More Categories Less Categories

Endurance & Cardio Training

The Recent Shift In Cardio And Endurance Training

Over the past few years, flipping through channels on a Saturday or Sunday morning, you may have noticed a change in the types of workout programs promising quick fixes and trim physiques.

Long gone are the days of aerobics programs like Tae-Bo and Walk Away The Pounds. Programs like P90x and Insanity have taken their place. These programs emphasize high-intensity interval training or intense strength training as the key to the body of your dreams. In these programs, traditional cardio is a less-frequent supplement for burning more calories during fat loss.

Sure, Zumba and Spinning are alive and doing well, but with some fitness professionals outright demonizing “cardio,” it’s no wonder that people are more confused than ever about what type of training to do to accomplish their goals. There’s no doubt that you’ve heard some fitness professionals bragging that they never do cardio. Some even warn you about all the muscle mass you’ll lose if you spend a half hour on the elliptical five days a week.

This is a drastic oversimplification of the complex physiology that determines the way you look and how you perform. Better yet, is anyone even discussing any goals besides fat loss? What about health? When did looking good become all that mattered?

It may not be flashy, but we aren’t here to make claims and promises that any workout program can deliver your dream physique. Even if you follow a workout and nutrition plan to perfection, genetics will always play the biggest role in the way you look, and what level of leanness your body decides is “safe” and optimally healthy.

We are here to help you understand what the benefits of various types of exercise are, and help you determine what is right for you based on your goals, current health, ability level, and time.

Our top priority will will always be to provide truthful, science-backed, actionable information that will help you look good, feel good, and be healthy and strong.

First things first, let’s talk about what we mean when we say “doing cardio.” It’s a much broader topic than you might imagine!

What Is Cardio Training?

Cardiovascular training (cardio training), also known as aerobic training, is defined broadly as any activity that increases your heart rate for a period of time with the intention of improving the volume of oxygen that can be utilized by your body, also known as VO2. This generally requires dynamic, repetitive movement that is not done to exhaustion, such as in weightlifting when a set of repetitions might be done to failure.

There are a number of different cardio training programs depending on the intention of the training. Cardio training exercise, like strength training, revolves around the FITT principle.

This excerpt from the American College of Sports Medicine Complete Guide to Fitness and Health describes the FITT principle as:

  • Frequency – number of days or sessions per week
  • Intensity – how difficult the exercise is, most easily measured by heart rate
  • Time – how long the session is
  • Type – what exercise is chosen

Manipulating any of these principles provides a different method and outcome of cardiovascular training. For example, a marathon runner would focus on time and frequency to perform better in a marathon, and she would be engaging in endurance training—the ability to maintain a given intensity for a longer and longer period of time. A sprinter or shorter distance runner, however, would focus primarily on intensity—how hard, fast, or powerfully she could perform the activity in a given amount of time.

Some hallmarks of improvement in aerobic fitness with consistent cardiovascular training include how quickly you can perform an activity with a given workload and how intensely you perform it in a given amount of time.

For example, after a few weeks of consistent cardiovascular endurance training, if you go out for a three-mile jog (workload), it will feel easier and you will finish faster. Similarly, if you go jogging for 30 minutes (time), you can eventually cover a longer distance in the same amount of time.

Spots open November 12th — don't miss out! Get on the GGS Level 1 Certification pre-sale list today.

If you're interested in our Level 1 Certification, we strongly recommend you join the pre-sale list below. Spots are limited and open just twice per year.

We'll send you more info about the certification, give you the chance to register 24-48 hours early — and save up to 33% off the general price.

What About Heart Rate?

The easiest and most low-tech way to measure your heart rate (the number of beats per minute) is by placing two fingers on your wrist below your thumb, known as your radial pulse, or two fingers on your neck just to the right or left of your windpipe, measuring your carotid pulse. Use a watch or clock with a second hand to count the number of beats or pulses you feel over 15 seconds, and multiply by 4 to get your heart rate.

You’ve probably seen posters or charts on various cardio machines showing zones of intensity. They usually say “fat burning zone” or “cardiovascular training zone.” If fat loss is your goal, you may be thinking then “Well, I better not work too hard so I can burn fat.”  While it’s tempting to use these charts as a guide, this labeling is misleading. These charts give the impression that if your heart rate reaches a certain threshold, your efforts will be wasted and you’ll no longer be burning fat.

Working in that “cardiovascular training” zone will improve your VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take up during exercise. Additionally, as your intensity increases, your body gradually shifts from using fatty acids to make ATP (energy!) to using glucose, since this type of fuel can be broken down faster.

Realize that the more intensely you work, the more total calories you will burn during that session.

Plus, if you’re in calorie deficit, your body will still be burning fat throughout the day!

