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Cardio Workouts

Cardio workouts tend to be rather boring really. Well they are if you do them the way you have been led to believe is correct protocol. What you have been doing for cardio training up until now? No doubt it is some kind of continuous training modality where you train at a given percentage of your maximum or you train within a heart rate range or maybe a “conversation pace”. Perhaps you’ve been fed the whole “fat burning zone” thing. Alternatively you may already be doing some kind of interval training protocol.

This is not an article to say what you’re doing is wrong. The aim here is to give you a better understanding of how the cardiovascular system works and how to best train for various purposes.

In the article

- What is cardiovascular fitness?
- Cardiovascular fitness and what it means.
- Types of cardiovascular fitness and some basic physiology.
- Training protocols.
- Determining your training needs.
- The importance of specificity.
- Cardio workouts, cardio programmes and the application of cardiovascular fitness.

What is Cardiovascular Fitness?

Cardiovascular fitness is an umbrella term in a way in that it covers many different aspects of fitness. The simplest explanation is that the cardiovascular system is responsible for transporting blood throughout the body to muscles and every living cell. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients and puts them to use where they are needed. Blood circulation is essentially life itself, without it circulating you will die within minutes or even seconds if it stops altogether. The other organs and systems in the body mean absolutely nothing without the cardiovascular system. And for all you muscle heads, the cardiovascular system is responsible for transporting nutrients to muscles too, so without it functioning at an optimal level you are physically unable to gain muscle mass.

Cardiovascular fitness is simply the optimal function of this system and conditioning of its components. The heart, blood vessels and blood itself are what make up the cardiovascular system (yes, blood is an organ too).

Conditioning of this system occurs through applying a stimulus. Over time the CV system responds to this stimulus by adapting and becoming more efficient during periods of the same type of exertion. In addition to adapting to exertion the cardiovascular system becomes better at doing its job at rest too. That’s cardiovascular fitness. As you will soon learn, there are various types of cardiovascular fitness.

Cardiovascular Fitness and What it Means

As mentioned, cardiovascular fitness is the increased efficiency and functionality of this system and all its components. Cardiovascular fitness is a very broad term and has two components of variation.

1. Scale or Level: This refers to the classification of fitness. Fitness is a relative term, so in order to classify someone as having cardiovascular fitness it is simply a matter of what you are comparing them to. My own method of classification is to compare it to a baseline, untrained state for that individual. Where no comparison exists for that person due to lifelong conditioning it is compared to their age and the fitness of their unconditioned peers.

2. Type: Type refers to which modality your cardiovascular system is conditioned. For example a marathon runner has a highly conditioned aerobic energy system, which means that the cardiovascular system is conditioned for a steady level of moderate exertion over a long period of time. At the other end you have perhaps a 400m runner or a track cyclist whose event lasts under a minute but long enough for the body to go into serious oxygen debt, which engage the anaerobic lactate energy system and is what causes that intense burn in muscles during near-maximal exertion and the extremely increased heart rate.

Cardiovascular fitness of this nature supports exertion of near-max effort for a comparatively long time, generally exceeding 15 seconds but less than three minutes. These are two extremes, obviously cardiovascular fitness applies to everything in between as it pertains to activities requiring increased levels of blood to be supplied to working muscles.

Types of Cardiovascular Fitness and Basic Physiology

We’ve just touched on types of cardiovascular fitness under the previous heading, now lets look at each a little more in-depth with some basic physiology. We’ll look at three types of cardiovascular fitness and the acute and chronic effects of each type of activity on the body in fairly basic terms. Remember, learning and understanding is power. With a greater understanding of the cardiovascular system and the way it adapts to stimuli you are better equipped to make informed choices about your training.

Near maximum anaerobic fitness

This refers to training and exertion at maximum heart rate for periods up to two or three minutes. This requires rapid metabolism of energy for a comparatively long period of time when compared to other types of absolute maximum effort. After about 10 seconds the body begins to go into oxygen debt because the amount of energy demanded by the working muscles exceeds the rate at which it can be supplied and metabolized. This puts a time limit on this system.

