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Muscle Endurance for Aerobic Events

Training muscles to efficiently sustain prolonged intermittent contractions has value for athletes in every aerobic sport. Achieving superior muscle endurance can mean the difference between winning and losing.

 Feeling the Burn

The "burning" sensation felt in the muscles involved in an activity is common to the performance of all types of athletics that require energy at a rate faster than the body can keep up with extramuscular energy provision and intermuscular removal of wastes. This same "burning" sensation is a prime indicator that the body is drawing less upon energy reserves outside the muscles (blood glucose, oxygen, fatty acids, etc.) less, and more upon muscle energy reserves inside the muscle fibers (muscle glycogen). This phenomenon signals the onset of fatigue and significantly reduces the efficiency of muscular work performed. For this reason, the duration and severity of the above described burning sensation should be minimized, when and where possible to achieve prolong optimum performance.

This discussed "burning" sensation, whether associated with aerobic, incremental, or anaerobic activities, means the same thing: an increase in the use of muscle glycogen for energy due to increased muscle tissue involvement and contractions. Sugar reserves, regardless of their location in the body (liver, blood, or muscle), are used more quickly and are burned less efficiently than fatty acids when used for sustained activity energy. If drawn upon too heavily in any activity, this phenomenon leads to premature muscle performance failure.

Going the Distance

To illustrate how athletes can use this phenomenon to their advantage, let's consider the example of the distance runner. The ability to control and manipulate muscle energy expenditure gives a savvy runner an edge by allowing him or her to devise overall strategies for each race. In fact, it is the savvy distance runner's strategic timing and use of muscle and liver glycogen that often makes the difference between winning and losing. The phenomenon is simple but the effects are profound: The more intense the effort, the greater the use of muscle and liver glycogen. When these stores have been depleted, the runner "hits the wall" - or experiences absolute failure. One strategy, then, is to learn to recognize the signs of premature muscle energy use - a slightly noticeable burning sensation for extended periods during the event - as a means of pacing. Too fast too soon means little will be left for that last "kick" in the final stages of the event. Here, muscle glycogen is primarily responsible for this more intense effort. Another strategy is to be so in tune with muscle energy expenditure that the runner sets and maintains a slightly faster pace throughout the race with the goal of reaching total exhaustion only when crossing the finish line. In this case, the runner counts on being able to build and keep a lead so that the competitions' last stretch "kick" still falls short.

Training to Improve Muscle Endurance

When preparing for an aerobic event, especially when the nature of the event causes the burning sensation, the prescription calls for appropriate muscle endurance conditioning.

Extremely high repetition resistance exercises for appropriate musculature should be applied in an effort to:

  • increase the participant's tolerance level to the sensation through the repetitious performance of the specific and/or similar activity while applying progressive intensity;
  • train those specific muscles involved in the activity using resistance exercise in the 25+ repetition range, with the application of increasing intensity as the method of progression used.

These measures will lead to adaptation by the formation of new intercellular organelles, improved collateral circulation, and the overall enhancement of the appropriate intercellular energy pathways.

Performance improvements will show in the offset, tolerance, elimination, and/or minimized severity of the burning sensation, all of which point to greater muscle energy efficiency and prolonged performance capability.

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