What’s the best cardio? It’s up to you!

There are many ways to improve your cardiovascular fitness. While there is a great debate among fitness professionals on which method works best, the simple answer is, they all work. It really comes down to each person’s individual goals. 

When training for a certain sport, there will be specific ways that you should perform certain cardiovascular conditioning routines. For instance, if you are a soccer player, you will need an ample amount of endurance to stay strong during the entire match. So, it makes sense that you would primarily train for endurance. However, soccer players will also benefit from higher intensity bouts of cardiovascular training such as sprints and high intensity interval training (HIIT). There are many times throughout the match when a soccer player will need to sprint hard and fast. 

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In sports that require you to work hard for 5-15 second bouts, such as tennis, you will need to have a fast and powerful output for a brief period of time. However, as a tennis player, you will also need to be able to perform this over and over again for the entire match. So, ample endurance work will also be beneficial to be able to stay fresh and strong for a long-lasting match, along with HIIT-type training methods. 

The general fitness enthusiast

In this article, I am going to focus more on the general fitness enthusiast looking to improve their overall fitness and body composition. While many general fitness enthusiasts focus on HIIT type workouts, they should also focus on two other types of workouts to improve overall fitness and fat loss. 

One thing to note on fat loss: there is not a definite answer to what works best. Some studies show that HIIT works best for fat loss while some studies show that steady-state cardio (low intensity, long duration) works best at burning fat and preserving muscle tissue. Some people will respond to one better than the other but there is no one-way to do it. The best fat loss program is the one you stick with, and those who blend various types of cardiovascular routines into their program will most likely see more sustained and long-lasting results. 

Various methods of HIIT and metabolic-type training (think the “burn”) have been popularized and overdone, I want to focus on two methods that are overlooked, important and may be the missing link in your cardiovascular fitness routine. 

While there are many ways to train your cardiovascular system, here are my two favorite methods to build a well-rounded cardiovascular fitness routine. 

Maffetone Method 

Created by Phil Maffetone, the Maffetone Method is a style of training that focuses exclusively on aerobic training. Using a heart rate formula of 180 minus your age (plus several corrections for injury, fitness level, health, etc.) you come up with an “aerobic maximum heart rate.” 

So, if you are 40-years young, you would train at around 120-140 beats per minute (BPM), depending on your current fitness level and health. If you have some underlying health concerns, stay on the low end. If you are more experienced and healthy, you can bump it up to the 140 BPM. 

To build your aerobic fitness (i.e., your endurance), your heart rate should not exceed this number during training. The goal is to improve aerobic development and the percentage of calories burned from fat per Maffetone states. This also helps you build an incredible “aerobic base” which is important for both overall cardiovascular health and performance endurance. 

The benefits from using the Maffetone Method include reduced inflammation due to less stress on the body, lower stress hormones (like cortisol), increased fat burning, and the potential of reduced risk of injury due to its restorative benefit to the body. 

I like this method for beginners, in particular. Many folks jump right into HIIT training-type workouts without even having a base of fitness. This can lead to burnout, injuries, and too much overall stress on the body due to not being prepared for intense workouts. 

I recommend performing this method one to two  days a week, for 20-60 minutes, depending on your fitness level and time constraints, for overall health and fitness. . 

Aerobic power 

Aerobic power is the ability of the muscles to use oxygen received from the heart and lungs to produce energy. The more efficient the process
becomes, aerobic power improves. Therefore, aerobic power is usually monitored and tested using VO2 Max. 

This method was popularized when the Eastern bloc countries of Europe utilized this when training their track and field athletes in the 1970’s. This was used to increase lactate tolerance. 

Aerobically, the three domains to improve are: running and exercise economy (how efficient you are), shifting lactate threshold (the maximal effort or intensity that one can maintain for an extended period of time with little or no increase in lactate), and of course, boosting aerobic power and output. 

In layman’s terms, think of a middle-distance time run where you are working hard for 2-5 minutes. I also like to call this “hard cardio.” It is not as intense as interval training or sprints, but more intense than the Maffetone Method described previously. 

Here is an example routine to help improve your aerobic power: 

  • 1-5 minutes @ Max Aerobic Speed
  • Then, recover back down to 120 BPM after each bout before you proceed to the next set. 
  • You can use the bike, running, rower, or ski erg
  • Example for the air bike: .3-2 miles
  • .3-5 miles for x 3-5 reps 

Progress to: 

  • .5-1 mile for 3-5 reps 

Final progression: 

  • 3 miles ride, rest 2-3 times as long as it takes you to finish and repeat once more. 

There are many ways to train your cardiovascular system. HIIT training and sprints are great and have a big place in training but they are not the end-all and be-all. If you are struggling to find a routine that works for you, give these two methods a try. 

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Justin Grinnell is the owner of State of Fitness in East Lansing. He is also a certified nutrition coach. Reach him at 517.708.8828.

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