By training this way the body becomes more efficient at buffering lactic acid and using it as a fuel source. Read: fuel source…..that’s right, lactic acid is not a waste product, it is fuel. It correlates to fatigue, which leads people to believe that it is what causes it, but a relationship does not automatically infer a cause and effect. The body gradually gets better at supplying fuel to working muscles, that includes utilizing the aerobic energy system to better deal with the anaerobic condition of oxygen debt. Essentially this form of cardiovascular fitness means being able to rapidly metabolise energy for close to maximum effort for a relatively extended period. Possessing this type of fitness carries over into other areas such as increasing the anaerobic threshold for better endurance performance.

Sub maximal anaerobic/aerobic endurance

This type of activity is the crossover or hybrid of both maximal anaerobic fitness and long duration aerobic endurance. This includes efforts extending anywhere from about 90 seconds up to 15 minutes and possibly longer. There is no technical term for this sort of physical capacity as it is generally explained with the two separate systems.

 Think of an athlete like a 1500m runner. The event they compete in extends to several minutes, far too long for purely anaerobic metabolism, however it is short enough that the athlete does not need to rely purely on the aerobic energy system.

Sub-maximal efforts require an increased anaerobic threshold, which means the point at which you switch from mostly aerobic metabolism to using mostly anaerobic metabolism. This is not a definite line, like flicking a switch, it’s a gradual, sliding scale where at one end you have purely aerobic effort and at the other is purely anaerobic, near-maximal effort. This type of activity falls in the middle where effort is supplied equally or nearly equally by both energy systems. Effort is too intense to be sustained indefinitely but is low enough to be prolonged for periods of time not possible by purely anaerobic activity.

Long duration aerobic endurance

This sort of cardiovascular fitness is what most people associate with the word “fitness”. In reality it is just yet another of the ten components of fitness just like strength, agility or balance.

Aerobic endurance is characterized by a few defining features…

1. Energy Metabolism: Technically this is the only defining feature, however we will cover other factors to provide a greater understanding. Energy metabolism refers to the energy pathway, essentially how the energy is supplied to the working muscles. During purely aerobic activity oxygen is consumed and used at a steady rate to metabolise fat into glucose within the muscles’ energy powerhouse, the mitochondria. It’s like the economy setting for your body. You are most in a state of aerobic metabolism while you are totally relaxed or during sleep. The higher the energy output the closer you come to your anaerobic threshold, which is the point at which you switch from aerobically dominated energy metabolism to anaerobically dominated energy metabolism.

2. Duration: This is pretty simple really. Aerobic activity is that which can be sustained long term. As soon as you switch to predominantly anaerobic metabolism you reach a point at which you cannot sustain that activity at that same level of output. In other words, anaerobic metabolism has a time limit, aerobic does not.

3. Continuity/Consistency of Output: Generally speaking aerobic activity is fairly continuous and does not greatly vary in pace or intensity when we are thinking in terms of sport and fitness. Think of a marathon runner or ultra-endurance race. This can be confusing at times because many top endurance athletes display bouts of extremely high intensity anaerobic activity. It is worth noting that during a race it is most efficient and best practice to adopt a steady pace with minimal fluctuation throughout. Training is another thing entirely though, you don’t what to be too efficient during training efforts because your body adapts to a certain level and will never exceed it.

Training Protocols

There are many ways to train for various purposes in order to achieve cardiovascular fitness in some form. Cardio workouts are everywhere. No doubt you came across millions of search results that led you to this page. There are cardio workouts in every fitness magazine and just about everywhere else. So what do you follow? What should you follow? What is best practice and what is going to get you the best results? That’s a broad question and one that is best answered through understanding various cardio training protocols. At the end of this article I will provide you with some actual workouts and a sample programme or two.

