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Training to improve cardiovascular fitness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 by  
Filed under Daily Blog

The most important muscle in your body.

The most important muscle in your body.

A large part of my training focus this year has been getting myself into outstanding cardiovascular shape. Over the past ten weeks the improvements I’ve made to my cardio have been significant, and this has translated to a very noticeable and positive difference out on the mountain biking trails. Today I’d like to distill what I’ve done over these last few months to improve my cardio, and hopefully provide some useful information to those who would like to do the same.

Before I get started, I need to touch on some important ancillaries to your cardio training. I’m not going to focus on these things too much today, but they are important if you want to maximize your hard work.

  • Support your training with a sound diet. The vast majority of your calories should come from “clean”, all-natural foods. Examples: chicken, fish, shrimp, lean beef, egg whites, whole eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, brown rice, oats, potatoes, natural peanut butter, olive oil, cottage cheese and so on.
  • Don’t drink your calories. Stay away from sugary drinks and alcohol. Drink lots of water (with electrolytes, as needed). Re-hydrating is especially important because you’ll be sweating a lot.
  • Get plenty of rest. Everyone is different with the amount of rest they require. For me it’s 8 hours of sleep every night. It’s also important to take a day off every week, or at least do non-strenuous physical activity on that day.
  • Support your cardio training with weight training. Strength and muscle endurance are important to just about all sports. Also, extended and intense cardio training has the potential to be very catabolic to your muscles.
  • Most supplements on the market today are a waste of money. There are a few supplements, however, that I feel are effective and beneficial: a good multi-vitamin, Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), Glutamine, vitamin C and fish oil (or an oil blend). Glucosamine/Chrondroitin/MSM can also be very helpful if you are experiencing joint pain.

When you’re losing fat or gaining muscle it’s easy to gauge your progress (strength improvements, tape measure increases/decreases, body fat changes), but how do you track the improvements to your cardiovascular fitness level? What you need is a good heart rate monitor. I use and highly recommend the Timex Ironman Heart Rate Monitor.

If you’re serious about your training I recommend that you track your HRrest, HRmax, HRR, HR Recovery and VO2 MAX. For detailed information about these terms and how you can use your heart rate monitor to track your progress, please read my February 14, 2011 blog.

I’m going to break my suggestions down into categories based on ability. Don’t skip ahead and attempt to perform cardio that is beyond your current abilities–you could die (seriously). ALWAYS CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE BEGINNING ANY SORT OF PHYSICAL FITNESS PROGRAM.

Rank Beginner
If you are overweight, out of shape and struggle to do even the most mundane physical activities then you need to start your training with some light walking. Begin by walking around the neighborhood at a normal pace for about 10 minutes. Do this every day, gradually increasing the speed and duration of your walks.

The type of cardio you do is not that important, so do what you enjoy: Run, bike, swim, row… it’s up to you! Start off with 20-30 minutes of Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardio, which is cardio performed at around 65-75% of your maximum heart rate (again, see my February 14, 2011 blog for information on determining your maximum heart rate). Work your way up to 45 minutes of LISS cardio. When you can comfortably perform 45 minutes of LISS cardio 3-4 times per week, you’re ready to get more serious.

Intermediate to Advanced
The next step in your training progression is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This type of cardio is where you’re going to start seeing some real changes in your cardiovascular abilities. In order to continuously challenge your body, it’s important to ramp up the difficulty over the weeks.

Note that these percentages shown below are based on perceived effort. “100%” means all-out and holding nothing back. You’re going to get what you put into it, so if you are slacking off on your “all-out” intervals then you’re not making effective use of your training time.

Here’s the actual training progression I’ve been using this year. Intervals are expressed as maximum (100%) effort/active recovery (about 60% effort), in seconds:

Week 1: 14 minutes 30/45
Week 2: 18 minutes 30/45
Week 3: 22 minutes 30/45
Week 4: 14 minutes 45/45
Week 5: 18 minutes 45/45
Week 6: 22 minutes 45/45
Week 7: 14 minutes 60/45
Week 8: 18 minutes 60/45
Week 9: 22 minutes 60/45
Week 10: 14 minutes 60/30
Week 11: 18 minutes 60/30
Week 12: 22 minutes 60/30

Extended Medium-High Intensity cardio. This type of cardio is very demanding and requires a very strong cardio base. You’ll be performing 45-60 minute sessions with an average heart rate of 85%-90% of your maximum. I like to do this kind of cardio on the recumbent bike. Here are some suggestions:

  • I do this kind of cardio about 2 hours after a meal. I like to have at least two meals (high in protein and carbohydrates) in me to help fuel this workout. You do not want to attempt this while fasted!
  • About 20 minutes before the cardio session I toss 3 scoops of AtLarge Nutrition’s BCAA+ powder, 12 ounces of water and some crushed ice into my shaker. I drink the BCAAs slowly over about 10-15 minutes.
  • I spend the first two minutes of the cardio workout quickly getting my heart rate above 160 BPM. For the entire remaining 43-58 minutes I never allow my heart rate to drop below 160 BPM (83% of my maximum heart rate).
  • I simulate hills by frequently bumping up the bike’s magnetic resistance level from my base riding level of “7” all the way up to its maximum setting (and points in between).
  • I max my heart rate (193 BPM) about 8-12 times times over the course of the ride.
  • I try to improve the distance traveled from one session to the next; if I can do this without increasing my average heart rate that indicates even better improvement.

Right now my cardio training is a mix of all of the above, plus actual mountain biking. I do four cardio sessions per week, and my training changes from one week to the next. A typical week might look something like this: 1 LISS session (my day “off”), 1 HIIT session, 1 extended Medium-High Intensity session and 3-4 hours of mountain biking.

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