In terms of cardio exercises for women, the average woman isn’t a marathoner or a sprinter, so let’s talk about where most of our cardio workouts will fall: either in the category of short bursts of intense activity, or moderate intensity cardio. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is generally defined as an activity performed in very intense, short periods of work followed by periods of rest, performed for multiple sets or rounds. Hill sprints are a good example of high-intensity interval training.

Moderate-intensity cardio (MIC), for our purposes, is any activity that keeps your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute. If you’re wondering what are good cardio exercises, or what the best cardio exercises might be, some examples include riding a bike, jogging, walking briskly, swimming, kickboxing class, or anything else in which your heart rate is elevated for an extended period of time, with roughly the same intensity level throughout. You can even do cardio exercise at home, whether it’s dancing, or on stationary equipment, or using your own body weight. You never feel like you’re working as hard as you can, but it shouldn’t feel easy either.

Aside from measuring your heart rate, you can use a perceived effort scale to gauge how hard you’re working. On a perceived effort scale of 1 to 10, 1 is equivalent to sleeping, and 10 is equivalent to your absolute maximum physical effort. When doing HIIT, your perceived effort should be between 8 and 10 during work periods (depending on how experienced you are), and a between 4 and 6 during rest periods. When doing MIC, your perceived effort should be around 6 or 7.

Why Do Cardiovascular Training?

Endurance training workouts and cardiovascular training offer numerous benefits that have nothing to do with fat loss, though fat loss can certainly occur. In addition to improved endurance fitness, regular cardiovascular exercise, even regular physical activity in general, is associated with a decreased risk of all-cause cardiovascular mortality, Type 2 diabetes, depression, bone disease, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers, just to name a few. In conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine, the CDC regularly updates the quantity and quality of exercise needed to improve health, and develop and maintain cardiorespiratory fitness.  There is truly no more powerful medicine in this world than being physically active.

The current recommendations for optimal health are to perform either:

  • Moderate intensity cardio exercise for 30 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week, at ~60-75% of your age-predicted maximum heart rate (which is 220 – your age)
  • Vigorous intensity cardio exercise (could be HIIT or steady) for 20 minutes per day, 2 to 3 days per week, at ~75-90% of your age-predicted maximum heart rate.1

You should also try to be as physically active as possible throughout the day. There are many opportunities in a typical day to be more active. For example: take the stairs, walk wherever possible, stand for a while instead of sitting down all day.

The good news is that it doesn’t seem to matter what your choice of cardiovascular training or physical activity is as long as you’re hitting the target heart rate ranges and keep moving.

In recent years, the research demonstrating the health dangers of sitting have received lots of attention. However, a recent NHANES study showed that both, high levels of sedentary activity and low levels of moderate to vigorous intensity cardiovascular exercise are predictors of all-cause mortality, so simply doing one or the other doesn’t appear to be enough if you want to prevent or reduce your risk of major disease.

Spots open November 12th — don't miss out! Get on the GGS Level 1 Certification pre-sale list today.

If you're interested in our Level 1 Certification, we strongly recommend you join the pre-sale list below. Spots are limited and open just twice per year.

We'll send you more info about the certification, give you the chance to register 24-48 hours early — and save up to 33% off the general price.

Cardio For Fat Loss

Despite its constant advertisement as a major means to fat loss, the vast majority of research has shown that without very large volumes of exercise, which is unrealistic for most people, exercise alone has a very small effect on body fat.2 Nutrition matters, specifically, a reduction in calorie intake if fat loss is your goal.  Sure, there are many stories of people who lose weight because they start to walk to work everyday, or because they adopt a dog that they then need to walk several times a day. It’s important to note that this weight loss happens very gradually over time. Conversely, if they stopped these activities and changed nothing else, weight may creep back up.

Cardio can certainly help to enhance your fat loss, especially if your metabolic rate is slower than average due to your body size or to hormonal issues. And, if you have a history of dieting or significant weight loss, you may need to do more cardiovascular exercise and physical activity than the recommendations for health and weight management.

According to some studies, as much as 60 to 90 minutes per day of moderate intensity activity may be required.

If you feel you would like to lose a significant amount of weight and have limited time to exercise, the most effective thing you can do is prioritize your nutrition, making sure not to go too low on calories unless under a physician’s supervision. Also, start increasing your physical activity.

Some studies comparing cardio versus strength training for fat loss suggest prioritizing cardiovascular training because it burns more calories during a session than strength training. In addition, many people new to exercise find the typical “gym” environment very intimidating, and may feel that a more realistic starting point might be to join a dance class or spin class, or start walking at home.