Long slow distance or steady-state cardio

This form of cardio training is characterized by a single modality, such as running, cycling, swimming, rowing etc. The training is usually measured by time or distance or a combination of the two. Intensity is typically consistent from the start of the session to the finish and the duration is most often long.

This form of training is most effective for gradually increasing the capacity of the aerobic energy system and covering a large volume of training. For best results you should flirt with the top end of your aerobic system very close to your anaerobic threshold. This allows you to maintain a faster pace without crossing over into time-limited anaerobic metabolism. The end result being faster for longer.

Anaerobic threshold training

This form of training goes hand in hand with steady state cardio training. The aim here is much the same, however primarily you are aiming to raise the anaerobic threshold so that you are still using aerobic metabolism at a faster pace without crossing over to anaerobic during a long distance effort. For endurance events this is quite possibly the most important training modality for improved performance. It is also quite beneficial for fat loss because the higher your anaerobic threshold the greater your capacity to utilise a greater amount of energy for a sustained period of time.

Anaerobic threshold training is achieved by adding extended periods of increased intensity to your distance training. So for instance if you reach your anaerobic threshold typically running at 10kph then you may run at that pace to start the session then add periods of perhaps 12kph for upwards of five minutes at a time and after each bout at that higher intensity drop back to 10kph, just below your anaerobic threshold. Of course, that’s just one way to increase anaerobic threshold, however it is a very effective way of increasing endurance performance.

Anaerobic capacity training

Anaerobic capacity training, put simply, is high intensity training that is designed to increase your body’s capacity to buffer lactic acid and allows you to perform at a higher intensity for longer. To best gain an understanding of anaerobic capacity click here.

Anaerobic capacity training is characterized by very high intensity intervals lasting anywhere from 20 seconds to three minutes. Generally anaerobic capacity training takes a fair bit of will power in order to reach and maintain an effective intensity. To get an idea of anaerobic capacity in action think of a 400-800m runner or a 50-200m swimmer. Anything below this duration falls into the anaerobic power category, anything longer tends to run into aerobic endurance more than anaerobic.

Putting it all together

The preceding three protocols are trained for and used either individually or in conjunction with each other when determining cardio workouts. In most instances each of these modes supports each other, as you will see when I provide cardio workouts and programme examples. An endurance athlete performs best with a higher anaerobic threshold and an 800m runner needs a strong aerobic base to build their anaerobic capacity on top of for optimal performance.

For non-athletic goals like weight loss you have a choice. For those with unlimited time to exercise that like a challenge, something that requires mental toughness, then aerobic endurance is a useful thing to focus on. Having said that, if focusing on endurance it is beneficial to also work on anaerobic threshold and anaerobic capacity. For the time-poor individual I highly recommend high intensity interval training, which falls into the anaerobic capacity category. The other advantage of this mode of training is that it allows you to preserve or even gain muscle mass and is compatible with a broader range of activities.

Determining Your Training Needs

Ok, so you have fitness goals and you’ve been led to believe that you need some level of cardiovascular fitness, and that’s probably right. You’ve seen and done many different cardio workouts and cardio programmes. Maybe you have even trained for a marathon or triathlon. So it is likely if you are reading this page that you have at least a base level of knowledge of the appropriate training for your specific goal. For you I hope to refine that understanding. On the other side you may have no idea and have been led down all sorts of paths, that’s cool too because now you’re learning something that is not a gimmick, you are learning what does what and which is best for you.

The Importance of Specificity

If you run then you will become better at running. Further to that, if you run very long distances then you will improve at running very long distances. That’s a very simplistic way of looking at it, but it is the basis of specificity.

My own personal definition of specificity is as follows…

Specificity is any training conducted for the purpose of producing a planned result. That training is specific and relevant to the desired objective.

Ok, so that’s not an official definition, however it sums it up quite well. To expand on that, specificity is training that best support the development of that which is being trained for. A swimmer, for instance, is best conditioned through swimming. But having said that, specificity applies in varying degrees, being primary, secondary and tertiary training.

