Alternative Cardio Strategies

This week I want explain the difference between cardio and cardio.

To help demonstrate, I’ve made a video (badly) of Dave and I doing some alternative cardio training. We hope you find it motivational! If nothing else it should demonstrate that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Want some real motivation to get buff? Put a video of you with no t-shirt on youtube then invite people to look at it. Nuff said!

Abbreviated from “Cardiovascular Fitness”, we should start by explaining the term before explaining its uses and perameters.

The “cardio” bit is a reference to your heart, “vascular” means veins. Your heart is a funny old thing; there are three types of muscle tissue, skeletal, smooth and cardiac. They are so defined by how they look under a microscope, how they are constructed in other words.

Your heart is an engine that never stops running, and the cellular construction of it reflects that. It has to find ways of working and resting at the same time. So complex is this idea that it has (sort of) its very own little brain to regulate it. It even has little sensors to tell it how fast it needs to pump, how quickly to relax so that blood is sucked into the atriums, and how quickly to contract to shove that blood round the body.

It will even adjust its stroke volume - how big a surge of blood its about to shove out - how amazing is that? (Like quantum, if you’re not amazed by the heart, you haven’t understood it)

It gets even more clever though: the heart pumps the blood around your body via arteries and veins, but your vascular system also has some tricks up it’s sleeve; at any given time about 80% of your blood is purposefully being routed past your digestive system. It’s doing so to pick up nutrients and because your digestive system is a very important bunny indeed. When you’re exercising, about 80% of your blood is being routed through your skeletal muscle (biceps, glutes - the ones that move your skeleton in other words).

So your vascular system has helpfully made some arteries more narrow, others more wide - and thus the blood (which has no choice in the matter) goes round your muscles. Come on, you must be impressed at how clever it all is.

So what about the word “fitness”? Oh so many different interpretations of that word, isn’t there just! Your cardiovascular fitness is measured by how much oxygen you take in, how much oxygen you give out and the shortfall is how much oxygen you transported and used around the body, and terms like haemaglobin, alveoli, plasma and red blood cells all come out to play at this point.

Cardiovascular fitness, medically speaking, has nothing to do with marathons and Tour De France and ironmans (sorry to destroy any illusions). Someone who is cardiovascularly unfit is someone who, medically and statistically, is awaiting a heart attack. You think that someone who can run marathons and cycle the Tour De France is automatically cardiovascularly fit in the medical sense?


(Ok being realistic they probably are, but I remember an Australian getting abusive at a triathlon official. Australian: “I do this all the time! I cleared this route last season in two hours! The hell is your problem I’m “unfit” to compete?” Official: “sir your resting blood pressure is 180/110, so…no. We can’t allow you etc etc”)

Consider Tom and Harry. Tom takes up some long duration, low intensity running aiming at building up to running a whole marathon. The first few times he does this, his heart thinks there’s a flight or fight situation, beats a lot faster because it’s registering more CO2 in the blood (that’s why you get out of breath - you’re not trying to breathe in more oxygen (you can’t) you’re trying to breathe OUT the CO2) and the vascular system is busily squishing itself into a new configuration.

After a few minutes, the heart rate is still high but nowhere near as high as at the start. Tom’s heart rate goes really high but after a few minutes the heart learns how to do the same job with less effort - heart rate comes down, and steadies. The heart is a brilliant economist and budgeter, it’s literally been doing it all your life.

Harry also wants to run, but gets bored doing it for long periods. He hits the 100m track, and spends half the time there that Tom does running continuously. He sprints as fast as he can, dawdles back, sprints again. His heart rate goes through the roof every time, and calms down almost to rest levels while he dawdles back.

After 3 months, is it Tom or Harry that:

  1. Is more likely to suffer a heart attack while training?
  2. Is more likely to have a heart attack/stroke while between training?
  3. Runs faster?
  4. Runs further?
  5. Is more able to dig a big hole in the ground?
  6. Has aged more?

The answers are Tom, Tom, Harry, Tom, Harry, Tom.

