A quick Google search will reveal a multitude of opinions on this topic – no cardio, daily cardio, HIIT, LISS, metcons, running is good, running is bad, tabata, and the list goes on…how do you decide what’s best for you?
When I was growing up, cardio was actually a punishment. I HATED running. I recall several times when my dad made me run as punishment for something that I did. The way most parents threaten their children with increasingly longer periods of being grounded (Okay, that’s one week! Two weeks! You keep it up and you will be grounded for a month!), I was threatened with increasing mileage (Okay, one mile! Two miles!).
However, for most of my adult life, cardio has been all about burning calories. Target heart rate, length of time, and type of cardio were all determined by what would produce the physical results I wanted, which inevitably was to get leaner. It was a chore and I hated it. There is nothing worse in my mind than incline walking on a treadmill mindlessly for an hour. I felt it was an essential piece of the weight loss puzzle and skipping a cardio session equated to failure. This attitude really kicked into overdrive when I started prepping for my first figure competition. I was doing two-a-days, six days per week, for over an hour a day. I had no energy, I would often get light-headed, and it took every ounce of willpower and self-talk to make it through each session.
Cardio has also been a form of compensating for overeating. If I was “bad” and overindulged in calories, I would do “extra” cardio the next day/week in an attempt to offset my gluttony and punish myself for my lack of discipline. I definitely don’t condone this attitude, but unfortunately, it seems to be fairly common. What is scary to me is the fine line between the socially acceptable, “I was bad so I have to work out extra hard tomorrow,” and the eating disordered compulsion to excessively exercise and/or purge to compensate for a perceived nutritional transgression.
However, I did begin to experience glimpses of cardio as a means to another end. I started running somewhat sporadically to train for a half-marathon, and even though I hated running, I ran because I knew I needed to improve my conditioning for the race. My conditioning improved pretty quickly, and by the end, I actually enjoyed some of my runs. I was tremendously proud of finishing the half marathon in 2.5 hours, although I also vowed never to do another one. I also started doing 5K races with friends for fun.
Fast forward to present-day, and CrossFit has really altered my perspective on cardio. Cardio in CrossFit is primarily done via metcons (i.e. metabolic conditioning). They are short, but extremely intense workouts based on functional movements. Metcons are almost never longer than 20 minutes, and it seems like most of them tend to be between 5 and 10 minutes long (although you could do multiple metcons in one training session). Metcons are about all-out effort and intensity with the goal being to improve your conditioning and consequently performance. Calories burned do not factor in at all. Each person’s performance in a metcon will vary based on their fitness level and how hard they push themselves. If a metcon is for time (i.e. how quickly can you do 100 burpees), then each person will have a different finish time. If a metcon is for rounds or reps (AMRAP – as many reps/rounds as possible), then at the end of the allotted time, each person will finish with a different total.
Honestly, the thought of incline walking on a treadmill for an hour seemed pretty silly to me once I started doing metcons. It made me realize how lazy I had been in approaching my conditioning workouts when it came to intensity and to functionality. I started using cardio methods I had previously scoffed at (most notably, the rowing machine, but also jump rope), and had the revelation that “cardio” didn’t have to involve repetitive movements on a machine or running endless miles at the track until I had racked up the requisite number of calories burned. Metcons were about becoming a better athlete and improving performance, not about burning off last night’s ice cream or getting six-pack abs.
So, when it comes to cardio today, there are three categories of cardio I engage in:
- Conditioning Cardio: Usually metcons, but sometimes sprinting at the track or short distance runs. The duration is usually 15-20 minutes tops, at a high intensity, and is focused on improving athletic performance. I don’t wear a heart rate monitor or calculate calories burned, although I will record time or rounds/reps in order to evaluate my progress. If I end up in the offical CrossFit recovery position at the end of the workout, I know I did well.
- Social Cardio: This includes 5K races and hiking. Am I getting exercise? Yes, but it’s more about being social with friends or family. I am trying to do more of this kind of cardio – last weekend, I ran the Ridiculous Obstacle Challenge 5K and am signed up for the Dirty Girl Mud Race 5K in October. When my mom was in town a couple of weekends ago, we spent an hour and a half walking one of the greenways in Charlotte and talking.
- Catharsis/Energy Burn Cardio: Maybe I have a lot on my mind, maybe I am stressed/depressed, or maybe I just have a ton of energy and feel like getting my sweat on. I am generally not a fan of steady state cardio for extended periods of time, but sometimes when you are pissed off or upset, cranking out 45 minutes on the stairmill is just what the doctor ordered.
I am in a happy place with cardio. I almost always look forward to it and feel accomplished after it. It is not a punishment. It is not about trying to get ripped. If I skip it, it is not a source of guilt and shame. It has been a long road to get here, but it is a good place to be. Your happy cardio place may look different. Maybe you are a long distance runner who lives for those 10 mile runs on the weekends. Maybe you are all about Zumba and getting your groove on with a group of people. Maybe it’s as simple as taking your dog for a long walk everyday. Make cardio fit into who you are, what your goals are, and what you enjoy. That is the key to to making it a sustainable part of your lifestyle.