As with many components of fitness, “Cardio” is another vague term inciting confusion and debate in the gym or on your preferred social media platform. This umbrella term is short for cardiovascular training, which in itself is somewhat misleading. Exercise that stimulates the cardiovascular system also stimulates the respiratory system and the muscular system. Each of these interrelated systems have the potential to adapt depending on the stimulus that we subject ourselves to in a workout. So now that I’ve added to the confusion, let me dig myself out and leave you with some applicable tips, current program modifications, and education for your next cardio workout.
Defining cardiovascular exercise or what can be included is where the waters can get muddied. If the goal is a positive adaptation from the heart, lungs, blood, vascular system, and muscular system, we need a stressor or stimulus that induces change. Any movement that increases the activity of these systems long enough to get an adaptation can be considered cardio. Now here’s the big one to grasp - IF you do not have efficient systems due to sedentary lifestyle, disease, etc., your stimulus for change can be achieved with low intensity activity. IF you are “in shape”, you need a bigger stimulus for positive change. For example, walking around your neighborhood at a slow speed will not produce an adaptation if you can exercise at a significantly higher intensity and still hold a conversation. So what counts to check the cardio box?
Brisk walking or hill hiking
Jogging -> running
Stationary, road, gravel, or mountain biking
Rowing - outdoor or on a rowing ergometer
Elliptical, Arc Trainer, or similar
Weight Training in a superset or circuit format - preferably with short rest periods
… and more. Get creative. I’ve turned home projects into cardio sessions, shuttling paving stones or mulch bags from my truck to the back yard. Be prepared to get some weird looks from your neighbors though.
Benefits - Why do we NEED to do this?
Let’s just cut our feelings out of this and accept the fact that cardio is a NEED. For some of us, it is a WANT and for others it is a form of torture. We’ve heard it all…”It’s boring”, “I get too out of breath'', ”I don’t like to sweat”, “I lift instead bro”, “this body wasn’t meant to run…” I’ll address these excuses in another blog but for now, let’s take a look at why cardio is so important. The list of benefits from cardiovascular exercise is long. For the sake of simplicity, let’s highlight the big ones today.
Glucose (carbohydrate) tolerance - Specific intensities of cardio help to reduce risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes by improving glucose utilization and storage (muscle glycogen) while increasing insulin sensitivity. The more you exercise, the more glucose you can store in the muscle.
Fat as fuel - By increasing your cardiovascular efficiency and performance, you can train your body to utilize fat (fatty acids) as a primary fuel source for rest, low intensity and sometimes moderate intensity exercise.
Mitochondrial health - Cardiovascular exercise improves the number, size, and health of these cellular “powerhouses” where energy is produced. Improved mitochondrial health is linked to anti-aging, reduced risk of disease, neurological health, and performance!
Life is easier - Tired of being tired when you get to the top of the stairs? Unable to play with your kids anymore? Have to hire people to do your home related manual labor? You can fix it!
Longevity and quality of life - By stressing the body through exercise, the easier the rest of the hours in the day are on the affected systems. Extend and improve your lifespan by dedicating a few hours a week to your health.
Everyone wants the quick fix and simple answer to exercise related questions. “What’s the best_____?” “Is _____ healthy?” “Can I do _____ IF I do _____?” As trainers, we often find ourselves starting our answers to simple questions with “it depends”. Training experience, body types, goals, and many more factors play into the complexity of training methods. Let’s at least tackle commonly heard myths and bro-science so we can alleviate some confusion.
“I do cardio so I can eat what I want.” Fueling with poor food choices and low quality sources can wreak havoc on the body. GI dysfunction, systemic inflammation, micronutrient deficiencies, insulin resistance and hyperlipidemia, fatty liver, and obesity can all rear their ugly head with consistent, unhealthy eating. Cardio burns energy (calories) but it does not undo the other harmful effects of poor eating. Weight management is much more complex than calories in vs. out. Think of putting bad gasoline in a racecar. It may start and run but the use of this gas can damage the internal parts. Driving the car more often or pushing it harder doesn’t improve engine life and function, it only brings awareness of the problem to the surface.
