Why You’re Just Running In Circles With Cardio

You either love cardio, or you absolutely hate it. Honestly, I think that only endurance athletes like marathoners, rowers, and swimmers like cardio, and the rest of us hate it. But perhaps the former love it only because they can look past the fact that being in the midst of a long run or a long race doesn’t actually feel very good, and maybe the rest of us aren’t quite so mentally tough.

Seriously though, who loves working the body in such a way that you are literally forcing the heart and lungs to pump to near max repeatedly, just so you can deliver more blood to the tissues being worked, so that they can still contract when you need them to? Even so, none of this can alleviate the inescapable burning sensation in your muscles unless you completely stop. But trying to finish a race in a timely fashion doesn’t allow for that.

Literally, that is what’s happening during cardio. You are training the cardiorespiratory system: the heart, lungs, and vascular systems. You are training the ability to pump oxygen to the working tissues, to utilize that oxygen in the tissues, and remove carbon dioxide waste through breathing. Cardio training is often cyclical in nature, and all of this happens without thought. Feedback from the cardiorespiratory system runs through our vast network of nervous system tissue: neuro-dynamics.

A lot of people say that they hate cardio without knowing exactly what they’re referring to. They are often unaware of the basic mechanisms of cardio and have preconceived notions of what cardio is. Unfortunately, they are just running in circles here.

Above, I explained what cardio is and what it is doing, without getting into the nitty gritty. Now, I am going to explain the mechanisms behind what cardio training should be, and help explain what you can do to enjoy what you are doing on those days where cardio is involved.

When you work out, you’re training the heart, lungs, and venous tissue to help transport oxygen and nutrients in and waste products out of the body via vast networks. What you don’t know is that there are other factors at work such as energy systems. These energy systems deal with the volume (how much) and intensity (how hard) of training, and there are 3 of them that you should know about:

  • Alactic (Phosphocreatine)
  • Lactic (Glycolytic)
  • Oxidative (Aerobic)

They are the driving force behind the synthesis of ATP, the energy source that our bodies run on. The beauty of this is that none of these are working alone at any specific time; all of them work together, with one predominant system powering the body depending on the demands of the activity in question.

The alactic system powers movements and sports that require immediate energy. Explosive activities of 5-10 seconds or less, and sports that consist of these activities are powered by this system. Weightlifting, sprinting, and throwing a baseball live in this zone.

The aerobic system powers movements that require endurance or activities that last roughly 1 minute or longer. Basically, this is what everyone thinks of as “cardio.” Marathoners, long distance rowing, swimming, biking, and anything that requires endurance live here.

Lactic are movements and activities that fall in-between. Now, I know I didn’t place these in order, but I did this for a reason. That’s because the biggest problem with cardio, is that people live in this zone and they don’t even know it. High intensity interval training has been around a long time, and it seems like everybody’s doing it, because it is hard, fast, intense. The lactic zone is where the burning sensation is, where you feel like you’re going to puke, and also the zone where no one can really survive. The body knows this and you can’t perform at high levels here; it only feels like you are because of how tired you get. In reality, you are performing at a much higher level, either through explosive or endurance means, in the above two energy systems.

Now, I’m not specifically saying that you shouldn’t do HIIT training, because there is absolutely benefit from doing it. Especially if you are short on time and want a big return on the investment in the gym to expend a lot of energy. But in the long term, it’s better to mix up your training and not beat a dead horse by only doing lactic interval training.

The alactic and aerobic components of cardio are vastly underrated. Training in these manners is akin to building a bigger and beefier engine so that you can do your lactic work better. Alactic and aerobic are where the majority of athletic events or team sports live. Think of basketball, football, or soccer. Athletes sprint or make some other explosive movement, and then they walk, jog, or rest. The explosive movement is alactic, and the walk, jog, or rest is aerobic.

The same thing goes for fight sports. A few quick powerful combinations, then moving, slipping, and countering in an aerobic fashion. If athletes in these sports try to extend their combos for longer than 10 seconds, they would hit the lactic energy system, and a decrease in performance follows. If they try to maintain or exceed this level, they would underperform and potentially lose because they wouldn’t be recovering properly; you can only maintain your highest level of explosive performance for 10 seconds or less.

The aerobic system is the most adaptable energy system. Working in the aerobic range also allows the lactic and alactic components to recover completely. Physiologically, the human body wants to do the majority of work through this system. The amount of energy production is endless because the primary substrate used is fats, which produces a ton of ATP but at a slower rate. On the other hand, alactic and lactic means require carbs, which can produce ATP much quicker, but in a limited supply. Training aerobically allows the body to replenish carb stores and recover better so that you can continue producing explosive performance time after time.

I’m not saying that you should quit what you’re doing, but I am saying that you should reevaluate what you’re doing. Try to mix up some of these components of cardio into your training, especially more of the alactic and aerobic components. You’ll definitely see results and big improvements in recovery time between sessions. By switching between these training modalities, you can focus on specificity in terms of your end goals and can keep the cardio you are doing fresh and exciting. Incorporate a mix of sprints, miles, medicine ball slams, sled pushes, and whatever else you can think of. Cardio isn’t just running or hopping on an elliptical and stopping when you’re gassed out. Get creative and stop living in the middle.

by Ross Curtis

Ross Curtis is a Senior Staff Coach and Weightlifting Program Director at Halevy Life.

Ross holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science and a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, both of which were earned at University of Northern Iowa. Ross is not only an accomplished athlete in weightlifting (Olympic Lifts), track and field, and football — but also a highly qualified coach, holding Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting (USAW) and ClinicalAthlete Weightlifting Coach (CWC) certifications.