What is cardiovascular exercise? For exercise to be truly considered cardio, it should consist of steady-state activity which uses large muscle groups in a rhythmical manner and elevates your heart rate to somewhere between 60-90% of your maximum heart rate. Generally, activities such as jogging, running, power walking, cycling, swimming, group exercise classes, rowing, and using a skipping rope are the mainstay of aerobic activities but ultimately, any activity which significantly elevates the heart rate for an extended period of time can be considered aerobic training. To be honest, the modality used makes very little difference and you should choose the one you like most/dislike least!
220 – your age in years x 60%220 – your age in years x 90%
220 – age in years – resting heart rate x 60% + resting heart rate220 – age in years – resting heart rate x 90% + resting heart rate
e.g. HRZ for a 40 year old with a resting heart rate of 60 bpm220 – 40 = 180 – 60 = 120 x 60% = 72 + 60 = 132 bpm220 – 40 = 180 – 60 = 120 x 90% = 108 + 60 = 168 bpm
The Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE for short) was designed in the 1960s by Gunnar Borg – a Scandinavian exercise expert. He devised a scale with which to prescribe aerobic exercise to his athletes based on how they felt while training. The original RPE scale went from 6 (absolute rest/inactivity) to 20 (maximum exercise intensity). Why a scale of 6 – 20? Borg’s athletes had an average resting heart rate of 60 bpm and an average maximum heart rate of 200 bpm so he just knocked of a zero. It was found that, with some practice, it was possible to estimate how hard an athlete was working based on how they felt and this corresponded quite accurately to their corresponding heart rates. For many people, the classic 6 – 20 scale is a little awkward to use so it has been simplified and adapted to suit the general exerciser...
1. Inactive/at rest
Our final method for assessing exercise intensity is the talk test. Quite simply, while exercising in your aerobic HRZ you should be able to hold a conversation with regular pauses for breath every couple of sentences. If you can only manage single word responses then it’s likely you are working too hard and if you can manage whole paragraphs without pausing for breath then you’re probably not working hard enough. Combine RPE with the talk test and you should have no problem making sure you are working at the correct intensity to get the maximum benefits from your exercise.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 3 bouts of cardio exercise per week for a minimum of 20 minutes per session at between 60-90% of MHR to a) improve fitness and b) reduce mortality. Doing more is not necessary for health purposes but if performance enhancement (elevated fitness levels) is your goal then increased frequency and duration are likely to be necessary. Even rust-stained iron pumpers should make sure they get their 20 minutes 3 times a week for protect themselves from the likes of CHD and other diseases of the cardiorespiratory system.
Different approaches to aerobic training
So now you know how to monitor your exercise intensity and how long/how often to exercise, let’s look at the different ways you can choose to perform your aerobic activity...
LSD stands for Long Slow Distance training and it the method that most exercisers “fall into” when they embark on a cardio training programme. LSD training is exactly as it sounds – performed at a relatively slow pace for extended periods of time. LSD training builds base level aerobic fitness and conditions the body for extended workouts. LSD is performed at around 60% of MHR or around RPE level 5 and may be performed for as long as an hour or more. LSD training has the advantage of not being overly exhausting but on the down side requires a greater time commitment compared to some other methods we’ll discuss later.
LSD is a vital component of training for marathon running and long distance cycling but while a necessary part of endurance athletes training, many fitness enthusiasts use LSD for weight management in the hope that it will result in substantial amounts of fat loss.
While exercising at LSD pace fat provides the primary source of energy however, fat is so energy dense – 9 kcal per gram – that even extended workouts result in only relatively small amounts being oxidised (burnt). Regardless of pace, running a single mile uses around 100 kcal and 1 pound of excess body fat contains about 3,500 kcal so to lose a pound through slow paced aerobic exercise alone it would be necessary to run 35 miles! Chances are that’s more than most people run in 2 weeks! LSD training (and remember LSD can be applied to cycling, rowing, stepping as well as running) is great for developing base level aerobic fitness but when it comes to fat burning/weight management, there are other methods which will be more successful and efficient.
Fartlek means speed play in Swedish and that describes perfectly our next method of cardio training. The basic premise is to run (or cycle, row etc) at a variety of paces which are selected at random. The exerciser may walk, jog, run or sprint for a variety of distances and durations over the course of a workout until the exercise time period has elapsed or a predetermined distance has been covered. Physical landmarks such as lampposts, street signs or trees is a great way to organise a Fartlek workout e.g. after jogging for 5 minutes to warm up alternate between running hard for 3 lampposts and slow jogging for 1 or jog 1, run 1 sprint 1 and repeat.
