Your Guide to Stamina vs. Endurance — and Why They’re Both Important

Find out when to focus on stamina vs. endurance for your workout goals — and the difference between them in the first place.

Stamina vs Endurance
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In the ever-confusing world of wellness and, in particular, movement, you may find yourself using lingo without actually understanding its meaning (see: abduction vs. adduction). And this is especially the case with the fitness terms "stamina" and "endurance." These two concepts tend to be used interchangeably by exercisers (and some trainers), yet they have completely different meanings and benefits for your health and performance.

Here, your in-depth guide to stamina vs. endurance, including what they each mean and why they're oh-so-important. Plus, learn how to build up your stamina and endurance, straight from fitness experts.

What Is Stamina?

In the dictionary, stamina is defined as the ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort. But when it comes to physical activity, "stamina is the amount of time a muscle can generate energy at or near maximal output," explains Jason Fitzgerald, a USATF-certified coach, the creator and head coach of Strength Running, and host of the Strength Running podcast. This comes into play not only during heavy strength training sessions but also during cardiovascular workouts (your heart is a muscle, after all).

The key component to stamina: You're working at or close to 100 percent effort. Just think of when you're building up to your one-rep max while lifting. "If you're bench pressing at 95 percent of your one-rep max, you're utilizing stamina to perform that work," says Fitzgerald. The same holds true if you're trying to sprint for as long as possible, he explains. "You're using stamina to run at maximum speed for 100 meters," he says. TL;DR: If you're able to perform five reps using a weight at 95 percent of your one-rep max, it's safe to say you have greater stamina than if you could do only three reps with that load.

The Importance of Stamina

Whether you're a recreational gym rat or a college athlete, your workout or sport might require a few bursts of max or near-max effort. A running back will utilize their stamina to run into the end zone and score a touchdown, for example, and a CrossFit athlete will need great stamina to push through 30 max-effort burpees in a row. Translation: If you want to perform well in these high-intensity moments — and still play the remainder of the game or finish your workout — you're going to need great stamina, says Fitzgerald.

Having sufficient stamina can also make any challenging exercise or activity you're performing feel much less taxing, says Yusuf Jeffers, a USATF-certified run coach, corrective exercise specialist, and coach with Mile High Run ClubTone House, and ASICS. "That's because stamina is working at or approaching max efforts, therefore everything else feels easier because there's less muscle recruitment and energy expenditure."

What's more, activities that call on and build your stamina are typically forms of anaerobic exercise — movement in which your body uses creatine phosphate or glycogen, not oxygen, for energy. In turn, "[stamina] helps improve oxygen utilization, power, and strength — all of which are valuable physical skills for any athlete," says Fitzgerald.

What Is Endurance?

While similar to stamina, endurance is slightly different for one main reason: Endurance doesn't require maximum effort. "Endurance refers to the ability to perform an activity for an extended amount of time, regardless of the power output," explains Jeffers. Just like stamina, endurance can apply to both your muscular and cardiovascular systems, and you can objectively measure these types of endurance with fitness tests (think: VO₂ max, push-up, and pull-up tests), he adds.

IRL, you'll utilize your endurance if, say, you're running for 10 miles at your easy pace, explains Fitzgerald. In that case, you'll have greater endurance than someone who can run at the same speed for, say, seven miles. That said, "endurance is relative to the activity," adds Jeffers. Even if you're a marathoner, for example, you'll still need to train and build up your endurance if you want to compete in an ultra since your body isn't accustomed to that distance.

The Importance of Endurance

Endurance is what helps prevent fatigue (stamina can too, but only to an extent). Therefore, it's especially important for athletes such as runners, namely distance runners. "Runners with good endurance are able to run further and longer when fatigue would normally preclude them from continuing," explains Jeffers.

But endurance shouldn't only concern those who pound the pavement or treadmill belt regularly; it's beneficial for anyone looking to do an activity, such as hiking, cycling, or playing a low-intensity sport (think: pickleball), for a prolonged period, explains Fitzgerald. "Despite intensity level, endurance allows muscles to perform for an extended period of time," he says.

Similarly, muscular endurance can be particularly valuable when your fitness instructor encourages you to hold a plank for a minute straight or you need to carry heavy bags of groceries for five blocks. "Anyone who participates in an activity that requires long periods of effort will receive a benefit from increased muscular endurance," says Jeffers.

How to Increase Stamina

Some athletes in particular may want to focus on building up their stamina. "An experienced or intermediate runner looking to improve in very specific aspects of their event, like kicking to finish or making a move to separate from the pack, would benefit from improving their stamina," says Jeffers. The same goes for folks who aren't able to bang out as many heavy back squats or bench presses as they'd like.

So, how do you start increasing stamina? "Efforts that approach maximum exertion and muscle failure are usually good ways to help create an environment where your body adapts to the increased demand," explains Jeffers. In other words, practicing pushing your body to perform with every ounce of effort can help you develop your stamina.

When you're ready to get started, try incorporating the following types of training into your weekly rotation, two to three times a week, according to the experts. If you're a beginner, check with a fitness coach or professional first, as these workouts can be more intense, requiring more muscle recruitment, and maintaining proper form is extremely important for injury prevention.

  • Sprint intervals at or near maximum speed: Running at speeds that force maximum exertion and muscle failure
  • Heavy weightlifting: Training at higher percentages of your one-rep max and increasing your reps as you get stronger
  • AMRAP (as many reps as possible) or Tabata workouts: Bodyweight or weighted workouts performed intensely but for short periods of time

How to Increase Endurance

Whether you're a marathoner looking to try running an ultra, a running newbie wanting to prep for a 5K, or a triathlon hopeful, you can benefit from boosting your endurance. While you can use the same methodologies you'd use to increase stamina, the protocol for increasing your endurance is generally different, as high-intensity efforts don't need to be a part of the programming, explains Fitzgerald. In this case, you'll want to focus on sustaining low-intensity work for longer periods.

To work on your endurance, Jeffers and Fitzgerald recommend adding the following types of workouts into your weekly programming, increasing time, distance, or volume as the weeks progress. These types of training are generally safe for beginners, as you'll be building from where you are currently rather than starting with high-intensity efforts.

  • Low-intensity steady-state cardio: Try running, cycling, swimming, or cycling at gentle paces for progressively longer periods of time
  • High-volume strength training: Using lighter weights than your usual strength routine requires, increase the number of reps or add in drop sets.
  • Long-distance cardio: Add more distance to your training over time, running a little farther or biking more miles at your usual pace

The Bottom Line On Stamina vs. Endurance

When it comes to stamina vs. endurance, the main difference is the role of your workout's intensity level. To call on your stamina, you'll need to be working at max exertion or muscle failure for as long as possible. Endurance, however, is more about how long your muscles can perform a certain activity, regardless of its intensity.

It's important to note, however, that improvements in endurance don't necessarily equate to improvements in stamina, explains Jeffers. "Many endurance athletes increase volumes and distances without increases in pace and speed," he says. "Stamina improvements, on the other hand, can help endurance to a degree by helping improve efficiency and effectiveness of energy expenditure."

Regardless, building up both stamina and endurance can help you meet your fitness goals and make everyday activities — chasing after your pup in the park, carrying your Target haul up your apartment building's stairs, moving your couch across the living room — much less winding.

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