So far in the LEVELUp Your Fitness Strategy, we have encouraged you to move, get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, add some resistance training and functional movement to your routine. At this point, you are getting most of the benefits of exercise, and you are getting fit. Our next goal is to help you progress your aerobic fitness.
Aerobic training or cardiovascular training (cardio) enhances muscular and cardiovascular endurance - you can do more for longer and recover more quickly. In other words, you have better energy to enjoy your life.
Aerobic fitness also allows you to:
Our starting point for aerobic fitness is 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity maintained for 6-8 weeks.
After this initial base, you are ready to think a bit more about aerobic or cardio workouts, starting with steady-state training.
Steady-state workouts involve your major muscle groups (arms and legs) in continuous, rhythmic action. Walking, jogging, running, biking, swimming, hiking, rowing, using the elliptical or stair-climber - all lend themselves to steady-state cardio. The most important thing is to find something you enjoy!
Start Low and Go Slow
Your initial pace should be easy to moderate. You should be able to hold a conversation, though your sentences might be a bit clipped. Most importantly, you should feel fresh enough at the end that you could go longer.
When you start or come back after some time off, this will feel really slow. Don’t worry; when you are consistent with your training, you will get faster at the same effort within weeks.
The biggest mistake made at this point is to go too fast and get injured.
Your endurance, fitness and benefits all build as you progress your steady-state cardio in duration, frequency and eventually intensity.
The first progression we recommend is duration and frequency.
When you start, you will likely be doing three 20-30 minute aerobic workouts in addition to your resistance training and functional movement.
You will find that increasing the frequency of workouts and duration will go together. An important rule of thumb is to add no more than 10% volume to your load each week as you progress.
For example, if you are jogging 20 minutes, three times a week, for a total of 60 minutes - 10% is only 6 minutes - that you will add to a single workout.
As the volume builds, you will find it easier to add an additional workout.
This initial phase of aerobic progression is often called ‘building the base.’
After several months, you will have the base necessary to progress to higher intensity workouts.
Don’t rush this phase - at first, it will seem slow, but trust us, as you get fitter, you will get faster at the same intensity.
Building to Higher Intensities
Once you have a solid base of aerobic fitness, you can progress from easy to moderate paces to faster, more vigorous intensities.
Training at higher intensities is an excellent way to improve your aerobic fitness but does have some potential drawbacks:
Higher intensity cardio is incredibly challenging and fatiguing for less fit individuals, hence the reason to take your time to build a solid base.
The key to minimizing these risks is to plan carefully and listen to your body (or work with an exercise professional).
Start with a single workout per week at a higher intensity.
There are many different types of higher intensity workouts that you can add.
The simplest way to go is to increase the steady-state workout’s intensity to something called ‘Tempo Pace.’ Start with 5 minutes at your moderate conversational pace before accelerating to a speed that you cannot hold a conversation. Hold the faster pace for 20 minutes, then recover by finishing with 5 minutes at a slow and easy pace.
HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training)
HIIT incorporates periods of intense, short-duration exercise with periods of recovery. These periods are referred to as the “work” interval and the “rest” interval. Work intervals are typically 3-5 minutes, although sometimes as short as 30 seconds, and they are performed at a vigorous intensity (6-8/10 effort). Rest intervals are often equal in duration to the work interval with a 1:1 ratio; however, shorter work intervals under 3 minutes typically require a 2-3 minute recovery. Usually, about 3-6 sets are performed.
These intervals are best done with coaching and guidance as they are challenging to plan for as a beginner.
Using nature’s resistance, you can do interval training by doing intervals on hills. For example, you could do eight times a short, steep hill or four times a long, gradual hill. The key to hill training is to be sure that you can keep good form as you jog, run or bike up the hill.
The Swedish work “Fartlek” means “Speed Play” and is a type of workout that allows for moderate AND vigorous training. Typically easy pace training is performed for most of the workout with brief high-intensity intervals scattered throughout. It can be performed in a structured or freestyle manner and is a great way to improve both the aerobic (low intensity) and lactic (high intensity) energy systems. Fartlek training is also a great way to keep workouts fun, and is often used in running, cycling, and swimming.
An example of Fartlek Training is going for an easy jog but then sprinting up each hill you come across.
Besides increasing your steady-state cardio intensity, you can add high-intensity training to your week by combining these workouts with your resistance training.
Resistance training can be a great way to push the aerobic system as well. Performing various rounds of exercise combinations at vigorous efforts can be an efficient way to hit strength and cardio in the same session. Circuit Training is sometimes referred to as HIIT training as well, as periods of recovery may be incorporated, or intervals of different exercises are performed. Here are some of the many examples of circuit training:
Superset training involves performing two exercises back and forth rather than resting after 1 exercise. For example: Perform the bench press for ten reps, then instead of resting performing the bent-over row for ten reps. Repeat for the desired number of sets and rest as needed.
Classic Circuit Training
Classic circuit training involves performing various exercises (typically 3-4) without rest in a round. For example, bench press for ten reps, bent-over row for ten reps, squats for ten reps, repeat and rest as needed.
Choose an exercise that you will work with for a total of 4 minutes in duration. Perform the exercise for 20 seconds, get as many good-quality reps as possible, and rest for 10 seconds. Repeat this for eight sets (4 minutes).
EMOM (Every Minute On the Minute)
Perform the given exercise for the prescribed number of reps for a minute. If you finish early, rest for the rest of the minute. If you don’t finish, move on. Start the next set over again once the new minute starts. Other exercises can be integrated into an EMOM workout.
SAMPLE EMOM: 6 minutes of 10 burpees and a 45-second plank
Minute 1: 10 burpees
Minute 2: 45-second plank
Minute 3: 10 burpees
Minute 4: 45-second plank
Minute 5: 10 burpees
Minute 6: 45-second plank
Be sure to follow every high-intensity training day with an easy day - steady-state cardio or functional movement.
Never do two hard workouts back to back on consecutive days.
For most non-athletes, regular folks, two hard workouts per week is enough.
Listen to your body and progress slowly to avoid injury and burnout; if you are fatigued on your hard-workout day, just perform a lighter one.
Performing aerobic exercise causes your body to break down either glucose, fats, or both for energy. Since glucose is broken down rapidly, higher-intensity efforts rely mostly on glucose over fats rather than lower-intensity efforts, which typically rely on a combination of the two.
Teaching the body to rely on fats
Base training or light training (especially in a fasted state) can help the body learn to rely on fat oxidation: the breakdown of fatty acids for energy. This is done by training at lower (moderate) intensities at a steady pace.
Providing glucose by eating carbohydrates pre-workout will force the body to use the glucose for fuel since it is the most available energy source. Because of this, fasting before this type of training is encouraged. If fasting is not possible, make sure not to eat too many carbohydrates immediately before or during exercise.
Relying on fats for energy is excellent for sparing muscle glycogen (stored glucose). This can, in turn, help to prevent hunger cravings post-workout and allow an individual to exercise for long periods.
For long-distance endurance athletes, training to improve fat utilization is essential to not run out of glycogen at the end of their race. Running out of glycogen causes a steep drop in energy - a truly awful feeling known as “hitting the wall.”
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Next Week - Technical Notes on Aerobic Progression
Dr. Brendan Byrne