One of the most frustrating things about this sport is the painful climb that most of us need to embark on when building our wushu endurance for a competition. The words “full set” become synonymous with “burning lungs” and “extreme pain”. Just the thought of it is probably making you cringe.
I recently got an email from Candice in South Africa who shared a similar frustration and I thought it might be a good idea to share some possible adjustments you can make to your training to help you build up that much-coveted full-form endurance.
At first I felt a little hypocritical writing an article about endurance considering how poor mine is right now. (If you have seen me training recently you would find my lack of stamina almost comical.) But in the past I’ve worked quite a bit on my endurance so this is coming from a place of experience, more than current ability. 🙂
But think about it. Imagine building your stamina up to the point where a full set is done without a moment’s hesitation. Or what if, after you finish your full set, you could hold a conversation with your coach without bending over, hands on knees, trying not to hyperventilate (like that photo at the top of this page). Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Of course, building up your stamina isn’t easy. But hopefully with the tweaks I’m going to share, you’ll at least have a game plan to get there sooner than later, and with a little bit less frustration and angst.
(For you young kids out there who don’t know what I’m talking about, you can come back to this article in 10 years when you hit your mid 20’s. Suddenly this will all make sense to you. 😉 )
What is Endurance, Anyway?
Beyond being a mysterious thing that lets you get through wushu sessions and full forms with less discomfort, what exactly is endurance anyway?
It is defined as an ability to remain active for a long period of time or to maintain physical (and mental) effort over time. And that makes sense, but it isn’t very specific.
What is happening on the inside of your body when you are building endurance and what contributes to increasing your endurance and stamina? If we can narrow that down we’ll have a better idea of how to build it more effectively.
According to the Journal of Applied Physiology, endurance is related to three areas of metabolism and muscle adaptation:
- “A slower utilization of muscle glycogen and blood glucose” = Plain English: Your muscles use your available energy more slowly.
- “A greater reliance on fat oxidation” = Plain English: Your body burns fuel more efficiently.
- “Less lactate production during exercise” = Plain English: Your body is good at quickly recycling lactate (an exercise byproduct) back into energy (ATP).
ATP: Your Biochemical Source of Energy
I just mentioned ATP, but what is that anyway? It stands for Adenosine Triphosphate and it is the biochemical way your body stores energy.
“Ooh! Energy! I need that!”, you might be saying. “Where can I get more ATP?”
Well, your body basically gets it from 3 main sources:
Source 1: The Phosphagen System
Actually, even before this system kicks in, your cells already have some ATP in them — enough for about 3 seconds of activity.
But fortunately your cells also have a way to get some other ATP from nearby sources. Creatine phosphate in your cells can be quickly turned into ATP. This is called the phosphagen system, but unfortunately you only have enough for about 8 to 10 seconds of exertion. Not quite enough for a wushu form.
This system is super useful for sprinters or weight lifters, because they need a whole lot of energy, really quickly, and only need it in short spurts.
Source 2: The Glycogen Lactic Acid System
Next, your body can turn glycogen (chains of glucose molecules) into glucose, which cells can convert into ATP, with a by-product of lactic acid. This non-oxygen dependent process is called the Glycogen Lactic Acid System, and it involves around 12 chemical reactions so it isn’t exactly speedy, but it can still act well enough to supply you with enough energy for about 90 seconds.
Given that time frame, this system is well suited for wushu athletes and our forms which run just around 90 seconds.
Source 3: The Aerobic Respiration System
Finally, ATP is created through a combination of oxygen, glucose and/or fatty acids.
Fortunately this chemical process, called the Aerobic Respiration System, can supply you with energy for as long as the supply of oxygen, blood sugar (glucose) and fat exists.
Unfortunately, it is a process that produces ATP very slowly. And, since it is an oxygen-dependent system, it also relies on cardiovascular health, specifically on your heart being effective in pumping enough blood through your system to get the oxygen where it needs to go.
It also relies on a good density of mitochondria in your cells, which are what converts the oxygen, carbohydrates and fat into ATP energy.
This is a great system for long distance runners or hikers. But it is also helpful for wushu folks since it helps you get through a 2 hour training session.
What does it all mean?
Does knowing all of that actually help us understand how we can increase our endurance? Well, yes and no.
No, because knowing how something works doesn’t mean you can automatically increase it’s performance.
For example, just because you know how to drive a car, doesn’t mean you’re qualified to compete in an Formula 1 Race. You might know what makes up endurance, but that doesn’t mean you can build it.
