I was reading this article HERE on T-Nation “The Death of Steady State Cardio” by Rachel Cosgrove. A very long time ago, when I was an ISSA Certified Personal Trainer I attended a trainer workshop in Las Vegas that featured a session with Alwyn Cosgrove, Rachel’s husband. I don’t remember if she was there or not now. It was a very long time ago and I was very busy taking notes from Alwyn’s presentation on client mobility assessments.
Anyway, like most of these “Steady State Cardio” articles it tries to convince us that HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is the ultimate and thus only option for training of any type including long distance events, like the Half Marathon. I’ve commented a few times, and shared articles and links to articles about these training protocols. For one thing, a Half Marathon is a relatively short distance, and isn’t a good example of endurance training protocols. I think anyone who has got one under their belts would be able to keep training for them with less than 5 hours a week of running training.
Did you see my article “The One Exercise You Must Never Do…“
My own interpretation of this kind of slamming of “Steady State Cardio” is that we’re having a difference of opinion in what that term means. Assuming you slog along at some pace for a few hours and that’s what they mean by steady state cardio, then how about slogging along for a few hours at a 6:00 pace. That’s a six minute mile pace. It’s about a 2:38 marathon or two hours and thirty eight minute marathon. Not too shabby, but not a record either. So let’s do a few hours at 6:00 and get fat, as the articles all stipulate. To be honest with you I cannot run at that pace for more than a hundred (100) yards at a time. So I can’t offer an opinion on how that feels afterward. I cannot do that as steady state cardio.
Fine then, let’s interpret this from the perspective of Heart Rate. Find your Max Heart Rate, and let’s just do the simple version (220 – AGE). That’s your Maximum Heart Rate (estimated). Let’s do a two hour slog at 100%. That’s steady state, right? Just adjust the speed up and down as needed to stay at that 100% for a couple hours. My graph above shows me doing just that for a little over an hour. It’s not very easy. If you don’t believe me get your cardiologists okay and go for it. Go ahead, then comment below about how fat you feel having done that. Suunto says I’ll have a metabolic effect for 46 hours afterward. That’s a lot of fat burning BTW.
As a contrast, here’s my weight session with a 5 hour metabolic effect. Sweet. This is mostly supersets of squats and chinups with very little rest followed by shoulder presses and lat pulldowns. It was a great workout and I really burned the fat. 5 hours worth. Yeah. To be honest that is about 1/9 the effect of my 100% Heart Rate treadmill running workout. But I do weights because I enjoy them and they provide the support my endurance endeavors require. Running uphill requires strong legs. Climbing requires strong shoulders and back.
Steady State Cardio Roots
I think the root of the problem is that some warped peer-reviewed study of people who don’t work out found out that their fuel source wobbling along at a 60% Heart Rate was primarily fat. With fat as a fuel source you could potentially stay on the treadmill all day long burning fat at the “Steady State Cardio” rate of 60% Heart Rate ((220 – AGE) X .6). For me that’s 100 BPM (Beats Per Minute). That would totally suck to be on a treadmill at that speed for any more than a warm-up.
One major issue with this is that as we train, our bodies adapt and it’s harder to actually accomplish anything at that heart rate. If we were to wander around on a treadmill at that Heart Rate for a couple hours we’d just be hungry and thirsty and achieve nothing for our health. These articles are correct about that, so long as they’re actually talking about this version of “Steady State Cardio” and not the previous two examples I shared.
This brings us around to the Elephant in the Room. Specificity. Steve House pointed out in his Alpine Training seminar that you have only so much time at 80% and greater Heart Rate, so your approach, maybe two hours, across steep rough terrain, carrying a 40 pound backpack, has to be done at less than that to conserve energy for the climb. You need to train walking 6 miles or so at various inclinations, carrying a 40 pound backpack, while keeping your Heart Rate around 70%. This is a sports specific training objective.
If you analyze your sport of choice for the requirements, you will get a much better perspective on what is actually required in your training. If you’re wanting to ride a century, you’ll need to get into the groove of spending 5 or more hours in the saddle at a time. You don’t do that tossing kettlebells across the room and returning in a bear crawl dragging chains.
On the flip side, various studies have shown that there is some limited endurance effect to a HIIT protocol. Hence the Crossfitters tossing out stuff like
“you won’t be able to do a marathon, but you can have a fast 5k”
This has given rise to the whole “close enough” or “good enough” protocols like Tabata. I have experimented with Tabata, and a strict Tabata protocol is very difficult to do. I think a lot of the Tabata articles are kind of like taking Yoga at the gym from a facilitator that took a weekend workshop. I also have my doubts that anyone is going to win a SkiMo race after spending a year training for 16 minutes a week.
“Great. But I am doing a marathon” you might say.
Some hype is being generated about various HIIT style marathon training, but so far no one (as of this writing that I am aware of) has come off the couch and finished a marathon with a good time using this methodology. All of the hype is based on majorly injured previous winners going on to good times using HIIT style training. They already have the gas in the tank so to speak from the long hours of endurance training they used to do and the HIIT training is just keeping the muscle fibers warm and ripe.
If you have read my previous article about Anaerobic Threshold Training HERE you’d see how I feel this is a great alternative to the classic maligned “Steady State Cardio” though in this style of training you’re riding a very fine line, a steady line, of your Heart Rate Target Goal. In my mind though that makes it a Steady State, though a very high state. It’s just a play on words. I wish that instead of ripping on “Steady State Cardio” they’d rip on Low HR Cardio.
It’s not Steady State Cardio that’s the problem, it’s the Low HR Cardio!
Marketing your HIIT programs though is a bit easier to do when you take advantage of how much people dislike wandering around on a treadmill for a couple hours at 60% Heart Rate. I hate doing that and I actually don’t mind being on a treadmill for two hours or so at a time.