Cardio Needs to Make a Comeback

Long, slow, unsexy work may not make you an internet celebrity, but it’s essential to your health and athletic development.

Intensity is sexy, and sex sells. Heaps of sweaty, heaving bodies on the floor after yet another burn-the-house-down workout invoke feelings of admiration and respect (and more than a few likes on Instagram). There’s no denying that you showed up and did the work if you can’t walk up the steps to your front door when you get home, right?

But is that really what you’re after? When you signed up at your gym and handed over the first month’s dues, was the goal you had in mind to leave every day so exhausted you could barely spell your name? Are you getting any closer to the aesthetic or the level of performance you want to achieve?

For the first few months, you probably were. Newbie gains are definitely a thing. But as the psychological and physiological novelty wears off, there’s a good chance you watched your progress sputter. The common advice in this scenario is to work harder, but when you’re already hitting max effort every time you lace up your shoes, where are you supposed to find another 2% to push?

The hardest message to get through to my athletes is that they need to slow down. Not all the time, but at least some of the time. And I get it. Long, slow cardio isn’t exactly the stuff people pay to watch on TV. For most people, it’s absolute drudgery, right up there with folding laundry or getting your teeth cleaned.

This has led to the “as possible” dilemma. People tend to train as hard, as fast, and as long as possible, every time they train. #AMRAP4LIFE, right? Then when they ask their bodies to go faster, or harder, or further, they can’t. They have no way to elevate their performance over what they have already done, because their tank is constantly on empty, and they have never taken the time to build the foundation that can lead to greater levels of performance.

The Trouble With Endless Intensity

Spending at least some of your training time at lower intensity is crucially necessary for any athlete. While it’s true that interval training can provide a superior stimulus to increase your VO2 max (the holy grail of cardiovascular capacity), pulling that trigger every day is pretty hard on the body, not to mention the mind. If it takes you three days to physically and mentally recover from your last interval session and you do nothing in the meantime, you’re sacrificing consistency for intensity, and that math does not work out in your favor.

You also can’t hold the throttle wide open for very long. One of the problems surrounding the study design in a lot of the research comparing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and steady-state cardio (SSC) is that the researchers commonly choose to limit the SSC group to the same time or calorie domains as the HIIT group.

The first mistake is to employ two totally different tools using rules that apply to only one of them. Steady state cardio can (and in some cases, should) be conducted for up to 2-3 hours at a time. High intensity training, by its very nature, can only take place for a drastically shorter period of time, from 2-20 minutes, in most cases. After that, your muscles and nervous system are spent, and you need a considerable amount of time to recover.

This concept matters because comparing the outcomes, when you haven’t given the lower-intensity work time to do its job, is rigging the game in favor of high intensity. It’s intuitively obvious that you’ll burn more calories and get more adaptation if you work hard for 20 minutes, versus working less hard. What’s less obvious is that you might get more adaptation (and burn a boatload more calories, if that’s what you’re after) at less physiological cost by going at a more moderate pace for 90 minutes. That flies in the face of our more-for-less culture, but it’s no less true.

The second mistake is thinking that you’ll hit a sufficient volume of activity with just high intensity training. If you’re hitting a 20-30-minute session five times a week (and I bet you aren’t), that only adds up to a maximum of two and a half hours of training. When most people spend the other 165.5 hours each week sitting on their asses or sleeping, frankly, that isn’t anything like enough volume to make a meaningful impact on your health or performance. Perhaps worse, you will have tricked yourself into thinking you’re doing enough, sending your motivation into a tailspin when you don’t get the results you’re after.

Sure, there are plenty of studies about how just a little exercise a couple times per week can make a difference in biomarkers and health outcomes, but those studies are about surviving. Just getting by. Not dying on your couch, covered in Cheetos-dust. Is that really what you’re after?

Get Off the Hamster Wheel

In the end, the strongest argument most people have against long, slow, unsexy cardio is that they don’t like it. Or that they don’t have time, which is just another way of saying they dislike it to such an extent that they won’t make time for it.

Looking around, it’s no wonder people hate cardio. It’s as if they go out of their way to make it the most miserable experience imaginable. You couldn’t pay me to spend an hour on a stationary bike or an elliptical, and even as a runner, there is no clearer picture of hell to me than a line of treadmills covered in various visages of human suffering.

If cardio makes you feel like a hamster on a wheel, here’s my advice: get off the hamster wheel. Get outside. Break out those expensive running shoes you promised yourself that you’d use one day, or that bike that’s collecting cobwebs in the garage, or those rollerblades that you begged for three Christmases ago. Connect with all of the things around you, especially nature. You will scarcely even notice cardio is happening as you cruise through the woods, or around a park, or along the beach. Most of us could go right out our front door and do hours of cardio without ever seeing the same thing twice.

While you’re at it, leave your headphones at home. Your need to be constantly entertained is a crutch that is getting in the way of your training. Having your hearing back will help you make that connection with nature, or the cute girl or guy you pass by. It might even keep you from getting hit by a car, or attacked by a cantankerous squirrel. In any case, when you stop making such a production out of trying to keep yourself optimally equipped and amused, you will have one less obstacle to just getting the thing done.

Training Slower Won’t Make You Faster

While it’s true that training slower won’t make you go faster, it will help you go longer, more often, and with less recovery. Training the aerobic system allows your metabolism to become more fat-adapted, increases the efficiency of every heartbeat, and can even induce beneficial changes at the vascular and cellular levels. Those changes, in turn, will make you go faster, and add some longevity to your athletic career, or even your life. Seems like a pretty good tradeoff, to me.

As with any training tool, there are diminishing returns from an excess of long, slow training. You should also be lifting heavy, running fast, and pushing yourself into the pain cave on a pretty regular basis. But if you’re doing it every day, you’re ignoring the motor that powers 99% of your life.

Take an honest look at your recent training history. How many days in the last ten have your workouts left you flat on your back? If the answer is ten, or if you find yourself sucking wind for several minutes after everyone else has recovered, or you just don’t seem to have the motor you wish you did, maybe it’s time to can your excuses and give cardio another look. 

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