However, it does help because knowing that endurance is reflected in your body’s ability to be more efficient with the expenditure of energy and recovery from exercise, means that when we look at factors contributing to an increase in endurance and stamina, things will make a bit more sense.
Apparently G.I. Joe was right. Knowing is half the battle.
The Key to Building Endurance: Adaptation
So, we need to train our body to be better at utilizing energy/fuel and recycling the byproducts of exercise. Great, but how is that accomplished?
Your body is nothing if not great at adapting to stress. Its pretty much one of its primary functions.
In order to build your body’s capacity to perform under cardiovascular or anaerobic stress, you have to put it under the same type of stress so it can adapt.
This isn’t really a news flash, of course. Most of us know this already. You gotta train to increase your ability to train, right?
But what are some of the specific things you can do that will help you increase your endurance?
Factors That Contribute to Increased Endurance
Below I list out five factors which contribute to your body’s ability to adapt and build up your stamina. This list isn’t exhaustive (unlike wushu training), but it’s a good starting point to see how you can approach your training with an endurance-building mindset.
Here are some factors that I’ve found are useful in building endurance when I’m training. See how many you utilize in your own training regimen.
Factor 1: Combine strength training with high intensity training
A lot of people focus on activities that are intense, but forego exercises that build muscles. It isn’t enough to just think about improving your ability to run a wind sprint, but you have to also build the muscles that support the activity you’re working on.
When you can draw on more muscle power to perform the work, or your muscles are able to increase their load, then your endurance will receive positive benefit too.
For wushu that means focusing on building strength in your legs and core, since those are the parts of your body that are utilized the most heavily when you go through your forms.
Factor 2: High Intensity Interval Training
This sort of training (popularly called HIIT, pronounced like the word “hit”) is great at increasing your endurance.
It basically consists of exercising in repeating intervals of higher and lower intensity over your training session. This causes an adaptation response in your body, but it also does something else interesting.
Remember before when I talked about mitochondria being able to convert oxygen, fat and carbohydrates into ATP energy? Well, studies show that HIIT actually increases both the size and number of mitochondria in your cells.
Basically: HIIT allows your body to more efficienty create energy for your training. Bonus!
Of course, you already know that most wushu classes are set up as HIIT by their very nature.
You do a line of intense basics, and then walk to the back of the line, and then do another line. You keep doing intervals of basics or combinations over and over, so a wushu class has this sort of training built in to it — so long as you don’t get lazy and start taking longer breaks than are beneficial. They key is to keep at it.
Factor 3: Let Your Body Rest
It isn’t enough to train hard. You have to rest hard too. (Rest hard? Is that a thing?)
What I mean is, when you train hard on day 1, then take it easy on day 2 so your body is able to recover. We’re trying to create an adaptation response in your body, right? So, give your body the time it needs to adapt!
The older (and less in shape) you are, the longer this time requirement becomes. for you under 20’s that have been training a long time, you might only need a good night’s sleep to recover. If you’re in your 40’s, then you might need a couple days.
Just be sure you give your body what it needs.
Factor 4: Fuel for the Future
Speaking of giving your body what it needs, don’t forget that your energy is only as good as what you put into your body.
I don’t need to explain this one because you should already know what a healthy meal consists of for an athlete: lean protein, lots of veggies and healthy carbs like beans or brown rice.
My general rule of thumb is, the darker and more colorful the vegetable, the healthier it is for you. Take beets, for example. Did you know beet juice can directly impact your endurance? Backed by science!
Factor 5: Improve Your Mental Game
At first glance you might wonder why your mental state would have an impact on your endurance.
The truth is, there isn’t a totally direct relationship between the two. However, there is a correlation between your mental focus or energy when you are training, and the effectiveness of the training itself.
And naturally, if your training session is more effective, then you will have better results, including your ever-developing endurance.
Specifically, be positive, focused and always on the lookout for new distinctions in how you perform. Leave the problems of your life or work outside the wushu guan and come in with a total commitment to put all of your effort into your session.
Tweaking Your Wushu Training
I just threw a lot of information at you, so let’s take a look at how you can directly apply these to your wushu training in order to increase your endurance.
Below I’ve shared seven tweaks you can make to your training the next time you’re in the wushu guan.
Each one draws from one or more of the five factors I laid out above which should (hopefully) bring results as you prepare for your next competition.
Tweak #1: Add on Quick Cardio
The first three tweaks are about adding on additional work at the end of your sections, half sets or full sets.
