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There’s a widely-circulated meme that reads, “My only complaint about doing cardio is that it involves doing cardio.” Laugh if you want, but many devoted athletes and common gym rats find this statement highly relatable.

The positive effects of cardiovascular training have been researched and proven for decades. Every person needs to train their heart to stay healthy throughout the aging process. Cardiovascular disease borne of poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyle is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Our distaste for working the “old ticker” is pretty messed up.

I myself have fallen victim to this trap. Just lifting weights faster seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean, why not? (don’t get me wrong there is an absolute time and place for this type of training) My heart rate is jumping through the roof with these kettlebell swings and I just puked after the snatch test. So, yes, I was certainly elevating my heart rate, but was I “training” it to get any better, healthier, more efficient? 

This distinction, between just elevating heart rate and truly training the organ we call the heart, is where we can draw the line between simple exercise and true pursuit of high-level wellness and health. Real cardio training needs to target the heart and blood vessels and work them systematically. To target the heart, we must be fully aware of the way the cardiovascular system functions, transferring oxygen to the tissues via the vascular system to provide fresh nutrients for cellular activity. 

So, how can you maximize your cardio workouts? You want to stress your heart and see where it is in terms of function. Once you have this data, you can employ better methods to “train” it. A healthy heart has virtually unlimited ability to expand and fill with blood so that it can pump it efficiently into the rest of the body. If we don’t train the heart in a way that expands this ability, it becomes “stiff” and it will not be able to provide the same amount of blood to the tissues with each beat. 

So, I need a flexible, efficient, well-trained heart. So what? Beyond not getting winded just tackling a couple of flights of stairs, pumping more blood to your tissues means more available oxygen, nutrition and energy for things like your brain, kidneys, digestive tract and everything else. Never a bad thing. Just as flexibility is good for your muscles and joints, a well-worked, flexible, efficient heart is a key to maximum health and wellness. 

With Covid still keeping some folks away from congregate gym settings, it is good to know that it is possible, with dedication and discipline, to “train” your heart right in your home. Any of your favorite high-energy workouts on a variety of metered devices can get you to this goal. What is important for cardio is using systematic training ranges and routines. My personal favorite training schemes and ranges include:

  1. Work at 85-110% of your average watt maximum for 3-5 minute intervals. Rest two times longer than you work and repeat anywhere from 3-8 times, depending on your fitness level and goals;
  2. Work at 150-170% of your average watt maximum for 10-50 seconds. Rest 3-5 times longer than you work and repeat no fewer than 8 times and probably no more than 20; or
  3. Work at 55-85% of your average watt maximum for 12 minutes or more. Rest as long as you work and repeat one more time if you want. If not, give it one good session and come back for more the next week.

Balance these choices during your week in whatever order or combinations that fit with your current fitness routine. If you are doing nothing, here’s a place to start: Do #3 every week and pick another couple of days to do #1 or #2. Keep this going for four weeks and retest. (Read about testing below.)

With that said, I often look to three basic forms of exercise: rowing, biking, and running. The beauty of rowing and biking is that there are several commercial options that will track all of the data points you need to ensure that you are training your heart appropriately when doing your cardio. 

What are the magical points of reference in these scenarios? In the case of the rower, it is watts/time/distance–pretty easy and straightforward. With a bike, we need to find one that can tell us similar data; watts are an important component. Air Assault is a common brand that will serve you well that is conveniently priced at under $1000. Of course, you can join a gym that has these machines or buy your own, whatever keeps you pedaling or rowing. Running has great cardio training benefits, but it can be harder to figure watts into the mix. The treadmill is not ideal, but you can make it work. In a perfect world, you are able to access a track or train on the road. 

Here’s a basic assessment of your “fitness” that you can determine on each different workout to give you a solid starting point so that you don’t waste any of your precious training time:

For the rower, the test is a 2k meter session. Do this test 3-4 times in the first week to ten days of your program and record data on average watts and time. For the bike (assault), the test is a 5k meter ride. Do this test 3-4 times in the first week to ten days of your program and record data on average watts, time, and average RPMs. Running requires a distance measurement, but you should run as far as you can in 12 minutes (commonly known as the Cooper test). Ideally, this run would be on a track with GPS so that you can monitor your pace, heart rate and exact distance traveled. Training your heart while running can be simplified with a heart rate monitor. If you have a heart rate monitor, you can modify the three exercise approaches mentioned above by setting your target heart rate for the Maximal Aerobic Function (MAF). For most healthy people, this is a simple calculation of 180 – age. You can use this number as your target for 12+ minute distance work, or you can use it as a target recovery zone between sprints. Like the bike and the rower, redo the Cooper test after four weeks and see how you are doing.              

In short find what works for you.  Empowering people to make healthy decisions is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Learning how to fight off cardiovascular disease or simply building a larger gas tank to support elite performance is a top priority for all of us.  Using sport science is not easy and we can all use a coach from time to time.  Contact us for support on your health journey.                                                                                     

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