A Few Thoughts on Cardio

Yesterday, as I was in New York City with some friends, I noticed something that surprised me.  Everywhere we went, I saw runners, bikers, and some sweaty looking people in general.  While it was very hot and humid, they were sweaty from just having done something that was physically intense.   When we got to Central Park, I even stopped, because I was particularly amazed by the number of cyclists and joggers that I saw; there was even a running club warming up for a trip.  Overall, I was stunned by the number of active people in New York.

It may be wrong to assume that people in New York City are under-active, because I’m not in the city very often.  Despite this, it’s hard to argue with the numbers.  There are 3.2 million overweight or obese New Yorkers, and the obesity rate is rising quicker than the national average.   Those are some pretty sad facts.  While there is obviously a thriving health, wellness, and fitness market in one of the biggest cities in the country, they hardly entertain a large part of the population.  Despite all of the active, sweaty people I saw, it’s safe to say that New Yorkers can do a lot more for their health.

I’m pretty passionate about the inefficiency of steady state aerobic training; the cost/benefit return is just too low, and many people rely too heavily on it as their primary means of exercise.  While there is certainly a population that benefits from traditional aerobic training, many people can increase the efficiency of their workouts.  While the ‘metabolic conditioning’ model of program design is fantastic and highly recommended by yours truly, it may be too difficult for the sedentary or under-fit to participate in.  Also, maybe some people don’t like the ‘my stomach is about to leave my body through my mouth’ feeling associated with some of the higher intensity conditioning work.  Never fear! There are a number of ways that you can modify your aerobic workouts to increase the benefits.    I’m going to avoid talking about strength training based work, because this is a cardio progression; however, after a certain intensity to becomes inportant to add movements and exercises that have strength component to them.  Here’s how I look at it:

Steady State Cardio is the low-man on the exercise totem pole.  Yes, it is certainly better than nothing.  Let me say that again.  If you’re not going to do anything else for exercise, do something that puts you in an aerobic steady state.  Aerobic exercise has a number of benefits, but it isn’t capable of standing alone.  However, performing aerobic work will be whole lot better for you than sitting on the couch all day eating wings and drinking beer.  If you’re sedentary, you should start here.

After steady state work, some low-grade intervals should be incorporated.  Try starting with longer duration intervals, with a smaller intensity gap.  For example, if you jog for 2 miles every morning on a track (8 laps), try running the 4th and 8th laps a little faster.  This example gives you a 1:4 work to rest ratio; this interval is a good introduction to interval training.  It will help acclimate your body to the increased demands, as well as prepare you for High Intensity Interval Training.

The ‘original’ High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, work/rest ratio is 2:1.  If we use an the Tabata Protocol as an example we see that it calls for 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest; a 2:1 ratio. While the 4 minute Tabata Protocol is a very difficult example, that work/rest ratio is truly HIIT.

Obviously, a jump from 1:4 to 2:1 is not a good idea; instead, you should progress the time ratio.  A progression might look like this:  4:1, 3:1, 2:1, 1:1, 2:1.  If this progression is followed, say 3 weeks at each level, you’ll healthily progress from steady state to HIIT.  That happens to last 15 weeks.  Obviously, it’s pretty difficult to progress past a 2:1 work/rest ratio.  If you can get to a 3:1 ratio, I hate to break it to you; you’re not doing it right.  It’s difficult enough following a 2:1 or even 1:1;  you must remember that the ‘work’ section must be at maximum effort.  Due to this high output, it’s very difficult to maintain ‘maximum’ effort for longer than 30 seconds.  If you’re lasting much longer, you need to increase your effort during the next work stage.

So far I’ve explained a method of progressing from sedentary to performing High Intensity Intervals.  It’s important to point out that complete substitution is not possible.  If your favorite method of doing ‘cardio’ is jogging, you can’t begin sprinting every day; your body will quickly become overtrained, and your performance will suffer.  Instead, try 1 or 2 Interval workouts per week, with no more than 3.  A frequency any higher would bring the intensity of your intervals into question, and nobody wants to be called out on that.  That’s like telling people you love Yoga, only to disclose that it’s Wii Yoga.  Not Cool.

Contrary to what far too many cardiologists and fashion magazines recommend, steady state aerobic training is not the only way to exercise your heart.  While it has numerous benefits, after a base level of fitness has been established, intensity to should be progressed in a healthy matter.  Despite my issues with the overall ‘value’ of aerobics, it has it’s place in a program that’s been designed to get the most bang-for-your-buck.  Incorporating low-intensity activities into ‘off-day’ workouts can provide an aerobic effect, which is beneficial to recovery from higher intensity activities.  Examples of these ‘off-day workouts’ would require a specific entry, so look forward to one of those after the weekend.  I’ll present examples of a HIIT workout, as well as of an ‘off day workout’.  Until then, think about how you can raise the intensity of your cardio workouts to achieve a greater training effect.

I like to think about it this way:  The faster you’re moving, the faster you’re adapting.  If it’s possible to achieve greater benefits in a shorter time frame, why not try it?!

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