“Running is better than ______.” Running is an efficient mode of cardio that produces a big cardiovascular response. Other modes like biking, swimming, and circuit training will not see sustained heart rates equal to running at the same level of perceived exertion. Many more factors need to be considered before we consider running as king. Running can increase risk of injury faster than some other modes if there are underlying biomechanical issues. If you have poor running technique or are substantially overweight, you may see musculoskeletal problems arise quicker than with non-weight bearing modes (biking, swimming, airdyne, rowing, etc.). If you are not an efficient runner, you may tire easily due to exertion and stop before a significant stimulus is applied for adaptation. In this case, pick a mode where you can achieve your goals by dialing back intensity and increasing duration.
So where do you start? With endless programs, modes, and intensities, it can be overwhelming choosing what works best for you. Before you dive into any direction, think about what’s important first. Are we looking for improvements in health? Are we using cardio as a weight loss strategy? Are we training for a specific performance goal (5k, bike ride, field sport, etc.)? This will help identify the direction you need to go. Here are some concepts to think about applying to your own plan.
Cross Training - Changing modes (exercise types) is valuable to avoid chronic overuse issues that come from repetition. If you run 5 days per week, you are more likely to experience some aches and pains from biomechanical issues than if you substitute 2 days for biking, elliptical, rowing or circuit training. Cross training can also help diversify muscular adaptation. The combination of rowing, running, and basketball all use the musculoskeletal system in a different way from speed of contractions to force generated to endurance adaptations needed.
Consistency Over Intensity - Paralysis from analysis can strike here. If you are hung up on what is optimal, you will never get there! Outside of any medical contraindications (cardiorespiratory or orthopedic), you have virtually unlimited options. Get the body moving consistently. Set some achievable goals based on consistency ( frequency per week) or volume (time in a 7 day block). Begin with low intensity, which we can simplify by using Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE Scale) or subjective feedback. Make sure you can carry a conversation for the duration of your workout. The aerobic system does not need a sufferfest workout to achieve positive adaptations. You can spend several months slowly building time in your week seeing changes along the way. There is a reason the best endurance athletes on the planet are in their late 20’s, 30’s or even 40’s. Endurance training and adaptation takes time. Once you have developed consistency and volume, the adaptations you have made will pay off as you now add intensity. See below.
80/20 Rule - The 80/20 rule is more of a guide or a principal with regards to your intensity if you are involved in a moderate to high volume program. The guideline states that 80% of your volume (time in the week) should be completed at low intensity and 20% completed at high intensity. There are multiple reasons to follow this guideline.
Reason #1 - If you are participating in frequent (3 or more days per week) and moderate to high volume (over 2-3 hrs per week) you can be at risk of overtraining or “under-recovering”, depending on how you look at it. High intensity training (think 10k - 10 mile race pace running and harder), especially in high volume takes a toll on the body. These efforts take prolonged recovery. If you layer your workout week with a high percentage of this intensity you will not be able to recover between sessions. This will give the body too much in the way of stimulus to change but not enough time to recover and adapt. If the bulk of your training is done in low(er) intensity, you can stack up days back to back with minimal recovery needed. This allows for increased volume and improved adaptation and results. Now on the contrary, if you only have 20 minutes, 3 x wk to train, you will benefit from higher intensity work since the overall volume is low. Calm down all you crossfitters…
Reason #2 - High intensity training has more benefits once the body has already adapted to lower intensity aerobic exercise demands. Recovery between intervals will be much improved and total time to fatigue will be prolonged. This means you will be able to increase the repetitions or duration of high intensity sessions and ultimately improve the response leading to even better results.
Now that we have some guidelines and we’ve debunked some myths, see some examples below of what wide ranging cardio programming can look like.
If you are having trouble getting started, hitting a plateau with your current regimen, or looking to target some specific goals, reach out to us for an individual specific cardio program based on your WANTS and NEEDS. Programs can be delivered virtually via a mobile app with metric syncing from your fitness watch and review from a peak trainer.
Thanks for tuning in! Now lace up your shoes and get after it!