Cardiorespiratory Endurance Explained + 20 Ways To Improve Yours

If you are an endurance athlete, such as a marathon runner, a long-distance cyclist, or a long-course triathlon, you are likely aware that there are many different approaches to training to improve your cardiovascular endurance for your sport.

But, what is cardiorespiratory endurance, and why is it so important? What about the best cardiorespiratory endurance exercises for athletes?

In this article, we will discuss what cardiorespiratory endurance entails, the benefits of having good cardiorespiratory endurance, and the best strategies and tips for how to improve your endurance through effective cardiorespiratory endurance exercises.

We will cover the following: 

  • What Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance?
  • Why Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance Important?
  • How Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance Measured?
  • How to Improve Cardiorespiratory Endurance

Let’s jump in!

A person running.

What Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance?

Cardiorespiratory endurance is one of the five health-related components of physical fitness, alongside muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition.

Like these other aspects of fitness, many people have a general awareness of what cardiorespiratory endurance is but may not be able to actually define or explain the term when they are tasked to do so.

So, what is cardiorespiratory endurance?

Cardiorespiratory endurance refers to the ability of your heart, lungs, and vasculature to support exercise for an extended period of time.

If you have good cardiorespiratory endurance, you will be able to sustain high-intensity physical activity without stopping or fatiguing for an extended period of time.

For this reason, some people like to think of cardiorespiratory endurance as your stamina for exercise in terms of the cardiovascular and breathing aspects of the activity, which is distinct from muscular endurance.

This is an important distinction because it is possible to have high cardiorespiratory endurance but poor muscular endurance, particularly if you are doing a different type of aerobic exercise than you are accustomed to.

A triathlete coming out of the ocean after a swim.

For example, a marathon runner who consistently trains several times per week with long runs and structured running workouts will have excellent cardiorespiratory endurance and good muscular endurance for running.

However, if the same runner decides to hop on a bike and go on a hilly bike ride with friends, he or she may have no trouble breathing or delivering oxygen to the muscles with a consistently high heart rate.

However, hos or her legs may be burning on long or steep uphill climbs because of the unaccustomed muscular workload on the quads.

Overall, having high cardiorespiratory endurance usually translates across different forms of aerobic exercise because cardiorespiratory exercises condition the heart and lungs to take in and deliver enough oxygen for the working muscles during high-intensity physical activity.

This allows you to continue to sustain the exercise activity without needing to stop and rest, without feeling completely winded and breathless or like you are hitting your max heart rate at a relatively slow pace or easy intensity.

For long-distance or long-duration events and workouts, such as a 10k+ running race, a long bike ride, a triathlon, a long-distance swim, or even just a long cardio workout at the gym on the elliptical machine, your level of cardiorespiratory endurance will directly affect your performance in the event or workout.

A person doing a pull up.

Why Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance Important?

Sports like running, cycling, swimming, and triathlon require good cardiorespiratory endurance for better performance.

Even if you are not a competitive athlete, there are numerous benefits of having good cardiorespiratory endurance or improving it.

From a general health standpoint, cardiorespiratory endurance is correlated with better cardiovascular health, cognitive performance, and a decreased risk of heart attack, hypertension, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a high level of cardiorespiratory endurance also decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and premature all-cause mortality.

If you are trying to lose weight, having high cardiorespiratory endurance will enable you to exercise for a longer period of time without stopping, which will help you burn more calories for more effective weight loss.

A person running on a sunny day.

How Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance Measured?

There are various tests that measure cardiorespiratory endurance. 

These tests can be helpful for establishing benchmarks and monitoring the effectiveness of your training and improvements in aerobic endurance.

Additionally, from a clinical standpoint, measuring cardiorespiratory endurance can provide insight into your cardiovascular and respiratory health and disease risk. 

Here are some of the common tests for assessment:

VO2 Max Test

One of the classic cardiorespiratory endurance tests is a VO2 max test, also known as the maximum oxygen uptake test or aerobic capacity test.

Your VO2 max is a measure of how much oxygen your body is able to take in and use during high-intensity exercise.

A VO2 max test.

A higher VO2 max corresponds to better aerobic capacity, which means that you are able to exercise at a higher workload or faster speed before crossing over the anaerobic threshold.

There are different VO2 max test protocols. 

True VO2 max tests usually involve performing some form of incremental exercise, such as on a treadmill or stationary bike, while your inspired and exhaled respiratory gasses are analyzed along with other biometrics, such as your heart rate.

The amount of oxygen you breathe in is measured.

The composition of the gasses you exhale can be used to calculate what is known as the respiratory exchange ratio (RER).

This value provides insight into the relative proportion of the type of fuel that your body is burning (fat, carbohydrates, etc.).

Additionally, by analyzing the amount of oxygen you are taking in and the amount of carbon dioxide you are expelling, your oxygen consumption can be determined.

A person running uphill.

VO2 max is measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed per minute per kilogram of your body weight (ml/min/kg).

Note that a true VO2 max test involves using a metabolic cart to analyze the composition of your inspired and exhaled respiratory gasses.

However, this requires expensive and elaborate equipment as well as a trained professional, so it usually needs to take place in an exercise physiology lab or clinical testing facility.

For this reason, there have been a number of VO2 max protocols established that will estimate your VO2 max using just heart rate because there is a strong positive correlation between the percentage of maximum heart rate at a given submaximal workload and the percentage of VO2 max at that same submaximal workload.

Examples of VO2 max estimation protocols that can be used to calculate VO2 max include the Bruce treadmill test, the Rockport 1-mile walk test, the Astrand treadmill test, and the YMCA step test.

Even some of the most advanced, premium fitness watches, such as Garmin GPS running watches, now have algorithms that will estimate your VO2 max based on your exercise heart rate and previous running performances at various running speeds.

Although there is inherently a higher error in protocols that calculate VO2 max based on estimation, these types of VO2 max tests are much more accessible, cost-effective, and repeatable on a consistent basis than going to an exercise physiology lab for a recreational athlete.

A person swimming.

Field Tests

In addition to the VO2 max test, various field tests can be used.

These include distance/timed runs of various lengths or shuttle runs, which involve gradually increasing the pace that you are running back and forth between markers at a set distance without stopping.

Examples include the beep test or the PACER test for aerobic endurance.

An example of a timed distance test for cardiorespiratory endurance is a 1.5-mile run. 

Depending on the administering agency, such as a branch of the armed services, police academy, or other first responders occupation, there may be an expected time limit for the 1.5-mile run test.

You can learn more about how to improve your 1.5-mile run time here.

A person cycling.

How to Improve Cardiorespiratory Endurance

Here are some exercises that can improve cardiorespiratory endurance: running, cycling, triathlon, rowing, jump roping, incline walking, hiking, elliptical, cross-country skiing, swimming, deep water running, stair climbing, Nordic walking, snowshoeing, rollerblading, brisk walking, kayaking, and calisthenics. 

There are different approaches to endurance training for running, cycling, triathlon, and other endurance-based sports.

For example, some athletes rely on heart rate training, while others use power zones or rely on training philosophies such as the 80/20 method for distance running.

The overarching tip for how to improve cardiorespiratory endurance is to pick a type of exercise and gradually increase the duration of your workouts.

Adding intervals (HIIT training) and structured workouts can also help increase cardiorespiratory endurance on top of steady-state workouts.

Interested in learning more about how to improve your endurance? Check out our guide to how to run longer without stopping here.

A person running on the road.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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