Performance of the actual task is obviously most specific, especially when training at a similar intensity and for a similar duration. This is primary training. However specificity also applies to secondary and tertiary activities that are beneficial or even essential to achieving the desired objective.

Lets look at some examples of secondary and tertiary training. We’ll use a 1500 metre runner as an example. Primary training is obviously any training performed close to race pace and for a similar duration. Secondary would involve volume training, such as long runs to build aerobic base fitness. Secondary might also include 100-400m sprint training at maximum capacity in order to develop anaerobic capacity and stride efficiency. Tertiary training is anything outside of the running itself such as strength training to increase biomechanical efficiency. To provide contrast, a completely non-specific mode of training would include swimming or rowing or throwing a medicine ball.

But what about goals not pertaining to performance or sports? So for instance you want to lose weight. Well the same applies, however you can be a bit more flexible in your approach. For goals such as weight loss I recommend sticking to a particular theme, that is, find a component of fitness and develop it. Sounds obvious, however many people are misguided here. Take crossfit for example, it’s great in theory and does produce some great results, however it does not follow a consistent enough pattern for a specific adaptation to take place. I spoke to a friend of mine doing the programme and she had not done a distance run in several weeks then it was thrown into the mix randomly then not again for several more weeks. See a problem here? You’re not building any kind of ability with that so it is useless bothering to do it at all. If you are going to do pull-ups then you need to do them regularly in order to produce an adaptation. Randomness can work, but even randomness needs some structure and consistency.

Ok, so lets say you choose to use endurance training to achieve a weight loss goal. Although I recommend engaging in strength training for ALL programmes, I also recommend leaning towards a chosen domain of fitness so that specific adaptations are allowed the time and consistency to develop. By developing training adaptations you are developing the ability to utilise energy, which in turn helps to shed fat and increase your overall health and longevity. Completely random training will get you nowhere. Do you think those top athletes in the crossfit games do the random workouts on their main site? Of course not, they choose themes to focus on. Some are good at timed circuits, some are super strong, but the best athletes are not good at everything.

Cardio Workouts Put Into Practice

Hopefully by now you have gained a better understanding of cardiovascular fitness and how to make your cardio workouts work for you. So now it’s time for the fun part. We’re going to cover a few cardio workouts and some basic structures for cardio programmes. Obviously the workouts featured here are not a complete programme but they can slot into an overall fitness programme, provided they are consistent and relevant.

WORKOUT ONE: Suitable for fat loss and maximum anaerobic capacity. It will also benefit the endurance athlete if done on a semi-regular basis.

Perform Tabata X 4. A Tabata is intervals of exactly 20 seconds followed by rests between intervals lasting precisely 10 seconds. This is repeated eight times, which constitutes one Tabata. After each set of eight intervals you will rest for one minute then begin the next Tabata. This is to be done four times. This can be performed with running, rowing, cycling, swimming or any other modality of cardio exercises. You may even choose something like kettlebell swings.

WORKOUT TWO: Suitable for fat loss and athletes that require a high anaerobic threshold.

This one is simple, just perform 12 intervals at maximum intensity of one minute each and rest 40 seconds between each. Again, the modality choice is up to you. If you’re a runner then use running, if you’re a swimmer then use swimming….you get the idea.

WORKOUT THREE: Suitable for an ultra-endurance athlete from marathon duration upwards. Also suitable for fat loss if you are someone with an unlimited training schedule or you plan to take on an endurance challenge like the Marathon Des Sables or the Tough Mudder challenge.

We will use running as the example, however if you’re a cyclist then just substitute the word run with whatever it is that you do. Choose a course that allows for a round trip of 2.5-3 hours. Run 20 minutes at a slow pace that is easy to maintain indefinitely. Increase that pace to just under your normal race pace and continue for the next 60 minutes. For the last 60-90 minutes alternate every 10 minutes between an easy to moderate pace and a pace that is just touching on the anaerobic threshold. Ensure the final 10 minutes is at an easy, cool-down pace.

