How to Improve Running Endurance (By Not Running) – For Beginner Runners

I’ve talked to a lot of runners who have less than a year of experience in the sport. Their main goal is to get faster over 5k or 10k and break a performance plateau. All admirable goals!

How to Improve Running Performance

Typically, their training is in the 15-30 miles per week range which is a good starting point for a new runner, and they’re doing 1-2 speed workouts a week. The most common solution proposed by new runners to get faster is to run more (or harder) speed workouts.

This strategy will only partially work, and it is not a long-term solution to breaking through a performance plateau.

The biggest handicap new runners have is a small aerobic base – also called running endurance or stamina. Aggressively increasing mileage can be a sure path to injury for new runners (especially if they aren’t doing enough core work).

So how do you improve running endurance without increasing injury risk? Simple: alternative aerobic exercise. Because I’m going to focus on building a solid aerobic foundation in this post, I’m going to focus on alternative aerobic exercises to running, not lifting or strength workouts. You can read more about those here and here.

How I Improved Running Endurance and Reached New Levels of Fitness

Twice in my running career I’ve used supplemental forms of exercise to drastically improve my level of fitness. The first was before my senior year of college as I was preparing for my last cross country season. For two months, I spent over 3 hours every week cycling and pool running (in addition to running 80 miles per week).

I came back to campus and won the last 3k of our team time trial (we did 2x3k). My fitness had reached an entirely new level and I was running with much more talented runners. My coach figured that my cross-training was the equivalent of an extra 15 miles per week – so I was doing the same amount of work as somebody running almost 100 miles per week, without the added injury risk.

I narrowly missed being All-ECAC (East Coast Athletic Conference) by less than one second  and improved my 8k personal best by 59 seconds.

After I graduated college, I transitioned to three months of triathlon training to prepare for a few sprint triathlons. While my weekly mileage was cut by nearly half, I was swimming and cycling for 4-5 hours per week.

After I resumed running, I debuted at the 10k cross country distance and ran 33:41 (much faster than I thought I could run) and ran a personal best in the mile.

The power of triathlon training is incredible and can undoubtedly increase your fitness levels. Consider a premium training plan to bring you to that next level. This plan is written by Patrick McCrann, a Boston Qualifier and multiple Ironman Competitor.

The Benefits of Alternative Training

I saw huge gains in fitness with only a few targeted months of consistent cross training – and so can you. During these intense training cycles, I didn’t even feel fatigued or burned out. Mentally, I was excited for every day of training because by mixing in various forms of exercise you keep things fresh.

I wasn’t getting bored by only running every day either. The cycling, swimming, and pool running was a welcomed change to my normally structured routine of only running. Keeping your training fresh from a mental perspective will help you avoid staleness and losing motivation.

Physically, I got stronger than ever. I was doing more cardiovascular exercise than I had ever done with barely any extra injury risk. If you’re injury-prone, this is exactly how you improve your personal bests.

The added benefits of all this zero-impact exercise is the strengthening it will do for muscle groups that normally don’t get worked during running. Cycling and swimming in particular work very different muscles and increase overall athleticism.

Swimming is a second tier form of exercise for runners – it’s just not specific enough. For the most improvement in your running, stick to exercises that closely mimic the motion of running. The best are:

  1. Pool running – use an AquaJogger Belt to keep your form correct: high cadence, don’t overextend your legs, and keep a straight back. If you’re experienced, you can skip the belt for a harder workout.
  2. Cycling – road biking is preferable, but mountain biking will also help. Use clip-in shoes if you can and try to keep your cadence above 90 rotations per minute.
  3. Elliptical machine – effective, but not very fun. Keep your cadence high to mimic running.
  4. Swimming – Learn proper technique, don’t drown, and do faster workouts for an extra aerobic boost.

While most of these forms of exercise are fairly specific to running, at some point you’ll need to increase your running mileage to reach your true potential. To be a good runner, you have to run a lot. Alternative training can help bridge the gap, especially for injury-prone runners, but you can’t plant potatoes and harvest carrots (I love that line!).

If you don’t know how to break through your performance plateau and want some help, consider joining a program on how to become more consistent with fewer injuries. Details here.

For more advice on how to run faster (without all the injuries), sign up here or in the box below for a free email course on getting faster.