First: a heart attack while training. Statistically this is the endurance camp, which is strange because with the sprints/high intensity stuff the whole idea is to try to give yourself a heart attack. To be honest, I think the fact that the stats go that way is partly because more people do endurance than HIIT, but it still stands that once the heart has settled and economised at a high level then the risk of arythmia increases proportionately with time. In short, endurance athletes rate how tired they are by how tired their muscles feel - you can’t feel it when your heart is tired because it’ll still keep on beating. Much like a wife, it seems “ok” but there’s an argument under the surface and you need to tread carefully.

As for heart attacks between training well the HIIT crowd win hands down over endurance athlete every single time. In fact, one study I read a while back showed the group that did 3 x 4 min HIIT sessions a week blew the 3 x 30 mins medium intensity long slow duration group clean out the water. It was ridiculous, stroke volume increased, resting heart rate lowered and best of all the RRT (Rythm Response Time - how on the ball your ticker is) dropped significantly (so their heart reacted more noticeably to stress, which usually indicated a lack of fitness, but settled down super quick - which indicates, in this case, health). So not only more heart-attack proofed, but also has an extra hour and fourteen minutes in their week.

Doing his sprint training should make Harry the faster runner, doing the marathon stuff should make Tom run further. That’s true, but just to throw a spanner in the works there’s evidence that this may not be quite so clear cut. That’s one for another time, but realistically and practically you’re going to adapt to what you’ve been training for. Bit of a no brainer, that one, I just wanted to point out that long distance stuff is still useful.

Digging a hole in the ground: very different from both running and sprinting, so why is Harry going to be better? Short answer: just because. Medium answer: because he’s likely to have got more haemoglobin, been moving more range of motion, has a stronger heart and a more reactive metabolism (it’s used to getting jolted around and reacting).

And finally, its is our endurance athlete that has aged more. Low intensity long duration cardio activities produce more free radicals which are harder to eliminate than HIIT does. Free radicals, and the rate at which they are expunges from the body is indicator of youth; when you were 10, you were casting them out like nobody’s business. A 60 year old who gets rid of more free radicals in a day than a 40 year old is cellularly younger, granted their passports say different but there it is. Scary fact: lots and lots and lots

Ollie, I’m training for a marathon - what should I do with all of this?

Just have one endurance day a week. Train up to 4 intensive hours a week to avoid the free radicals issue; consider one long run a week to be one hour for the sake of simplicity. Use two of your other sessions for running drills (stride length, multi directional, weighted, hill reps, sprints, SAQ ladders and so on). Once you’ve done the long run, that’s got 80% of the work done with only 20% of the effort; its going to take another 80% of effort to get a mere 10% done, and by the end of the week a lot of endurance athletes are actually working very hard to undo the gains they made at the start of the week. Oh and that one final hour? Do something that ISN’T running. Like table tennis.

Ollie, my marathon is 2 weeks away?

Rest and let your body adapt. Maybe a light jog once or twice to prepare mentally, but not physically - physically, you need to stop shouting commands at your body for a minute in order for your body to actually obey those commands. The most important command for a sheepdog to learn is the command to stop so that the sheep have got time to get where they’re going.

Ollie, my marathon is tomorrow?

Good luck mate.

Ollie, I love sprints and HIIT - now I don’t have to ever do anything for longer than 30 minutes because you said it’ll give me a heart attack! Excellent, thank you!

No no no no no . . . you think our ancestors never had to drag half a buffalo 40 miles back to the tribe? My take on the whole endurance = heart attack risk thing is because the studies are done on normal, Western population groups. A population group that is definitely not normal - we can’t squat, we actively stunt our growth, development and potential (physically and mentally), refuse natural food in favour of processed, allergic to The Outside (hayfever sufferers: are there more or less of them these days? And pollen, is there more or less of it these days? Discuss) and so on. I’d like to see more studies done with aborigines and eskimos.

To round off the argument, African tribesman jog about the place all the time (over short distances it’s less effort than walking) but they don’t do it competitively. Homo Sapiens in they’re natural environment have four speeds: stalking (quiet . . . I’m hunting wabbit), walking (better described as strolling), jogging (at a pace that’s more of a fast walk by Western gym goer standards) and AAAAAAAAAAARRRGHHH!!!  RUUUUUUUUNNNN!!!

(which is as fast as they can go because, whichever way round the situation is to make a tribesman run, meat does not like to be caught).

So maybe we should all be doing more endurance fitness training, every single day except . . . we try calling it “life”.

Oooh, scary thoughts . . .