For Tweak #1, add on some quick, intense cardio right after you finish your time on the carpet. This can take many forms, such as sprinting up and down the room a few times, doing 5 to 10 burpies, or a set of 20 jumping jacks.
By tacking on some additional cardio work right after you finish your form work you can condition your body to build up endurance beyond what you need just for the form itself.
One of my coach’s favorite things to do was have her students run two to four laps up and down the room as soon as their finished their form. Brutal, but it sure worked to build endurance!
Tweak #2: Add on Strength Training
As I mentioned in the first factor above, building strength in your muscles is a great way to help your endurance.
Right after you finish a form identify the part of your body that is feeling “the burn” the most, and do some reps to help strengthen it.
For example, if your calves are burning after you finish your Changquan form, then go to the side and pump out a set of 20 calf raises. Quads feeling it? Go squeeze out a few air squats in the corner to really make it stick.
By breaking down the muscle fibers you will ensure that they can come back stronger than before and keep you suffering from muscle fatigue during your form.
Tweak #3: Add on Sections
This one is similar to Tweak #1, in that you are adding on some cardio right after you finish. However, you’re not just doing any cardio — you’re doing parts of your form … again. I’ve done this one before and it is pretty brutal, but super effective.
After you finish your sections or sets, add on more of the same without any delay. I typically add on between 25% to 50% of the work just completed, so if I just did a half set, then I would add on another section. Or if I just did a full set, I will add on either another section or a half set.
Doing a 6 section form or even a double form can be pretty intense, but by going beyond the comfort of just 4 sections, your body acclimates to the larger workload and one full set no longer feels quite so daunting.
Think of it like stretching for the front splits. Often coaches will have you put your front leg up on a pad or higher surface so that you are stretching past the splits, which will help make the normal splits much easier. Here you are pushing your endurance past the full form, so that a full form, likewise, becomes much easier.
Tweak #4: Faster Intervals
This is something we did when I was training at SCWA (Southern California Wushu Academy). The coach would break us up into groups of four, and each person would take a turn doing their full set on the carpet.
Then, after the last person goes, the first person goes right away again. This means you basically have about 3 people’s forms worth of time (around 5 minutes) to recover from your full set before you have to do another one.
The first few sets are brutal and painful. But then — and this seems counterintuitive — by the fourth rotation the sets actually get easier to do.
I also heard a story about Javonne Holmes’ training routine to prepare for competition (told to me by Brandon Sugiyama, if memory serves). He would do a full set, and then walk once around the carpet, and then do another full set. Then walk again, and do another full set. He would go through this sequence ten times!
It is basically a really intense version of the 4 person set sequence, since you only have the amount of time it takes you to walk around the carpet (maybe a minute or two at the most?) but Javonne was known for being a beast so I’m not too surprised. 🙂
Its important to adapt your frequency based on where you are starting and where you are trying to go.
If you don’t quite have the endurance for 4 people, then do it with 5 people , or 6. Or do 4 and then tack on another minute of rest.
The idea is to give your body less time to recover than feels comfortable. That is a great way to build up your endurance.
Tweak #5: Better Conditioning
This is probably not a surprise, but at the end of your class you should already be doing some conditioning, both intense cardio as well as strength building. (And if you aren’t doing it as a class, then at least do it yourself.)
Some of my favorites are: wind sprints, burpies, frog leaps/long jumps, duck walks, jumping jacks, running stairs, and wall sits. Of course, doing basics as a conditioning exercise after class is always fun, but it can sometimes lead to sloppy technique so do them sparingly.
I tend to focus on the fast cardio first, then the strength building, and then top it off with some intense stretching. But you can mix and match as it suits your needs.
Tweak #6: Better Music
Believe it or not, music has been shown to improve endurance.
I realize that sounds incredible, so I’ll say it again: music improves endurance.
But I suppose it makes sense. If your mindset when you are training has a correlation to building your stamina, and music has a profound impact on your emotional state, then it follows that music can have an affect on the development of endurance.
Some people love working out with music. Some people don’t. But if you like it and your coach allows it, then pump those tunes and see if you find it beneficial or not.
Tweak #7: The Compound Effect
Albert Einstein called compounding interest the “eighth wonder of the world”, but what you might not realize is that this compound effect isn’t just related to financial matters.
By gradually increasing the amount of work you force your body to do as part of your endurance building program, you can, over time, compound your progress at a faster and faster clip.
