April 25, 2015
You may or may not be aware of the fact that there is a mini war against cardiovascular training within the health and fitness industry as of late. To be honest, I am not all that shocked. The industry as a whole likes to make black and white claims – a food is good or a food is bad. A style of exercise is the best, or a certain workout is the worst. And in the past few years, cardiovascular training, has come under fire. Claims such as ‘cardio burns all your muscle!’ or ‘cardio makes you starving’ are commonplace in some circles.
While I do support this type of black and white thinking for a handful of food items (kraft dinner, cheez whiz and diet soda) and a couple of exercise regimens (anything that is unsafe or makes outrageous, untrue claims) I largely believe that success is found in the gray areas where we individualize our approach over the long term. That is another way of saying, find what works for you in your life. You’ll know you’ve found what works when you can consistently eat well and exercise regularly, and you make it a regular practice of listening to your body and doing what it needs.
Today we are going right to the heart of the cardio debate. I have asked two of my favourite fit pros, they are certified, smart and strong women, what they do for cardio and why. I have jumped in to add my own story and stance too.
Michelle, myself and Shira at a Deadlifting Workshop in Venice Beach, California last month.
What I want you to take from today’s post is this:
There is no one size fits all approach to cardio training, but there are some important physiological distinctions to make so that you can make it work effectively in your life.
Not all cardio is created equal. HIIT or high intensity interval training is characterized by short bursts of all out effort followed with dynamic rest. A steady state cardio session is characterized by moving at the same intensity over the duration of your workout. A typical example of this would be jumping on the elliptical for 45 minutes.
The type of cardio you choose to do will affect your body composition, your hunger levels and your lifestyle.
Let’s jump in with my girl Shira Nelson of Mom Beyond Baby. Shira is a runner, and I know many of you are too! Here is her story and what she does for cardio these days.
Let’s talk running for a minute. I started running competitively around 2003 in college. I have run hundreds of races and gone through a complete shift as to the “why” behind my runs. I used to run miles and miles, injured and tired because I needed to lose the weight. I rebounded about 50 pounds after recovering from an eating disorder. Of course I did other things but running was always something I had to do.
Fast forward to where I am now and running is purely something I do because I want to. I love to run. I love the silence. I love the mental clarity and I love the sound of my feet hitting the pavement. I am a minimalist when it comes to running, no music & no equipment, just me and the run (and now my dog and a jogging stroller).
As a busy mom it is something I crave. I get a true 'high' from a run and it is something I can do anywhere I go with my children. I still race frequently but I have no schedule as far as my weekly runs. Here is why...
When I stopped making myself run for all of the other reasons (weight loss, because I was 'bad' and ate pizza, because I binged, because my pants were tight) I got the results I had been looking for. I did take some time away from running to spend more time walking (I know - boring to runners) to see what happened to my cortisol and other hormones. When I saw muscle definition, reduced stress and of course, less injuries I embraced this change.
I no longer have weekend mornings for long runs and time to run doubles. That is ok. 3 or even 6 miles is perfect for me, and for my body. No matter what you hear about what is 'best' or 'ideal' in terms of exercise for fat loss, keep in mind that exercise needs to be enjoyable. If your only time to workout is 5am, it better be something you like or that 5am wake up call will only last so long.
Next, I asked my Arizonian friend Michelle Rycroft of Ripped By Rycroft what her cardio routine looks like and why.
If and when I do cardio, it is always in the form of HIIT or high intensity interval training. My go to workout is 100m sprints or bleacher running.
For one, I hate cardio, don’t ever put me down for it. Two, I used to be a cardio bunny. The more the better until I learned that I can achieve the same benefit by either lifting weights faster (metabolic conditioning) or choosing HIIT (high intensity interval training) over traditional steady state cardio.
Our bodies tend to adapt to steady state cardio over time giving us less bang for our buck, so you end up needing to do more of it to get the same benefit. With HIIT you only need a couple sessions a week for 15-30 minutes to achieve the same benefit as a 60 minute steady state session. So less is more when it comes to cardio! You only need to do enough to achieve the results you’re looking for and no more. I always recommend starting with the least amount possible and building up from there if needed.
And finally, I weighed in…
My own journey with cardio training has included almost every workout under the sun. I started off playing soccer, volleyball, basketball, running track (the 400m) and figure skating as a child. All of these sports had elements of interval based cardio and some required more steady state training. As I moved on to teach step aerobics, cycling classes and complete a number of half marathons and one full marathon in Honolulu in 2007, I noticed my hunger levels go up. I also had to continue with my cardio training or else I would gain body fat relatively quickly.
Now, as a result of listening to my body and trying a different approach, I have moved away from the traditional approach to cardio training. I do less steady state aerobic movement. A typical week of cardio training for me includes a metabolic conditioning workout and one interval stair workout or hill sprint workout.
I experience significantly less hunger with this approach which aids in making great food choices. If one week goes by and I miss my cardio interval workout, my clothes fit the same and I spend less overall time exercising. For me, this has translated into me enjoying my workouts more!
What you will see is that we choose to approach our cardio routines differently, and we all have a great reason for why we do what we do. Shira, Michelle and I have all moved from a large amount of steady state cardio to a shorter duration, higher intensity model. What I want you to see is that the number one reason we changed our approach was due to the fact that we wanted to see results without spending so much time running or on cardio machines.
Steady state, long duration cardio is simply not the most effective way to lose body fat. It can significantly increase hunger levels and can negatively effect cortisol levels (our main stress hormone) when we are doing too much. High cortisol makes it much more challenging to achieve a leaner physique.
But, this does not make all forms of steady state cardio - namely running and long distance cycling, bad. If you love them, keep it up! Remember, enjoyment of exercise is paramount for sustainability. However, if you are choosing these forms of exercise solely to see a change in your body composition, there are better strategies, like those we discussed today.
Above all, I need you to remember this:
First, we need the courage to look objectively at what we are doing and ask ourselves if it is working in our life. If it is not, we then need the persistence to try something different and see if it works better.
Dedicated to your education and here for your inspiration,