Alternatively, work periods can be controlled by counting the number of strides or time elapsed or a combination of the above. The variations are endless and can be just as easily applied to cycling as they can to running or any other cardio exercise modality. The intensity of a Fartlek workout can be easily altered to suit an individual’s fitness levels by moderating the amount of high intensity exercise compared to lower intensity work – in other words the less fit the exerciser, the slower jogging and brisk walking will be performed.
FCR stands for Fast Continuous Running but, as with all of our cardio training methods, this approach lends itself well to just about any exercise modality. FCR is just like it sounds, working hard at a high constant pace. On our RPE scale, FCR would score around 7 or 8 or about 85-90% of MHR and is the highest sustainable level of aerobic activity – think red lining your car just below the point where the engine will blow! Some refer to this as tempo training and others anaerobic acid threshold training but regardless of what it’s called; FCR is a tough but generally shorter workout. The idea is simple – run (or cycle or row etc.) as fast as possible avoiding going so fast that you are forced to slow down because of fatigue. Lactic acid (one of the by products of anaerobic energy production) is literally bubbling under the surface and going any faster will result in having to slow down or stop. FCR is (or should be) a constant battle to maintain pace – even though the body is probably saying “slow down!”
Because of the large accumulation of lactic acid in the blood, FCR is a supreme fat burner because of EPOC. When lactic acid accumulates in the blood, the aerobic system has to work overtime to clear it out once exercise comes to an end. This “after burn” is responsible for an elevated metabolic rate (energy expenditure) at rest. The body is literally in overdrive working to clear unwanted lactic acid from the system and, as a result, burns a whole load of energy not just during the workout but also in the hours (yes HOURS) afterwards. The metabolism may be elevated for up to 48 hours after a hard lactic acid inducing workout which results in substantial energy costs and potential fat loss. Pretty good for a shorter workout!
Interval training can be defined as “periods of higher intensity work interspaced with periods of rest” and is a very useful and flexible training approach which, with modifications, is suitable for everyone from the beginner exerciser to an Olympic champ. By manipulating the training variables i.e. speed, distance covered, length of recovery etc it’s possible to design interval training programmes for just about anyone...
Aerobic intervals With aerobic intervals (up to 90% MHR) generally workouts are on a 1 to 1 work to rest ratio or possible 1 to .5 e.g. Run 3 minutes, resting 90 seconds to 3 minutes between efforts.
Workouts that exceed 95% of MHR will often require a longer rest period between efforts so 1 to 2 or 1 to 3 work to rest intervals are the norm e.g. sprint for 30 seconds, rest for 60 – 90 seconds.
If your chosen sporting activity is very start/stop like basket ball or rugby, the majority of your cardio training time would be best spent performing a variety of interval training whereas if your sport involves fast but continuous effort e.g. 5km running or similar, FCR should be the dominant feature of your workouts. If you are more involved in activities that take place over longer durations e.g. long distance running or cycling then LSD will be a necessary tool for you to utilise on a regular basis. If however you just want to add some variety to your current cardio routine I suggest the following template as a good staring place.
Day 2 LSD – recovery/easy pace
Day 3 Rest
Day 4 Intervals
Day 5 Rest
Day 6 Fartlek
Day 7 Rest
Avoid having too many intense workouts in a row without any rest/recovery time as you may feel burnt out
- Monday follows Sunday! Don’t begin AND end the week with hard or identical workouts.
- It always look easy on paper – don’t be afraid to change your plan if you underestimated its intensity
- Make haste slowly – only increase your workout durations by around 10% a week. Greater increases than this may lead to injuries and you can’t train if your are injured.
- Cross training is a great way of making sure you don’t over stress any one particular part of your body. By mixing your exercise modalities e.g. running, cycling, rowing, swimming etc, you can avoid overloading and possibly injuring your limbs
- Choose the exercise modalities you enjoy – running is not compulsory! You can swim, cycle, step, skip, row, walk or whatever suits you best. If it hurts it’s probably not doing you any good
- Remember that cardio is not the golden goose of exercise – it’s important to make sure that you also perform your strength training, flexibility work and core work otherwise you may find yourself very fit but as weak as a kitten with the posture of Quasimodo and as flexible as concrete!