Keep in mind that something of this volume needs to either be done infrequently or with plenty of recovery between sessions or left for more experienced athletes that have built up to this over time. Super high levels of volume like this are not the preferred domain of Unleashed Training.

Cardio Programme Outlines

The preceding three cardio workouts are simply stand-alone workouts that could fit into various programmes in a multitude of ways. So lets now cover programming with a very basic structure and outline of three different programme types.

- Fat loss

- Middle distance, cardio-based events (eg, 800-1500m running)

- Endurance athletes from 5km run to marathon or the equivalent in terms of time for other modilities such as cycling

Fat Loss

Fat loss takes a multi-dimensional approach and is dependent on many more factors than just fitness. In terms of programming it is recommended that the average person focus on high intensity intervals and alternate with strength training in order to build and maintain lean body mass and make best use of your training time.

DAY ONE: Strength training. Full body session using only compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, bench press, pull-ups etc. Finish with 3X1 min intervals with 40 seconds rest between each. This can be done on a rower, running, cycling etc.

DAY TWO: Tabata X 3.

DAY THREE: IWT. A combination of high-rep strength training alternating with high intensity cardio intervals straight after each strength exercise with limited rest time.

DAY FOUR: Rest day.

Then repeat from day one.

Middle Distance/Cardio-Based Events

Obviously here we are providing a very simplified example. This is meant to simply provide a basic understanding of cardio training within a relevant context and hopefully stimulate further research or even make you ask questions of experts and determine whether or not you are being provided with the best guidance.

DAY ONE: Strength and short intervals.

This should involve a basic strength session using compound movements followed by a short session of short, high intensity intervals.

DAY TWO:  Long intervals.

This will consist of intervals between 90 seconds and three minutes and will be at the maximum intensity possible for the given duration.

DAY THREE: Volume session.

This involves a continuous session at a moderate intensity lasting about 40-60 minutes.

DAY FOUR: Rest day.

Start again at day one after your rest day.

Endurance Athletes From 5km - Marathon or the Equivalent in Other Modes Such as Cycling

This is a tough one in one way, in that it takes up a lot of a person’s time and involves multiple modalities of fitness from anaerobic threshold to anaerobic capacity. It must be carefully balanced with the right amount of low intensity volume training and higher intensity anaerobic theshold training. Again, what we are providing here is something very simplified and exists to give you a base level of knowledge of cardiovascular fitness.

DAY ONE: Low volume, high intensity intervals of 30-60 seconds.

DAY TWO: Moderate volume session. This is a continuous session covering 60% of the actual race distance or duration for long events like marathon. For anything under 60 minutes you are recommended to complete the actual race distance or duration. For team sports players just keep it between 45-60 minutes. Keep intensity at about 85% of your normal race pace and at a moderate level for those in team sports.

DAY THREE: Long intervals of 90 seconds up to three minutes each at the maximum intensity possible for that duration.

DAY FOUR: Anaerobic threshold session.

This involves a moderate duration alternating between several minutes at just below race pace and several minutes above race pace (above anaerobic threshold). Keep going for 45-60 minutes.

DAY FIVE: Volume session. Here you will perform volume equal to race duration. Here’s a helpful hint for soccer players or other team sport athletes. Instead of a road run in a straight line, try doing multi-directional semi-sprints to closely simulate a game.

Rest for two days after this five-day cycle then start again at day one.


Cardio workouts are wide and varied and need to be somewhat consistent. Cardio training is required in many sports from simple races to team sports. Cardiovascular fitness is helpful for a range of other things from weight loss to longevity and general health. It is recommended that you understand how the energy systems work on a basic level and know how to produce a particular result through the correct method of cardiovascular training. Challenge yourself and push to new levels, but ensure recovery is adequate and overtraining is avoided.

Now get out there and enjoy your cardio workouts, but don’t forget to also include strength training, even if you're a marathon runner.

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