When it comes to cardio conditioning, there’s a fine line between extra effort and junk training – but can you get by on just an hour a week? RISING investigates
The Long Slow Training Myth
If you want to hang tough at the elite end of cardio competition, you have to put in the time. Elite marathoners routinely put in anywhere from 100 to 160 miles a week, and even the faster amateurs do more legwork – according to a study conducted by RunKeeper, 3:50 finishers typically put in 38-44 miles. On the flipside, a growing movement of HIIT devotees claim that it’s possible to make conditioning gains in mere minutes a day, though critics counter that those gains taper off quickly, and require intensity that’s unstable for most. So what’s the training sweet spot? Turns out, it might not be much more than an hour a week.
‘The misconception is that large volumes of training are proportional to large increases in fitness’
‘The biggest misconception about cardio is that large volumes of training are directly proportional to large increases in overall cardio fitness,’ says Stephen Price, co-founder of Chelsea’s BodySPace gym. ‘Intensity and volume are probably the factors that are least well-understood by regular gym-goers – which can lead to less efficient training and sometimes increased injury rate.’ Traditional long, slow distance training – sometimes known as LSD – has come under fire in recent years, with detractors claiming that it’s likely to lead to boredom, plateaus, and overuse injury. Meanwhile, the High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) movement has been growing steadily, with advocates claiming that it can give you better gains, in minimal time. But has its effectiveness been overstated? Short answer: it depends what you want.
Fitness In Two Hours Every 14 Days
In a landmark 2006 study, researchers at Ontario’s McMaster University divided 16 volunteers into two groups, both of whom did six workouts over the course of 14 days. Half rode stationary bikes at a moderate pace, for up to two hours at a time – the other half did four to six 30-second, all-out sprints. In total, one group exercised for over 10 hours, while the other did just over two – including warming up and cooling down. And yet, by several key performance indicators – including lactic acid buffering – the two groups were ‘remarkably similar,’ according to the scientists. Similarly, in the now famous Tabata study conducted in 1996, amateur athletes who pedalled on ergometers at maximum effort for eight 20-second sets (and 10 seconds’ rest) made similar improvements in oxygen efficiency to another group doing hour-long workouts at 70% intensity. Yes, if you want to run or bike long distances, specificity helps – your body starts to create new capillaries around your most-used muscle fibres after long training sessions, for instance – but if you want most of the benefits of endurance training, you can get by on less than you’d think. So what’s the catch?
Go Hard And Then Go Home
The problem is, you need to train hard. In that Tabata study, some of the subjects didn’t want to continue after the first few intervals – in a four-minute workout. In most HIIT studies, the subjects were young men, being ‘motivated’ by researchers, pushing themselves to the limit. Training like that solo, in a gym, isn’t easy: but if you think you can manage it, then gains are possible, just make sure you are fully warmed up first. ‘I would structure your cardio workouts to be split into three 20-minute HIIT sessions per week,’ says Keith McNiven, director of Right Path Fitness. ‘No equipment necessary – you could do sprints in the park, or squat jumps, lunges and burpees.’ Go in expecting it to be unpleasant and you’ll be able to push harder – recent research on Rate of Perceived Exertion (or RPE) suggests that if a workout turns out to feel harder than you’re hoping for, you’ll freak out fast and give up quickly, even if your aim is to go for four minutes.
‘If a workout feels harder than you’re hoping for, you’ll freak out fast and give up quickly’
Choose Your Intervals Wisely
How should you plan your training? It depends on your goals. Different types of HIIT training cause different adaptations, and have different benefits. For increased power and efficiency in the creatine kinase system (your body’s fuel pump for ultra-short bursts of power), for instance, six-10 second ‘work’ phases with a 1:10 work/rest ratio are ideal. For oxidative enzyme adaptation, on the other hand (which helps with aerobic fitness by increasing your body’s efficiency at using oxygen) longer intervals are ideal, with anywhere from 30-60 seconds at a 1:1 work/rest ratio being ideal. Generally speaking, the fitter you get – and the more specific you want your physical adaptations to be – the more you’ll need to tailor your training to specific goals, but if you’re looking for easy wins, most work/rest ratios will work. In practice, the best option is to attack a variety of work/rest ratios, training intensities and movements throughout your training week, ensuring you’re hitting a range of attributes. A typical week could go something like this, assuming you do a warmup before each session:
Burpees: Wingate Protocol
Perform as many burpees as possible in 30 seconds, followed by four minutes of rest, for four rounds. If you want to make the workout more challenging, decrease the rest period – but don’t go below two minutes.
Cycling: Tabata Protocol
Get on an exercise bike, warm up for five minutes, and then do eight sets of 20 second intervals at an all-out pace, with 10 seconds of rest in between.
Rowing: 10-20-30 protocol
This is a slightly lower-intensity strategy, developed at the University of Copenhagen – and ideal as a slightly easier option when you’ve had a tough week. You’ll do 30 seconds of low-intensity exercise, 20 seconds at medium intensity, and 10 seconds all-out, five times. Rest for two minutes, and repeat.
Make Room To Rest And Recuperate
Of course, you get your best results from what you do outside the gym: and spending less time on the road or the trail gives you more opportunity to concentrate on recovery.
‘One of the best ways to support your cardio training is having a balanced diet with
plenty of good quality, slow-releasing carbohydrates, which will give you the energy
you need to have more effective workouts,’ says McNiven. ‘Don’t be afraid to rest – recovery, repair and sleep are vital. Try to get plenty of rest – recommendations for adults are between seven to nine hours’ sleep per night. Listen to your body and if you need an extra rest day or a nap make sure you have them.’ Remember: if you’re training as hard as you should be, you’ll need it.
WHAT NEXT? For a more in-depth take on the physiological adaptations caused by high-intensity exercise, you can whizz through Little Lessons On HIIT in less than an hour and come out more informed. Alternatively, put on your preferred bit of cardio kit and have a go at it.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.