A Common Sense Guide to Cardio

You’re doing it wrong.

This cardio thing. You seem to be confused. Let’s clear some things up.

Cardio confusion

When it comes to cardio, the questions are never ending…

When, how much, how fast, how long, how far?

Weights then cardio, or cardio then weights?

I love to run!

I hate to run!

The list goes on and on. As a result, one of two things tend to happen.

1.) You’re confused and overwhelmed. You do nothing.

2.) You really want to get in shape. You do some cardio. A little bit of everything. Enough that it feels like you’re trying. Not enough to see results.

When nothing changes, you get frustrated. You do more cardio. You cut calories and carbs. Or you quit. Either way, your body isn’t going to respond the way you’d like. I call this scenario – right idea, wrong action.  It is frustrating as all hell. It’s enough to make you give up. Don’t give up. Let’s fix it. Right now.

What do you know?

Before we dive head-first into the cardio conundrum, let’s make sure we’re on the same page.

Cardio isn’t one thing, it’s a lot of things. It’s different things to different people. For instance, a bodybuilder might walk on a treadmill and call it cardio. An endurance athlete would snicker at this sight. Regardless of how fit you are, or how fit you intend to be, it helps to have a baseline understanding of what cardio actually means.

Cardio, short for cardiovascular. Your lungs and your heart.

From here, most people lace up their sneakers and set out to pound the pavement. The thought is, if you get your heart rate and break a sweat you’re doing cardio. Which isn’t wrong. There’s just a little more to it.

An intro to energy systems

Now, if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you know I try to keep things simple. I’m not trying to overload you with nonsensical fitness facts. My goal is to give you the information you need in an actionable and easy to digest format. I want you to understand it, yes. More importantly I want you to go implement it. With that in mind, here’s some need-to-know about energy systems. It’s not comprehensive, but it will make for a solid foundation.

Anaerobic vs. aerobic

Anaerobic means the “absence of oxygen” and aerobic means “with oxygen.”

Think of anaerobic exercises as short bursts of all out effort. Sprints, for example. You’re working so hard you can’t breath. You’re huffing and puffing. You might vomit.

In contrast, aerobic exercises are performed over a long period of time. You’re breathing heavy, but you could still carry on a conversation. You might be running, biking or swimming. It’s what most people consider to be “cardio.”

The best of the bunch

Now that you know which is which, the question becomes which is best?

1.) Strength training

Alright, this where things get a little tricky. Before I’d recommend either form of cardio, I would suggest you undertake a strength training routine. Even if that’s bodyweight, kettlebell and TRX training, I’d start there.

If you can make it to the gym or have access to free weights, that’s great too. Stick to compound barbell movements like squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press and bent rows.

2.) Anaerobic training

From there, I’d begin to implement anaerobic training in the form of interval sprints or plyometric type exercises. Aim for 2-3 days of strength training, plus one day of interval based training.

Get going – start with one, 10 minute session. Warm-up before performing 15-30 seconds of all out effort, followed by 60 second rest period.

You can use the same template and substitute any total body or plyometric exercise for running. Try burpees, box jumps, kettlebell swings, jump rope, or jump squats.

Over time, based on your fitness level and progress, you can begin to increase the length of the workout. 10 minutes, then 12, 15, 18, 20, etc. Cap your cardio workouts at three interval based workouts a week, no more than 30 minutes long.

Example training progression

Week 1-3. No cardio. Stick with strength training. Two to three workouts each week.

Weeks 4-6. One interval based cardio session each week. Perform 20 seconds effort followed by 20 seconds rest for 10 minutes in week four, 12 minutes in weeks five, 15 minutes in week six.

Choose from jump rope, jump squats, burpees or kettlebell swings.

Weeks 7-10. Two to three interval based cardio session each week. Training sessions will be 15-30 minutes. Plan 15-30 seconds all out effort, followed by 30-60 seconds rest.

Choose from sprints, hill sprints, rowing, kettlebell swings, box jumps, etc. Or some combination of exercises.

What about aerobic training?

Good question.

If you like running, run. If you have a burning desire to train for and complete a marathon, or half-marathon, or triathlon I say do it.

But, beware. There is a such thing as chronic cardio. Running and running, and then running some more. Junk miles add up. They break down your body. Throw your hormones all out of whack. Cortisol – a stress hormone – will sky rocket. You gain weight instead of losing it. Add fat, lose muscle.

This doesn’t happen to everyone. It’s not a scare tactic. I want you to find fitness and do what works for you. That said, I want you to do it safely and efficiently.

I’m speaking from experience when I say, beware. I took fitness too far. I ran too much, too often. I didn’t listen to my body. I literally ran myself into the ground. I ran so much, so often that I developed a stress fracture in my pelvis.

Yeah, I did some triathlons, marathons and a few ultras. But, at what cost? I looked fit on the outside, but I was actually unhealthy. I lost a year to rehab and recovery. Everything from my muscles to my eating habits and hormones had to be overhauled. At some point I stopped training and started obsessing.  

I regained control. I was able to start over and define fitness for myself. Now it works for me. I want it to work for you too. I mean it when I say I want everyone to be happy and healthy. Using the most effective and efficient methods is one way to do that. Less time training, better results, more time living.

So choose you cardio wisely. Make it work for you. And, spread the word to your friends struggling with cardio confusion

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