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Two General Categories of Cardiovascular Training: Aerobic and Anaerobic

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

So, my focus in undergrad was exercise physiology- I absolutely love the topic! Exercise physiologists are simultaneously whip smart and also super fun loving. If you want to have a good time in San Diego, go when the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is having their annual conference there!

I simply love topics pertaining to physiological changes from exercise. I don’t spend a lot of time discussing cardiovascular training because, well, it is usually the only kind of training my clients are doing. Very few folks come to me with enough strength, so that typically needs to be our focus. I also tend to work predominately with women, and we women have often been instructed to use fitness to look a certain way, and to get smaller. I am really trying to help us women move out of that smaller is better, more cardio is better, how I look is more important than how I feel mindset.

Enough said, let’s get into it!

Cardiovascular workouts (aka, cardio) improve the responsiveness of your cardiovascular system to stress. You supply a stress to your system, say in the form of a jog, and your body responds by improving the output of your heart so you can receive much needed oxygen to the farthest reaches of your body.

When we head out the door for a jog, our sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system starts getting fired up and sends signals to our heart to speed up (increased heart rate), and increase the force of heart contractions (thereby increasing the amount of blood that the heart ejects). Increased force of heart contractions with increased heart rate greatly increase our cardiac output.

*The sympathetic nervous system has a TON of other targets- it influences the muscle lining our arteries to allow blood to pass more readily, it affects our GI system, really every system in our body receives input from the ANS, but for simplification, we’ll stick with the heart).

We all know that the AHA recommends 150- 300 minutes of moderate activity each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous (high intensity) activity. Of this time, about 60 minutes should be devoted to strength training. You may have a tough time getting cardio while strength training if you are lifting heavy. Cardio and strength training go together splendidly in the form of high intensity interval training (HIIT), such as As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAPs), and tabatas (I’ll explain a tabata below!).

Cardio training is an important aspect of maintaining our overall health and wellness, and needs to be balanced- both with rest and also with the right mixture of conditioning.

All good health is based on balance- on inhabiting the middle of the road. As I wrote about in last week’s post, many of us promote high minutes of cardio activity, without understanding how to nourish our rest response.

Similarly, many of us perform one type of conditioning (cardio without strength or strength without cardio), or one type of cardio- aerobic without anaerobic.

We can further breakdown cardio into two types: aerobic (where we are pacing our activity so our body can use oxygen for cellular respiration) and anaerobic (where we are working harder and faster and our cells have to go through metabolic functions without oxygen- isn't that amazing that we have this available?)

Think of aerobic = with oxygen and anaerobic= without oxygen.

A good way to know if you are approaching an anaerobic state is a talk test- when you can no longer maintain speaking while you are moving, you are generally shifting into anaerobic conditioning. You will be breathing hard out of your mouth, and you will not be able to sustain activity for long. Another helpful tool to use is a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). On a scale of 0-20- 0 being at rest and 20 being a full out 100% effort, rate your level of exertion. This subjective scale is usually pretty spot on. If you are well conditioned, pushing yourself into a RPE of 16+ you can approach anaerobic states.

Not every mover can access anaerobic conditioning. If you have experienced a medical issue related to your cardiac/ respiratory system, it may not be safe for you to train at this level. Please check with your MD first!

Also, orthopedic conditions frequently keep people from participating in both aerobic and anaerobic cardiac conditioning (please see all of my previous posts for more info on this!)

So if I can be doing aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, how much of each should I be doing?

First, include both. As always, give yourself the option of the sizzler buffet experience of movement (all of the things-the frozen yogurt next to the pizza!) rather than the fine dining experience. We develop a lot of suffering when we do not keep the spectrum of our movements open as adults (unless there is a very good, medically evidenced reason, do not stop movement experiences), when we instead keep doing the same thing over and over (the same run, the same walk, the same swim). Mix things up! It is necessary for your neurologic health!

Second, because of how challenging anaerobic conditioning is on your body, you will never be able to do as much as your lower intensity cardio. Think of a walk vs a tabata workout. In tabatas we do short bouts of 20s (hopefully, anaerobic) work, such that we need 10 s bouts for rrest and catching our breath- letting our aerobic processes to kick in. Contrast this with a 3 hour walk/ hike, during which you can keep up a conversation with a friend. One is anaerobic and can only be sustained a very short duration, the other is sustainable.

Some examples of aerobic conditioning:

- Zumba

- Walking/ hiking

- Jogging/ running at a steady pace for time

- Swimming at a steady pace for time

- Cycling at a steady pace

Some examples of anaerobic conditioning:

- Sprints/ hill repeats while running, cycling

- Sprints while swimming

- Tabata training

- HIIT using cardio or strength training intervals

In practical strength classes, I offer an anaerobic conditioning offering about 3 times per month (once a week). This does not mean that every participant will be able to work at an RPE of 16 for 5 rounds of the tabata. Most of us will flow in and out of that effort. And as we get increasingly efficient and strong, we will be able to work harder, safely. I typically sprinkle some anaerobic intervals into my steady state cardio. For example, if I am swimming, I will do a portion of my swim at a steady state and offer 4-5 40 second sprints with 20 second recoveries, before I cool down.

Allow yourself to make choices about your cardiovascular conditioning that support what you love, and also what challenges you.

Also, please consider your heart on a day to day basis. There have been times in my life when my outer life was so stressful, I needed to just walk for cardio. We live in a world where we receive constant stress inputs, messaging around not being enough and a society that conditions us for more, more, more.

More exercise, more buying, more and more. I am curious about how the AHA would tailor their suggestions based on the constant input of sympathetic stress in all of our daily lives… I meet so many wonderful people who have never slowed down, never been encouraged to slow down, and that has tremendous impacts on our physical and emotional health.

Please consider that your heart muscle (like all muscle), and requires use and stress and also rest and recovery.. Please make sure you are offering yourself nourishment in the form of deep rest, in order to help balance your output. In order to do more, you must have a robust rest and recovery cycle. (BTW, we have known this in sport physiology for a LONG time).

Please check out my writing on the ensuing weeks in which we will focus on the secrets long known in sports performance to create restoration and thereby improved function for your heart (here is a clue- it’s all about the rest!)

Until next time, happy moving your heart and your body!


Vintage anatomical illustrations are so beautiful!

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