Let’s take Tweak #4 as an example. If, after doing a full set, you wait 5 minutes (or 300 seconds) before you do another, then each training session just reduce that amount by 5%. The next class you’re down to 4 minutes and 45 seconds (285 seconds).
That might not seem like a lot, but if you are training 3 times a week, after only 12 weeks you would be down to just 2 minutes, 44 seconds (163 seconds!). And it only goes up from there.
Basically, there are three things you can adjust to tax your endurance:
- Reduce the amount of rest between sets
- Increase the amount of work during a set
- Increase the number of sets
If you adjust these slowly over time, you will build your endurance in a way that seems less intense but is still effective.
The key to this, however, is that you have time to compound the effect of the change. And that brings up another issue that is worth discussing …
What Is Your Wushu Competition Preparation Training Plan?
It isn’t enough to just start building your endurance if you don’t have a plan for what you are building it for.
Presumably you have a competition coming up in the future. Or maybe it’s a performance or demo. Either way, you should have an end-point that you’re aiming for with all this work.
Plan out your training with that end date in mind so you’re working backwards from when you need to be in your peak physical condition.
When I was training in China, the professional wushu athletes and their coaches would always have a very deliberate and specific training schedule that led right up to the day of their competition. Not just for endurance training, but for everything they were working on.
The pro’s do it. You should too.
Sample Phases for Different Time Frames
I tend to break down my plans in different phases, each phase focused on a gradual increase of endurance training.
But before I share these, I’m going to make a few basic assumptions:
- You are already fit enough to do at least 1 section at full speed, and could probably get through a full set if you had to, although it wouldn’t look pretty. 😉
- You don’t have to work on your choreography, aside from a few small adjustments here and there. (Choreography is for the off-season)
- You are training around 3 times a week
Keep in mind this is just one possible way to plan out your training. You should adjust things for your own situation.
So, with that out of the way, here are some phases for training
Phase 1: Building up to a full set
Each class do the following:
- Single sections: 2 to 4 of each
- Half sets: 1 to 2 of each
- Full sets: 1 to 2 of each
- Add on Tweak #1 and Tweak #2 from above, increasing intensity over time
Phase 2: Reinforcing the full set
Each class do the following:
- Half sets: 2 to 4 of each
- Full sets: 2 to 4 of each
- Add on Tweak #1 and Tweak #4
Phase 3: Going beyond full sets
Each class do the following:
- 6 section sets: 2 to 4 of each
- Add on Tweak #3 and #4
Phase 4: Pre-Competition Routine
Scale down during this phase to have your strongest training three days before you compete. Two days before, completely rest. Then have a light practice to break a light sweat and get in some good stretching the day before.
How Long Is Each Phase?
You are probably wondering how long you should be in each phase. Well, it depends on how long it is until your competition.
If you are down to the wire and have only 1 month until you compete, then each phase is just a week.
If you have a little breathing room and your competition is 3 months from now, then you can spend 3 weeks in each phase.
And if you have a whole half-year or six months until you compete, then I would probably focus the first 3 months on detail work of your form, improving your technique, and working out your choreography. Then spend the next 3 months on endurance training.
As your endurance improves over time and you maintain better shape you will need less and less time to ramp up your competition endurance. The pro’s in China sometimes just spend a month before they focus on endurance building.
But we’re not China pros, right? So, I would try to allocate at least 3 months to build your endurance. That is generally a good rule of thumb.
Also, in the phases above when I say “2 to 4” I would increase the amount from two on the first practice, three on the second practice and four on the third practice. Thats if a phase is just a week long. If you have a phase that is 3 weeks long, then I would increase the amount each week instead of each practice.
So, for example, the first phase might look like this:
- Practice/Week 1: 2 of each section, 1 half set, 1 full set + Tweak #1 & #2
- Practice/Week 2: 3 of each section, 2 half sets, 2 full sets + Tweak #1 & #2
- Practice/Week 3: 4 of each section, 2 half sets, 2 full sets + Tweak #1 & #2
But, as I said above, this is just one possible framework you could use. Find out what works best for you and then go with that.
And, of course, be sure to discuss things with your coach. They are the final say in all things related to your training.
How do you work on your wushu endurance?
So, there you have a look at my thoughts on increasing wushu endurance. But of course I’m just one guy and these are just my own opinions.
I’d love to know what you think. Do you have any other methods that work well for improving your wushu stamina? When you prepare for a competition what is your typical routine? Share it in the comments below so we can all learn from each other.