breath but can carry a conversation
zone 3 (70–80% of MHR) is aerobic but you’re pushing the pace
zone 4 (80–90% of MHR) is aerobic threshold, or your max sustainable pace
zone 5 (90–100% of MHR) is anaerobic, or your hardest effort that you can likely only maintain for a few seconds to a few minutes before slowing down.
Muscular endurance allows your muscles to keep going — doing lots of lunges or push-ups or simply carrying things around at work all day.
Stamina training, on the other hand, is about how long you can maintain maximum output. That means it’s not just about a slow, easy pace or low-intensity bodyweight exercises; it’s also about maximum power and speed. While both endurance and stamina utilize your cardiovascular and muscular systems, stamina requires high-intensity and dynamic strength workouts.
Stamina training requires exercises to build your physical stamina and techniques to improve your mental stamina. If you want to be able to maintain your top-level effort for longer, you’re going to need mental stamina and sharpness as well.
Why do you need stamina training? While you might not be an elite athlete who needs stamina in order to sprint for the finish or power through the end of a CrossFit competition, stamina is important for everyone because it allows you to maintain power and focus throughout your everyday activities.
You need stamina to run after your dog at the park or to move heavy furniture around your house. Building stamina will also make lower-intensity exercise, like walking or jogging, feel easier.
Increased stamina through exercise has been shown to decrease work-related fatigue as well. And because exercises to build stamina are typically anaerobic exercises instead of aerobic exercise — meaning your body has to use glycogen, not oxygen, for energy — they’ve been shown to boost metabolism and energy, and decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Even experienced athletes can have poor stamina, though, if they don’t work those high-power, high-intensity anaerobic systems.
How Do You Train Stamina?
Since stamina training is about maintaining the maximum effort you can for as long as you can, good workouts for stamina have to include both endurance and efforts close to your maximum. For example, the heaviest weight you can bench press or squat is considered your one-rep max; being able to repeat the exercise at 90–95% of your one-rep max helps build your physical stamina. (More on that below.)
But you can’t just start by walking into the gym and lifting the heaviest weight you can find. You have to build a base, both in strength and endurance, and then you have to establish consistency. Then you can slowly increase the effort over multiple weeks as your body adapts.
“If you’re just starting out, it could take weeks or months,” says Lorenson.
To build that base, you need both endurance and stamina, especially if you’re just getting started. For a beginner who wants to increase their stamina, don’t neglect endurance training.
To increase aerobic endurance, this could mean starting out with short run/walk intervals three to four times per week. Each week, you could extend the duration of your run interval by five to 10 seconds, eventually building up the amount of time you run between walk breaks. Use our training plan to get started running to help you build a base of aerobic endurance. If you don’t want to run, apply this principle of gradual progression to the total distance or amount of time you spend swimming laps, cycling, rowing, etc.
Once you build a solid aerobic base, you’ll want to add higher-intensity stamina workouts once or twice each week. If you’re a runner, that could be 10 hill repeats in zone 4 for strength and power plus a tempo effort, where you sustain a pace in zones 3–4 (70–90% of MHR) for 15–30 minutes once per week.
Again, you can apply these stamina workout principles to other activities like swimming, cycling, or the elliptical.
It’s also important for stamina training to build up to heavier strength work. But, you don’t want to hurt yourself by maxing out at the gym. Start the first week or two with light weights or just bodyweight exercises and then add weight as you build your stamina. Remember to perform each exercise with proper form before adding more weight. You may need to adjust the number of reps you do when you increase the weight; the key is to perform each move with good form, not high reps.
Exercises to Build Stamina
Stamina training mostly relies on that endurance base and then mixing in high-intensity aerobic workouts and strength exercises as you build up. Lorenson likes to start her athletes, for example, on hills, because running or power hiking for short bursts on an incline is an easy way to integrate power, strength, and maximum effort into your regular workouts with a high risk of injury.
Here are some stamina-building exercises and workouts to try once you have a solid base established:
Sprint incline intervals: Start by running uphill as hard as you can for 30 seconds then walk back down the hill to catch your breath. Rest for an additional 20–30 seconds at the bottom of the hill if you need it. Repeat 8–10 times. Pro tip: Extend the duration of your hill intervals by 10 seconds or increase the number of intervals you can do for a couple of weeks before eventually taking it to a flat surface for sprint intervals.
Heavy weightlifting: Start with bodyweight exercises, like squats, lunges, and pull-ups, and then add weight over the weeks.
Plyometric exercises: Lorenson recommends plyometric exercises that involve explosive movement, like jump squats, skips, jumping rope, or box jumps. These have been shown repeatedly by research to increase power.
Tabata workouts: A more regimented way to build up your high-intensity interval training is to use Tabata-type workouts, which rely on 20 seconds of stamina exercises and then 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times (for four minutes total). This can be as simple as 20 seconds of jumping or quick lunges, 20 seconds of push-ups, or 20 seconds of hill sprints.
A lot of beginners trying to build stamina also find that mental stamina is just as important as physical stamina. There’s a huge body of research on the effects of mental fatigue on your stamina and endurance. Basically, if your brain is tired — from stress in life, a busy work day, or even just having to focus and think too hard — it will impair your physical performance.
Building mental toughness is primarily a skill that requires practice. The more you train your endurance and stamina, the better you’ll get at it — and the more you’ll learn how to deal with challenges that come up. The most important thing, says Lorenson, is not quitting at the beginning. Just because you have to walk some or take more breaks doesn’t mean you should give up. “Being patient is so hard,” adds Lorenson.
Some research shows that yoga and meditation help improve stress levels and overall well-being. Once you practice them, toughness skills can help you cope with negative stresses in regular life; essentially, you can boost day-to-day mental stamina by enduring your (physical) stamina workouts.
And, of course, staying well-fueled and hydrated is a key to building stamina. You can’t maintain power if you’re not fueled well. Often when you’re struggling mentally during a workout, you may just need more to eat, more balanced nutrition, or you might be dehydrated. Running out of glycogen to turn into energy often leads to bonking, muscular fatigue, and the inability to maintain maximum output. To keep those energy stores full typically means a good amount of high-quality carbohydrates and protein.
For the days when you’re really lagging, a small dose of caffeine has also been shown to improve sprint times without increasing heart rate. But, you probably didn’t need us to tell you that a cup of coffee can help boost your mental stamina. It’s the physical stamina that’s harder to build.
If you need a customized plan to guide your stamina training, sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer today.