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  1. This is good advice – I know way to many people who are just getting into (or back into) running, and beating themselves up for that first 5k. They really start to add on the miles (or yards really), but all the while they are in agony or really just hating it. I’m sure it must be rough, because they are starting from the bottom and are probably forcing the aerobic training to quickly.

    Sadly, I assume they start to associate pain and displeasure with running because that is the only exercise they are doing. I think if they would spread out their aerobic training with other activities like you suggest, and maybe even doing some anaerobic work to change it up – they might be more likely to learn to enjoy running and not burn out or give up.

    • Hey Dave – totally, I see it all the time. And to your point of adding anaerobic work, that’s also right on point. Training both ends of the spectrum is necessary. Sprinting helps with overall running form, increases metabolism, boosts muscle strength, and helps prevent injuries. You need the complete package.

  2. Ok- Help, I’m a senior in college, running cross country and track. I am stuck in a rut. I can’t drop my 8k time below 26:20. But I know I have it in me physically to go at least a minute faster. (from practices and training routine). I hit the 3 mile mark and my legs won’t go… Any suggestions, I sure would appreciate it. AT

    • Hey Aaron,

      A few things… first, it’s probably too late in the season to try anything new or try to squeeze in more fitness before your conference and regional meet. At this point, I’d recommend enjoying your taper and hopefully you will race faster after you cut your volume. Second, you should defer to your coaches…there’s no magic bullet when it comes to racing fast. It comes from a lot of hard work. And one last thing, I think it’s realistic to look at 45-60 seconds of improvement over 8k from year to year in college. But shaving a minute off your 8k time this far into the season might be unrealistic. I don’t want you to get your hopes up. Cheers and good luck with the rest of the season. – Fitz.

  3. Fitz, i just started training for a marathon i’m running three days a week. What are you thoughts on using a rowing machine as alternative training?

  4. Hey Jason,

    How many days would you suggest running each week to build endurance for 10k? I’m in University and am not exactly a serious runner, so I’m planning to get the most out of the least time.

    • Well it depends on what you’re doing now – I’d try to increase the # of days you’re running by 1-2. In a perfect world, depending on your level of commitment, you’d run every day! But again, it really depends.

  5. I’ve stopped training for 3 months (x-country) due to knee injury (PFPS). Any idea on how to get my speed,stamina and endurance back as soon as possible? Recently i went on a run with my friends and i find myself struggling to keep up which was not a problem 3 months ago. Help please! thanks a lot!

  6. Hi everyone,

    I just started running. I played soccer for many years HS and leagues around my area. But I hated running! Unless I was chasing a ball, I didn’t see the point. So I began running but would get fatigued after 1/4 a mile, my legs started feeling like lead blocks. Plus, it felt weird not to run with cleats or on the grass. So what I did was I started building real slow. 1 lap run, 1 lap walk combo, every other day and every week bump up half a lap. However, where I saw the greatest benefits was in my in-between days I went to gym and did a spinning class or like a cardio kickbox. When I was on the machines at the gym, I made sure my heart rate was in the “cardio” zone for 20 of the 30 mins I was on them. Within two weeks I saw MASSIVE improvments! No longer were my legs hating life, knee pain, shin splints and peroneal muscle pain gone. Also doing yoga helped me improve my form. Since I had gained weight since HS made me for comfortable moving my new bigger body. Lastly, I just want to stress that I have discovered the importance of cool down, usually 5 min stationary bike, they really loosen up the legs after a run. Best of luck to all my fellow beginners

  7. thanks you really helped me im ten and i ran the octoberfest 5k

  8. i ran gradually at my schools track adding an extra half or full lap each day. your willto keep going is what makes enjoy it. I run for breast cancer and other disabilities. This motivation will keep you going if your physiclly fit like me even though im eleven.


  1. […] I talked about the importance of alternative training for beginners and how it can help prevent injury and build a larger endurance base. What I didn’t mention […]

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  3. […] you’re looking how to become a better runner, look no further. Jason has articles on how to improve your endurance and how to prevent over-training. You can also follow him on Twitter for small, insightful […]

  4. […] are a few preferred cross training regimes for runners. The first is pool running. This zero-impact exercise mimics the movements of running on […]