Cardiovascular training is an intentional exercise that improves the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. Training the cardiovascular system can be done in an aerobic (with the presence of oxygen) or anaerobic manner (without the presence of oxygen).
This article has been written for people who are new to cardiovascular training and who would like to understand more about the best methods and practices available to succeed, while avoiding the most common mistakes people first make when training the cardiovascular system.
Over the past decade, maybe even longer, advertising and marketing companies around the world have been jumping on the HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) cardio bandwagon, proclaiming all you need for a good cardio workout is just 5 minutes.
The sad reality in fitness, and the fitness industry in general is that two things sell and sell very well:
- Sex, and
- Short, sharp, intense workouts.
I’m afraid you won’t be getting either in this article.
This article is for people who have a genuine interest and desire to reach their true athletic potential while appreciating that good health comes first. In this posting, you will learn more about the cardiovascular system and how to fully express yourself athletically and for good health.
Cardiovascular training is far more complex than throwing together a quick 5-minute workout designed to make you hot, sweaty, and sore the next day. In truth, there is no shortcut in cardio training, and there is no quick fix.
I won’t lie. It’s hard. It’s very hard. But the benefits for the body are endless and worth every moment you spend developing this energy system.Developing the cardiovascular system takes time and patience.Click To Tweet
It tries your patience, and you don’t see instant results. This can be extremely hard for people to understand and apply because we live in a “Netflix” binge-watching society. We expect instant results and instant gratification, but the cardiovascular system doesn’t work like that. It takes time.
This is why people try to take shortcuts with short, sharp, high-intensity workouts. The cardiovascular system simply doesn’t work like that in the long run.
Developing the cardiovascular system takes time and patience. It’s about understanding the relationship of the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and knowing where you currently sit on the cardio training spectrum.
It’s about understanding your own limitations and knowing what’s right for you at any given time.
In today’s article, I uncover the myths and the practical application of cardiovascular training for beginners so that you can avoid the same mistakes I once made. I want you to have the knowledge so that you can be on the fast track to long-term cardiovascular success.
What Is Cardio Training?
Cardiovascular fitness is a good measure of the heart’s ability to pump oxygen-rich blood to the muscles. We define cardiovascular exercise as, exercising at a constant level of easy intensity for a specified duration, a minimum of 30 minutes, and potentially lasting hours in duration. It is performed at an intensity at which the cardiovascular system has the capability to replenish oxygen to working muscles.
Cardiovascular training improves the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body.
There are two facets of cardiovascular fitness:
- Aerobic (with the presence of oxygen)
- Anaerobic (without the presence of oxygen)
Aerobic training, when done correctly, is sustainable and repeatable in nature. Typical activities include walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, jumping rope, stair climbing, and rowing.
Anaerobic training, in a cardiovascular sense, when done correctly, is unsustainable and survival-based in nature. Typical activities could be short all out bursts in rowing, sprinting, and swimming that last no more than four minutes.
Aerobic training uses the aerobic energy system as its primary source of fuel, and anaerobic training will recruit the alactic and lactic energy systems. (For more information about the energy systems, please click here).Aerobic training, when done correctly, is sustainable and repeatable in nature.Click To Tweet
Why Is Cardio Training So Important?
The term cardio comes from the Greek word kardia, which means ‘heart.’ When you’re doing cardio, it means you are exercising to improve the health of your heart.
The heart is, without a doubt, the most important muscle in the body. A healthy heart plays a vital role in human health. With regular and consistent cardio training for health, you can expect the following:
- Lower rate of all-cause mortality
- Lower rate of cardiovascular disease
- Lower incidence of type 2 diabetes
- Lower rate of total body fat
- Lower rate of colon cancer
- Lower rate of breast cancer
- Lower rate of osteoporosis
But cardio doesn’t just play an important role in health. It plays a pivotal role in athletic performance. With consistent and well-thought-out cardiovascular training plans for performance, you can expect the following:
- Increased cardiac output
- Increased oxygen uptake
- Increased blood flow to active muscles
- Decreased sub-maximal respiratory rate
- Increased blood volume
- Improved thermoregulation
- Increased mitochondrial size and density
- Increased oxidative enzyme concentrations
- Increased capillarization in muscle bed
If you want to reduce your risk of lifestyle-related diseases, make everyday tasks much easier with improved stamina and endurance, and reach your maximum physical potential, cardiovascular training is one of the most important aspects in your training.The term cardio comes from the Greek word kardia, which means ‘heart.’ Click To Tweet
What Constitutes Cardio Training?
