“Cardio.” Everyone’s favorite – or least favorite – word. The word brings to mind long duration runs on a treadmill or completing a 5K. Maybe to you it means 400 meter sprints or how long you can last in your jiujitsu match.
There are a lot of misconceptions about cardio though. So let’s try to clear them up.
What Are We Running From?
To many people, cardio has a meaning of distance running, biking, swimming, etc. to improve their overall health by increasing the heart’s ability to pump blood and, therefore, improve heart health.
Unfortunately studies have shown otherwise. In trials, it has been shown that longer duration endurance events actually lead to negative adaptations in the heart. The longer the distance, the worse the damage and the longer it took to return to a healthy baseline.
Distance training increases cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in the body. All training increases cortisol but long distance cardio work increases it and keeps it high – unlike resistance training where levels will decline soon after in most cases.
This unchecked cortisol speeds up the aging process, robs your body of the ability to create sex hormones like testosterone, and causes increases in fat right around the navel – that we all know and don’t love.
What About Endurance?
Then we have the people doing cardio for endurance. Think of boxers and MMA fighters running long miles in hopes of improving their ability to outlast their opponents. Wrong.
Endurance is specific. You are what you do, a lot. So when it comes to gaining endurance for a sport, doing another sport isn’t going to help. If you use running as your training for an MMA match, don’t be surprised when you are tired after the first round. You have effectively taught your body to become good at a different set of skills. Not punching, takedowns, and submissions. You signaled for it to become more efficient at running.
Simply test your vertical jump after adding in a few months of distance running. You may be able to get over a 2×4, but that’s about it.
But Won’t Long Distance Cardio Make Me Lean?
Remember how cortisol levels spike when engaging in long duration cardio? This leads to the problems that come along with it, such as muscle catabolism. This means muscle tissue is being broken down and, in turn, your metabolic rate is decreasing. Muscle burns more energy and calories for maintenance – so if your goal is to get lean, you want to keep your muscle. Why would you do something that would burn that off and give you the “skinny-fat” runner look?
What Do We Do Instead?
If your goal is a stronger heart or a better body composition, take up high intensity interval training (HIIT) instead such as sprints.
For heart health, studies show that sprints and other HIIT tools can help with things like improving the heart’s ability to pump blood, lower blood pressure to more optimal levels, and doesn’t spike cortisol levels for durations as long as distance cardio.
What About Body Composition?
HIIT has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, spare muscle mass, and keep cortisol in check compared to distance work. For you, that means no more skinny fat runner look and not having to worry about excessive cortisol driving your immune system into the ground.
How About Endurance Work?
Remember: endurance is specific and “you are what you do often.” If your goal is improved MMA performance, for example, train endurance using MMA. If your fight is typically a 5 minute round then a better idea than distance work is to get five other fighters to spar with you for a minute at a time each. They will be fresh and not tired, unlike you, because they only have a minute of work. This means they will be able to push you past your threshold and get you accustomed to fighting harder and longer. Similar could be done for most other sports.
Before you go on that next distance run ask yourself what you are running for. Pick one of these better options instead. Your heart, body, and endurance will thank you for it as well as your other bodily functions.
Hottenrott, K., Sebastian, L., et al. “Effects of High-Intensity Training and Continuous Endurance Training on Aerobic Capacity and Body Composition in Recreationally Active Runners.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2012. 11, 483-488.
La Gerche, A., Burns, A., et al. “Exercise-Induced Right Ventricular Dysfunction and Structural Remodeling in Endurance Athletes.” European Heart Journal. December 2011.
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