The entire reason I started changing my lifestyle to live a healthier life was because I wanted to improve my cardiovascular fitness. I had decided I wanted to run a Spartan race, and I knew one of the biggest components to being successful in doing that was running.
When I signed up for my first Spartan race and started “training” I knew very little about running, I just went out and ran. The only goal I had was to be able to complete the 3 or so miles necessary to do the Spartan race.
After I completed my first Spartan, I was hooked and immediately signed up for 3 more races the next year. The only problem was that some of these races were much longer in distance. Somehow I went from someone who hated running to committing to running a ½ marathon on a ski mountain!
I knew I needed to gain more knowledge about how to improve my cardiovascular fitness if I had any chance of completing these races. Luckily for me what I stumbled across ended up leading me down the path of not only learning about running, but transformed nearly every aspect of my life and led me to becoming a certified health coach.
What was it that I stumbled across?
In 2015 I put my Googling skills to work and Googled “How to train for a Spartan Race?”
Eventually I stumbled upon a website called Ben Greenfield Fitness (now Ben Greenfield Life).
Ben Greenfield was a Spartan Pro at the time, so I started listening to his podcast to gain as much knowledge as I could about training for Spartan Races.
One day while listening to his podcast he had this guy on named Mark Sisson and he was talking about a book called Primal Endurance. If you are curious here is the exact podcast that I listened to way back in 2016.
Mark started speaking about a way of training that prioritized low intensity easy cardio with occasional periods of high intensity work as the best way to train for endurance sports. (Of course he also prioritized other diet and lifestyle changes that were more ancestrally aligned as well.) With no other options on how to train, I dove head first into implementing all the suggestions the book had to offer, and spent the better part of 2 years training in this exact manner.
Focusing on cardio training served me fairly well based on the endurance demands of Spartan racing, particularly when I decided to run a 50k Spartan race in 2018. While I had managed to develop very good cardiovascular fitness using this approach there were other aspects of my health that were not so good. At the same time my cardio was improving I had managed to develop hormone and gut issues, and I certainly was not strong nor did I have very much muscle to speak of.
This is where cardio training gets a bad wrap…
Cardio, especially the endurance form of cardio, is not going to build muscle, in fact it’s more advantageous from your body’s point of view to remove muscle from your body since carrying that weight over long distances is not very efficient. In addition, cardio can easily be overdone, much more so than something like strength training. With strength training once you fatigue the muscle, you are done, you literally cannot do another rep. However with cardio you can almost always do more. Humans have the capacity to move at a low intensity for an extremely long period of time, and that makes it easy to go way past the dose of cardio that is good for us. Once you do that it can become bad for our health…and this is likely where I ended up.
This brings me to the ultimate question…should you be doing cardio, should it be part of your exercise routine?
I think the answer is yes!
When implemented properly cardio training has many benefits that are hard to get from other forms of exercise.
Here are some comparisons of the benefits between cardio (aerobic training/exercise in the charts below) and resistance training from several different studies.
Based on several of these studies, cardio seems to have a distinct advantage in a few areas:
- Heart health (no surprise it’s in the name!)
- Fat loss, including the very dangerous fat around your organs (visceral fat)
- Blood lipids
- Endurance capacity
- Quality of life
I want to highlight the last benefit for a second, quality of life.
This is something that often gets overlooked as so many people are concerned about their outward physical appearance or health markers. However, quality of life improvements can have drastic effects on your mental health and directly correlate to improvements in physical appearance and health markers. One of the unique attributes of cardio exercise is that it relieves stress, you often do it outside, it improves your sleep, and it can often be done as a group. All of these things lead to quality of life improvements that can make huge impacts on your health and longevity.
I also want to make sure I acknowledge a very important point which is nicely summed up in the Venn Diagram in the last image. While both cardio and strength training have distinct benefits, there is also a fair amount of overlap between them!
This is important for those that may not enjoy cardio as much…you can likely get away with incorporating smaller doses of cardio if you want and without losing out on the benefits as long as you combine it with other forms of exercise.
What is it specifically about cardio that elicits these benefits?
What forms of cardio should you do?
How frequently should you do them?
What intensity should you be doing your cardio at?
What are heart rate zones and how do they relate to cardio?
These are all questions I will try to answer in the next few blog posts. If you want to be the first to know when they get published use the form below to sign up for my newsletter and I will shoot you an email as soon as they go live!