It is a common misconception that anything that raises the heart is cardio. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The heart adapts differently to weight training activities than it does to endurance-based activities such as running, cycling, and even walking.
During strength training, blood flow in the working muscles is restricted until the working muscles relax. This forces the heart to work anaerobically (without the presence of oxygen) followed by a rush of blood that enters the working muscles once they do relax.
This forces the heart to work harder to pump more oxygen-filled blood to the working muscles, which causes an increase in heart rate but DOES NOT get more oxygen into those working muscles.
The heart must contract more forcefully to do this, causing blood pressure to increase and ultimately concentric hypertrophy of the heart (the heart growing inwards) to occur.
This is not a desirable effect for a healthy heart. Strength training without a good cardiovascular plan can lead to a stiffer, less pliable heart. It makes the workload on the heart that much greater, blood pressure ultimately increases, and there is an increase in overall stress on the heart.
In stark contrast, endurance athletes (runners, cross country skiers, rowers, etc.) who perform for long intervals have a consistent and regular supply of oxygen flowing to the working muscles.
The heart grows both in thickness AND internal diameter.
It remains stretchy and more pliable, which ultimately leads to an increased capacity to hold and pump blood around the body. This is eccentric hypertrophy of the heart, and is a very good thing.
Strength training and cardio training are two very different animals. This is not saying strength training is bad, and you should stop immediately. Far from it. Remember, Strength does Matter!
I’m just highlighting the fact that the heart needs to be trained differently based on your fitness goals, and the type of exercises you choose significantly affect how your cardiovascular system improves.
That means, for cardio, you need to look at dynamic, low weight-bearing exercises such as running, rowing, skiing, and cycling as the go-to methods of cardiovascular development.
How Do You Improve the Cardiovascular System?
When training the cardiovascular system, we want to:
- Increase the amount of blood pumped by the heart in one contraction
- Increase the efficiency of the heart to deliver oxygen to the working muscles and remove carbon dioxide
- Improve the ability of aerobic and anaerobic energy turnover
In order to do this, we have to understand the three factors that determine cardiovascular endurance:
- VO2 Max
- Movement Economy
- Anaerobic Threshold
What Is VO2 Max?
VO2 Max is defined as the maximum volume of oxygen you are capable of taking up and utilizing during intense exercise. It is measured in milliliters of oxygen used in a minute divided by the body weight in kilograms (ml/kg/min). It provides an aerobic power-to-weight ratio. As you now know how the heart responds to different training methods, it is no surprise that those athletes with the highest reported VO2 Max in the world are cross-country skiers, runners, and cyclists.
In untrained men and women, their VO2 Max typically shows values in the range of 25-40 ml/kg/min.
In elite athletes, these values will be between 80-95 ml/kg/min.
This is a considerable difference.
The more oxygen you can supply to the working muscles with each contraction of the heart, the harder, faster, and longer you can perform.
Think of this in terms of a car’s fuel economy. How much energy does it cost you to move your body a certain distance.
There are two elements to movement economy:
- Technical proficiency: how well you perform the movement
- Metabolic economy: the fuel source you use (fat or glucose)
With technical proficiency, you simply have to look at how a sub 2:30 marathon runner runs in comparison to someone who completes the race in over 5 hours. They simply glide through the marathon, while the latter will struggle. They use less energy to cover the same distance with better technique. This means they can go faster for longer before tiring.
Metabolic economy is different. For sporting endeavors lasting more than sixty minutes, fuel stores become the major limiter.
There are two metabolic pathways that create fuel for the body: aerobic metabolism and anaerobic glycolysis.
The aerobic metabolism is the most efficient because it primarily uses fat as the major fuel source, which is a virtually unlimited supply of energy. This takes place below the aerobic threshold (the point at which the levels of lactate in the body start to increase above homeostasis).
Once you start to go above the aerobic threshold, you start to use a mixture of fat and glucose (sugar) as your primary fuel source. Glucose is not in plentiful supply, so once you go above the anaerobic threshold, it primarily becomes glucose, which can quickly lead to exhaustion.
When training the cardiovascular system, we have to think about the efficiency of the fuel source we are using, just as much as how we improve the overall movement technique.
The Anaerobic Threshold
This is the point where lactate removal from the body cannot keep pace with the speed at which it is created. The anaerobic threshold is the maximum intensity at which lactate levels will remain elevated but stable for up to an hour.
Once above this threshold, every athlete knows it is when you begin to slow down dramatically or even stop.
