Lately, I’ve noticed that people are starting to think that I have some sort of beef against cardio. A good few times a month I get asked why I don’t recommend cardio, why I think its bad or have people assume that I think it’s doing more harm than good. While I’m not sure if this is based off the content of this blog or the fact that I include very little “traditional” cardio in my training, I think a clarification post on my thoughts on this would be beneficial.
First off, let me go through when cardio style training is a good idea. The main time I would recommend people including any form of cardio in their training is if they plan on competing at that sport. As good as a well structured weight training program is, if you don’t get up and cycle as part of your training for tour de France, well, you’re gonna have a bad time. If your training to compete in a run, walk, swim or even a cross-country ski your training really should be heavily based around practising that particular type of exercise. This requirement is easy to see and understand and saying anything otherwise would be fanboyish (towards weight training) and stupid.
Another good example of where cardio style training is required would be for some field based sports. Hurling, football, soccer, hockey and rugby are all sports where the athlete is up and going for extended periods of time with little chance for rest until the half-time whistle is blown. Building up stamina and extending performance windows by adding in cardiovascular style training to their routine is what separates the legends of a sport from the rest. It’s all well and good being the best player in the world, but if you can only play for 3 minutes before being gassed, well, good luck getting noticed!
Of course this doesn’t mean weight training has no place in these particular styles of sports. Sport specific weight training will help reduce chances of injury, increase power output and allow the athlete to reach their top game. In these cases a mixture of cardio and weight based training would prove to be the best port of call and I would wholeheartedly recommend and commend someone for having a good portion of their training be dedicated to cardio style training in these situations.
However, there are a number of reasons why I would recommend that anyone else who doesn’t fall into the categories above deliberately exclude traditional cardio from their exercise plan. This includes people who are trying to lose fat, gain muscle or “get fit”.
The first reason is that people simply don’t know how to do it correctly. Running, for example, is something that we as humans have evolved to be able to do. We stand upright, have long limbs, naturally carry low levels of body fat and have a stamina that can keep us going for long distances and times. This is what allowed our cave men grandparents to be able to hunt for food and run from predators and is probably a huge part of why, as a species, we have been so successful.
What our cavemen grandparents didn’t have however was long work days sitting in chairs, issues with overeating and become overweight, processed food and pollution playing havoc on their bodies and didn’t have the “burden” of living as long as we do. The fact of the matter is that today’s world does not set up a person to be good at running. Tight hips, fallen arches, weak glutes and bad posture all cause that natural action of running to be a completely different movement which destroys joints and ligaments.
These issues hold true for 99.9% of people in this world and cause issues across the board when it comes to the high repetitive nature of cardio style exercise. When you pair this with the fact that the majority of casual cardio exercisers (Those not competing) dedicate no time or energy into mobility work, strengthening work or even trying to learn to run properly you’re leading yourself down a road for injury, sickness and lack of motivation.
The second reason is that it makes you weaker and does not promote muscle growth/retention. If we take a step away from exercise for a minute and have a look at some car economy science. Lets say we have two cars, both identical in everything apart from the fact that one weights twice as much as the other. Naturally, you would expect the lighter one to be easier to move and have better fuel efficiency, right? The only weight the car actually needs is the weight of the material that keeps it together. Things like doors, seats, bonnets and boots are just cosmetic and the car will run just fine without it.
Your body is no different. When it comes to moving around, if you do it in high volumes on a regular basis your body will move towards a position of making itself lighter. It will shed weight in order to become more efficient and require less energy to move through space, only holding onto enough to keep you from not being able to survive. Without going any deeper, it would seem that this would come from two main places – Muscle and Fat.
However, there is more to consider. Returning to the car example for a moment, it’s all well and good making your vehicle as light as possible, shedding weight where ever you can, but if you don’t put some sort of fuel in it it’s not going to go very far. The same goes for the body. Shedding weight makes it easier to go but in order to actually run do so we need to have some sort of energy source. Long periods of continuous exercise have been proven to use fat as its primary energy source. This is probably a major player in the reason cardio is used so much for fat loss. This however does NOT mean that you lose fat.
What it means is that you are regularly sending your body a signal that you need to tap into fat stores in order to complete the desired action. So your body, just like a shop who has one very popular product, starts to store fat in order to fuel these frequent exercise sessions. What this means is not only do you lose muscle from your body trying to shed weight but you also gain fat in order to fuel your exercise. Defiantly not a way to get the summer beach bod!
The third and final reason is that it does not get you “fit”. For me, being fit would span a good deal of things. It would of course include being able to walk up stairs and run for the bus, but it would also include being strong enough to do some push ups, pull ups and play a fun game of basketball. Really, it would involve being ready and able to do anything that everyday life can throw at you with ease, which I don’t think is too far of a stretch from most peoples definition on what fit is.
Although cardio will help some aspects of this, cases like a runner being able to run for a bus, but what if they’re running in flat hard shoes with a big bag on their back? Will the lack of ankle and foot support their used to along with the external loading cause them to find it harder? Of course and it isn’t to much of a leap to say chances of injury increases.
Cardio will also make some of the more strength based every day tasks harder. Due to the loss of muscle associated with cardio, jumping, hiking, climbing and picking things up all become harder. The loss of muscle mass also makes them more susceptible to injury, with less muscle being available to ensure the body moves correctly and whatever muscle is there is working closer to the limit of its capabilities.
Personally, the only form of cardio I structure into my training is fast sprinting. Typically the entire set of sprints take about 15 minutes, but actual exercise time is probably less than three minutes. This short duration exercise is more like, and is considered to be, a strength building exercise rather than a cardio one. The icing on the cake however is that although cardio exercise does not set you up to be strong, strength exercise DOES set you up to be good at cardio.
Recently I started a new job right in the middle of Dublin where unfortunately there is no parking. This has resulted in me needing to cycle out from the red cow interchange 7 Km into town and back out again in the evenings. Despite not including any cycling in my training, this is not only possible for me to do, but something that takes very little toll on my body. Although I’m not breaking any records and get a bit sweaty on the uphill leg home, it only takes 15-20 minutes depending on traffic. So not only has my training allowed me to become strong enough for daily events, I’m more than capable of some low-level cardio as my life and work depends on it.
In summary, I believe cardio should be a main aim of people who wish to compete in it (Or simply really enjoy it) or who are involved in sports which are cardio based. Ideally this should include strength work, even if not based around barbells. For those wishing to just get fit, lose weight or get strong I would recommend getting under the bar and sorting your diet. So long as its structured and your dedicated, the rest should sort itself!