Are You Still Doing Cardio?

Walk into any gym and the first thing you see is people straddling treadmills, elliptical machines or bikes for 45 minutes or more, trying to burn calories and improve their aerobic fitness (all while watching their favorite show on TV).

I see and hear this all the time, especially from the ladies, this notion that you need a good long sweat in order to get a good workout and burn lots of calories. I suspect that some people are actually addicted to that type of cardio workout.

It is not easy to convince people why they should steer away from the typical low- to moderate-intensity continuous training (cardio) and instead do sprint interval training (also known as HIIT, or burst training). After all, we have been conditioned by many alleged fitness experts and health professionals to believe we need  several 30 to 45 minutes sessions of cardiovascular training every week to stay fit, healthy and burn fat.

I’m not saying that doing slow and long cardio is all bad and that you should never do it. I know many people feel that they get a great deal of mental stress relief and I can’t argue with that, but from a purely physical stand point it is not at all efficient and may harm you more then it will do you good.

As I am not a physician or a biophysicist, I will leave the more technical scientific explanations of this subject to Dr. Izumi Tabata, whose research is readily available online as well as the publication and collected research by Mark J. Smith, PhD (www.x-iser.com).

Slow cardio is very time intensive (the number one reason people skip their workouts), only works on your aerobic fitness (and that fairly inefficiently), burns only moderate calories during the activity yet has no impact on your metabolism (the decline of our metabolism is what many of us are fighting as we get older), and stresses your joints due to repetitive impact (especially running). It also increases inflammation.

Now, here is a solution for you. It’s called HIIT (high intensity interval training) or burst training. And it only takes about four to eight minutes, three times per week! Yes, you read that right. Understand that more is not better in this case; it’s the intensity, not the duration, that affects the adaptation to exercise and that makes the difference.
It works both your aerobic and anaerobic systems at the same time and is very effective for fat loss. It will also raise your metabolism for several hours afterward, build “fast muscles” and reduce impact to your joints and even help reduce inflammation. HIIT training can burn the same calories as slow cardio in one-fifteenth (less than seven percent) of the time! That means that just four minutes of HIIT equals an entire hour of slow cardio! Slow cardio produces a lot of stress hormones (cortisol) while sprint training stimulates growth hormone. Ever compared the physique of a sprinter to that of a marathon runner? Which would you prefer?

There are different ways to implement HIIT training. It can be done on equipment, like a treadmill (remember, now you’re pushing the belt with the machine turned off), stationary bike, upper body ergo meter, a X-iser or jump rope. It can also be done with no equipment at all, like sprinting (athletes only), running in place with high knees, running up a flight of stairs, up a hill or with full body calisthenics like Turkish getups or pushups to jumps.

I recommend starting with four-minute workouts (adding two to three minutes of warmup beforehand) with a sprint to rest ratio of 1:3, say, a 10-second sprint (fast pace) with a 30-second rest (slow pace). As you start to feel more comfortable with this, you should work your way down to a ratio of 1:1, such as a 20-second sprint followed by a 20-second rest. The maximum total time you would want to exert yourself here is six to eight minutes.

Remember that the sprints should be high intensity, which is of course relative to your fitness level. On a scale of 1 to 10, your effort during the sprints should be a 10! If you feel that your sprints are loosing intensity that means the sprint time is too long or the rest time too short, adjust accordingly.

With my athletes, I never do any slow cardio; it would take up too much of their time. Every minute we have to train, I want to make sure that they get a 100 percent return of their time invested, With slow cardio, the rate of return is just not high enough, plus, I always felt that if you do a lot of “slow” training, it will make you slow and that is not what you want in any sport. Remember that speed is a big component of power in the swing.

Another factor to consider is the ability to learn to turn your system on and off. During the sprint time, you turn everything on full power, 100 percent, and during the rest period everything needs to be turned off in order to recuperate and get ready for the next sprint. That is very similar to playing golf. When you are hitting the ball you want your whole system to be turned on, while between the shots you want to turn everything off and preserve energy. After all, it would be very hard to stay on full power for the four to five hours that a typical round will take. You would run out of energy.

Annika likes the jump rope for HIIT, as it’s really great for the coordination but it also teaches you to relax; otherwise you would trip over the rope constantly. Annika would do 20 seconds slowly then 20 seconds at full speed followed by 20 seconds slowly, etc., for four to six minutes, all that three or four times a week. It served her very well over the years, she had plenty of endurance during her tournaments (like the 2006 US Open she won after an extra playoff round).

By the way, I use the same training method for my son’s soccer team and other athletes who are competing in high aerobic sports, and it works very well.
You will be surprised how fast your body will adapt to the new and positive exercise stress. Your energy level will increase, performance will improve, metabolism will pick up, you will save time and wear on your joints, and, most of all, it’s a lot more fun!

Kai Fusser

August 25, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Blog, Fitness