Out of the three qualities, the anaerobic threshold is the easiest to train. However, as you will soon learn, to truly maximize your anaerobic threshold you first need to:
- Have a great aerobic threshold
- Be strong enough
The Strength Matters system of athletic development is underpinned by the concept of:
“If you don’t maximally develop your aerobic energy system first, and have sufficient levels of strength, you will never truly maximize you anaerobic threshold.”
How Often and How Long Should My Cardio Training Sessions Be?
This is one of the most common questions we get asked. It is also one of the hardest to answer because everybody’s life situation is unique, as are their goals, willingness to train, and capability.
So before we talk about how long and how often you should be training the cardiovascular system, we need to establish some ground rules:
- A cardiovascular training session can be either aerobic or anaerobic in nature. It depends on the ability of the individual and what they are training for.
- An aerobic training session will be a minimum of 30 minutes of steady state continuous activity which is easy and repeatable in nature, such as walking, running, cycling, rowing, or cross country skiing.
- An anaerobic training session will consist of a number of intervals and could last anywhere from 10–60 minutes depending on the athlete. This type of workout is unsustainable in nature and is a form of survival-based training.
- If done correctly, training aerobically can be done anywhere from four to seven times a week. It is easy in nature, thus making it repeatable.
- Anaerobic training needs a minimum rest of 48 hours between training sessions.
- Aerobic training makes up 80–90% of the annual work load.
- Anaerobic makes up between 10 and 20% of the annual work load.
- Before you can partake in anaerobic training, you need to be strong enough and have a robust aerobic system.
- HIIT is the last thing we work on when trying to build a robust aerobic engine.
As you can see, there are many moving parts to create the perfect cardio training plan. It’s not quite as simple as saying, just do three hours a week and you’ll be fine.
Building the cardiovascular system takes time. You can’t rush it. The human body is still the human body, no matter how advanced we get with technology. It still takes 9 months to have a baby.
If you want to build a truly robust cardiovascular system, you need to look at it from an annual training perspective and understand that volume and consistency is key to development.
As a novice, you are looking at close to 400 hours of training time working on the cardiovascular system, not including strength or movement-based workouts.
That’s roughly 7–8 hours a week dedicated to cardiovascular work.
If you’re a true beginner, 100% of your weekly training time will be aerobic in nature. That means NO HIIT workouts. Remember, aerobic threshold development and strength training come first.
Now if you think that is a lot of work, I want you to compare the training volume of elite endurance athletes.
Let’s take Kilian Jornet, one of the greatest ultra-trail runners ever. His annual training volume is over 1,250 hours a year, or an average of 24 hours a week.
Consider elite marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge, who ran Nike’s Breaking2 marathon in 2 hours 25 seconds.
He averages 120 miles of running a week. The average club runner is lucky to average 40 miles.
Building a robust cardiovascular system takes dedication and commitment. You cannot build it with just a few ten-minute HIIT sessions a week.
Developing the cardiovascular system takes time and patience. It’s about understanding the relationship of the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and knowing where you currently are on the cardio training spectrum.
Volume, consistency, and patience is the key to cardiovascular success. Combined with the working knowledge of the importance of strength training and the development of the aerobic energy system prior to working the anaerobic energy system, strength training develops the heart differently to traditional cardiovascular modalities such as walking, running, and cycling.
Strength training actually restricts blood to the working muscles and encourages the concentric development of the heart, resulting in greater heart stress. Whereas, great cardiovascular training encourages a continuous supply of blood and develops the heart eccentrically.
If I was to finish with just one piece of advice, it is this:
HIIT is the poor man’s choice of cardiovascular development. It is no substitute for the long haul. Steady and slow over the long haul wins every time.
Remember our model of cardiovascular development:
If you don’t maximally develop your aerobic energy system first and have sufficient levels of strength, you will never truly maximize your anaerobic threshold”.
Every Journey Begins With a Single Step
In every great movie, the hero embarks on a path that promises adventure, challenges, and finally, achievement. Often, the hero finds a guide that takes the hero under their wing and pushes him or her to the limit. Just think, where would Luke be without Yoda? We are the stars of our own movies. And we all need that guide.
When it comes to fitness, a coach can be your guide to movie hero-type success, and your secret weapon. There are so many benefits to having a personal coach. I would go so far as to say that coaching is a prerequisite for achievement. Period.
Applying the Strength Matters System of Athletic Development to achieve a pain-free athletic lifestyle won’t be easy but it’s guaranteed to work if you follow it. And we’re here to guide you every step of the way.
Are you ready to take that first step?