Endurance: noun; the ability to keep doing something difficult, unpleasant or painful for a long period of time: “running a marathon is a test of human endurance.”
That’s the Cambridge University definition of endurance. Add that in front of ‘sports’ and you might get the idea of what endurance sport is.
Some more obvious examples are: long-distance running such as marathons, cross-country running, long-distance cycling, triathlons and endurance swimming.
But endurance sports are not limited to sports that require you to run, swim or cycle hundreds of kilometres, even if they are the ones that are most commonly associated with the name.
Fundamentally, endurance sports are sports which put extreme demands on your body over a sustained period of time in which your performance strongly depends on aerobic metabolism which is closely connected to carbohydrate metabolism.
That means that some sports that we perhaps wouldn’t immediately think of are also categorised as endurance sports such as squash, rugby, and gymnastics as they put sustained demands on your body and require that both your aerobic and carbohydrate metabolism are working efficiently. Furthermore, to be successful you need to be at a (very) good level of fitness with the right fuel inside you, as well as having a very healthy dose of mental willpower.
Endurance sports require good core and muscular strength too. It’s self-evident that if you are planning to do a triathlon, you will require a good deal of strength and resistance, as well as a good diet full of macronutrients. Muscular strength, stamina and endurance are dependent on training and nutrition, no ifs or buts.
These days, not content with just simple ‘endurance sports’, some people take on ‘ultra’ or ‘extreme’ endurance sports. They want to do three marathons-a-day rather than just one, or want to overcome the odds and do week-long endurance cycling events that cover thousands of miles.
Ultra-endurance sports have gathered a following far and wide in recent years, from those who feel the need and appeal of pushing themselves to their very limits, and beyond.
Here we take a look at the top endurance and ultra-endurance sports.
The Top Endurance Sports
The classic 26-mile endurance run whose roots lay in the legend of the Greek messenger Philippedes. The legend states that whilst fighting in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), he saw a Persian ship heading for the Greek capital of Athens, presumably with the scope of claiming a false victory and taking control of Greece. So, Philippedes ran, without weapons or clothes, the entire distance to the capital and claimed a Greek victory, before collapsing and dying.
These days, marathon running isn’t quite so dramatic but is still plenty challenging and not to be taken on lightly. Most amateur athletes aim to complete the 42 kilometres at around the 4-hour mark which would be averaging a pretty good pace of 5.41 minutes per kilometre or 9.09 minutes per mile.
Astoundingly, the world record is currently 2.01.39, held by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge. That translates to 4.35 minutes per mile - 5 minutes faster per mile than the average amateur athlete. Five minutes!
There are more than 800 marathon events annually.
An ultra-marathon is any running event with more distance than the standardised 26-miles. The distances range from 31 miles to 100 miles for the most part, but there are long-distance endurance running events which cover longer distances over days.
Ultra-marathons can be held on roads or trails, which means they can also be referred to as trail running, sky-running or mountain running although these are specific ultra-marathon race categories. Some ultra-marathons deliberately choose harsher landscapes such as deserts or jungles, just for good sport.
As the name implies, ultra-marathons are an extreme test of endurance; both physical and mental, and preparation and nutrition are of utmost importance.
Although cross-country running events have generally much shorter distances than a marathon, they are still well within the endurance sports category due to the variety of troublesome terrain. This can vary from muddy pathways and swamps to dusty desert tracks, with obstacles thrown in like river-crossings, steep and slippery uphill crawls, and dense woodland with their ankle-twisting roots.
Apart from the route, the weather is usually a key factor to overcome, with race organisers rubbing their hands together in glee if the forecast shows heavy rain, blizzards or intense heat/ freezing cold. It would take a hurricane for the event to be cancelled…and even then, maybe not.
In other words, cross-country running can be like a very long obstacle course out in the elements, sure to challenge you and your decision-making skills (both during the race and the day after).
Trail running has grown in popularity globally, but particularly in the US. The number of organised trail races grew 1,000% from 2008 to 2018, from 160 to more than 1,800 worldwide.
Distances vary dramatically with the shortest events being 5km to the longest of over 100km.
As the name suggests, trail running involves following trails or pathways in a natural and often beautiful setting. The event may be through forests, over mountains and hills, along coastlines, through deserts and canyons, to name but a few.
Trail runners often say that they choose this style of long-distance running as it has less compact-stress and shock on the joints than running on road. Additionally, due to its natural setting, miles away from any recognisable civilisation, some runners see it as a spiritual type of running which improves their overall wellbeing.
Race organisers are extremely serious about making sure that there is as little environmental impact on the trails as possible which also adds further incentives to environmentally-conscious runners.
Nevertheless, one shouldn’t be tricked into thinking it will be a picnic.
Endurance or ultra-cycling is harder to define than endurance running events due to the variability of terrain, race-distances and the period of time for the race, as well as the bikes themselves. However, we can cautiously say that any cycling race or event over 100km is widely referred to as an ultra-cycling event.
Below are some examples of different endurance cycling styles by terrain.
As you may have guessed, these endurance cycling events take place on roads. However, they can be separated into a variety of categories.
- DAY EVENTS - A one-day, fixed A to B long-distance race with checkpoints.
- TOUR - A multi-day event with fixed and variable long-distance day stages.
- TIME TRIAL - 12/24 hour time limit to cover as much distance as possible.
- SUPPORTED - A tour event where the cyclist has a supporting vehicle carrying their equipment (such as repair kits and tents) and supplies (food and water).
- UNSUPPORTED - The same as above but without the support vehicle and team. The cyclist needs to carry everything they need to complete the event and pick up supplies when and where they can.
- CENTURY RIDES - 100 mile day-races or rides. These can be increased to double-century events and there are some that go further to 300 and 400 miles.
Gravel biking has risen in popularity due to the improvements of bike technology and also that it doesn’t really require a team behind you. Moreover, the culture surrounding gravel biking is that of camaraderie where the emphasis is placed on getting through the course and enjoying each-others company more than racing.
Even still, the courses are full of obstacles to overcome and vary in length: 25miles through to 350miles and there are many competitive events.
In many ways, gravel biking is similar to cross-country running, except you’re on a bike.
Not many mountain bike events go over the 100-mile mark due to the slower pace involved in negotiating mountain tracks with their obvious and all-too-easy to see risks.
Time trial events are very popular with mountain bikers as well as unsupported tours.
Endurance, aka long-distance swimming is any event which has distances over the usual ones found at the Olympic games and under 10km. Over 10km and the name changes to marathon swimming.
However, generally speaking, the majority of long-distance swimming events are in open-water locations such as lakes, seas, oceans, rivers and even canals.
The Netherlands and other low-lying countries boast a rich tradition of endurance and marathon swimming events.
Canoeing & rowing
There are a few endurance and long-distance canoe and rowing races that have been around for over a hundred years and more. More recently white-water rafting and downhill slalom canoeing have had more light shone upon them.
Due to the need for much more specific equipment and training, they are not as widely popular as the sports mentioned above, and sometimes have an elite air surrounding them.
Even still, no list of endurance sports could not have them as the demands on the body are intense.
Here is a list of the best sports for strength:
- Martial Arts
- American football
- Speed skating
- Nordic Skiing
- Long-distance cycling & running
To sum up, there is a growing trend of people looking to push themselves out of their comfort zone and test their limits. As a result, there are now thousands of events around the world offering up all sorts of long-distance endurance challenges. You can read about the toughest endurance sports and events here.