However, since studies have shown that endurance exercise and cardio for fat loss (without diet) results in minimal fat loss compared to dieting, Girls Gone Strong advocates that instead of relying on cardio workouts to burn fat, you balance strength training and cardiovascular exercise, even if the strength exercises are simple and basic at first, mainly focusing on bodyweight movements. Both modes of exercise offer so many benefits independent of weight loss, and one isn’t appreciably better than the other without dieting, when it comes to fat loss, so why not, right?

Balancing A Strength And Cardio Training Program

Some very common Internet searches bring people to Girls Gone Strong every day.

Questions like:

  • “Which should I do first, cardio or weights?”
  • “Which one on which days, and how much of each?”
  • “Will doing cardio interfere with my recovery from strength training, and vice versa?”

Runners or other endurance athletes often ask these questions, since their training typically requires a great deal of energy and recovery time, especially for a new athlete or one who has been out of training for a period of time.

Your training schedule should reflect your priorities.

If overall fitness is your top priority, there are ways to balance your activities to reap the most benefit from a well-rounded approach. If your goal is to get stronger or build muscle, hit the weights first. If you want to train to have a great 10K time, you should focus your efforts on improving your cardiovascular fitness, and your strength training should complement your goals. In other words, build your program based on your goals, and let other modes of exercise support, not interfere with your training priority.

If your goal is to perform better in cardiovascular activity…

Your program should emphasize your cardiovascular workouts and utilize strength training to correct and prevent muscular imbalance and improve performance. Of course, if your cardiovascular exercise is all lower body (running or cycling, for example), there should be no interference with upper body and core training. However your legs may be too sore and fatigued from the cardiovascular activity, and frequent, heavy, or high-volume lower body strength training may do more harm than good (or may not even be possible). Every person is different. Some able to tolerate large volumes of all types of exercise, and some much more sensitive to overtraining.

Many endurance athletes go through seasons, or phases of periodization. There are months when their training is light, and others when it is quite intense, such as when preparing for a marathon. During phases when cardiovascular training is lighter, such as between races or other types of cardiovascular events, is a perfect time to focus on a structured, progressive strength training which can help to address weaknesses or muscle imbalances (common culprits of repetitive stress injuries in endurance athletes).

If your goal is to get stronger and build muscle…

It can be a little more difficult to know how much and how often you can perform cardio workouts without interfering with your training. It’s safe to say that low- to moderate-intensity cardio at the current recommendations for health (30 to 40 minutes, three to four days per week) shouldn’t interfere with your strength goals, provided you are eating enough to not put you in negative energy balance. Becoming stronger initially happens due to neuromuscular adaptations, not actual growth of muscle, known as hypertrophy. Hypertrophy takes more time, and requires performing strength exercises to failure more often.

Adequate protein and carbohydrate intake are key if you are going to perform both types of activity without any interference. The best way to know the correct balance for you of frequency, intensity and type of cardio that will support your strength training goals is to start small, and gradually ramp up the cardio, carefully monitoring your strength training progress. If you start to feel low on energy or are plateauing in your progress, you can try eating a bit more before and after your workout, and see if that makes a difference, but if not, consider tapering back.

If your goal is fat loss…

As mentioned above, your program should include a sensible balance of cardio for health and strength training to encourage preservation of lean muscle mass, strength, and muscle definition. You should also strive to have more daily physical activity overall. Don’t try to increase your exercise volume, frequency, or intensity too quickly, especially when dieting.

If you don’t have a specific goal…

If you don’t have a specific goal other than feeling strong and having a good aerobic capacity, use the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine as a guideline for your training schedule: a total body strength training program two to three days per week, cardiovascular training two to five days per week (depending on the chosen intensity discussed previously), and flexibility/mobility exercises for each major muscle group two to three days per week.1

Cardio for Women: What’s Next?

If you’ve read all of this information and still aren’t sure where to start, we don’t blame you! Putting together an effective, balanced, and safe training program that you enjoy doing isn’t exactly an easy task. Which is exactly why we created…

Spots open November 12th — don't miss out! Get on the GGS Level 1 Certification pre-sale list today.

If you're interested in our Level 1 Certification, we strongly recommend you join the pre-sale list below. Spots are limited and open just twice per year.

We'll send you more info about the certification, give you the chance to register 24-48 hours early — and save up to 33% off the general price.


Additional Resources on Cardio and Endurance Training:

  1. American College of Sports Medicine, Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults.
  2. Nature Clinical Practice, The role of physical activity in producing and maintaining weight loss.
  3. Journal of Applied Physiology, Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults.
  4. Clinical Science,Both aerobic endurance and strength training programmes improve cardiovascular health in obese adults.

Spots open November 12th — don't miss out! Get on the GGS Level 1 Certification pre-sale list today.

If you're interested in our Level 1 Certification, we strongly recommend you join the pre-sale list below. Spots are limited and open just twice per year.

We'll send you more info about the certification, give you the chance to register 24-48 hours early — and save up to 33% off the general price.