Wednesday Workout Tip: How hard should cardio be?

Good morning! Apologies for the dearth in posts. It is a busy time!

I am currently reading, Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights, by Dr. Alex Hutchinson.

The book is basically a collection of questions and answers regarding exercise. The answers are well researched and as of yet, I haven’t found one that I disagree with and/or know to be incorrect (I still have a bit to read and will keep you posted). The author was a long distance runner and completed his MA and PhD in journalism. I find it a little strange for a journalist to be writing about exercise, but journalists (good journalists) are excellent researchers, so I guess it does make a little bit of sense.

So, how hard should your cardio routine be? Hutchinson discusses the three primary cardio training zones: aerobic, threshold, and anaerobic.

If you are training aerobically, your working muscles are receiving an adequate supply of oxygen to produce ATP (energy for the cells) to continue exercising. Once you reach your threshold, you begin to accumulate a lot of lactate in the cells as you begin to experience oxygen debt. Anaerobic metabolism is when your muscles do not have enough oxygen to sustain the activity you are performing.  As you can deduce, the stages of training are determined by the change in oxygen supply to your cells.

As a general rule (stated by Hutchinson) you should aim for the following:

1. Spend 80% of your training time performing aerobic exercise. Aerobic activity is what you are most familiar with and your heart rate (HR) will be below 80% of your HRmax (220-age will give you a ROUGH estimate). If you don’t have a HR monitor, perform the Talk Test. Can you carry on a conversation? If yes, you are working out aerobically. And typically, it feels as if you could exercise forever (OK, for a long time) at this pace.

2. Spend 20% of your training time at your threshold. How do you know you’ve reached your threshold? Talking becomes more difficult. You can string a few words together, but it takes effort and your HR will be between 80-90% of your max. You should also be only able to continue such a pace for around 3-1o minutes.

2. Spend 10% of your training time performing anaerobic exercise. Talking is almost impossible at this stage of the game. You can maybe squeeze out a few words here and there, but your primary focus is not to pass out (yes, it’s hard, but it’s good for you in small doses). Your HR will be above 90% of your max. Lastly, you should only be able to sustain such intensity for 0.5-3 minute bursts.

Hope this helps! Happy cardio training!



Hutchinson, Alex. 2011. Which comes first, cardio or weights? Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.




4 thoughts on “Wednesday Workout Tip: How hard should cardio be?

  1. Very well said. I have always had a tough time figuring out these numbers. Thanks Morgan for the tips and the clarification. One question, should all three of these be included in one aerobic workout? Sometimes? All the time?

    1. You can aim to accomplish all three training zones in one workout (if you want to). In my opinion, I think it is a very good idea to get some anaerobic activity in every workout, but I work out every other day. If you’re working out every day (such as yourself) than accomplishing all three training zones in each workout is not necessary. Having a run composed solely of aerobic exercise is completely fine and probably a good idea if you did weights or sprints the day before.

      Again, it comes down to preference. I love short/intense workouts and try to do them every other day. I think you get more benefit than long/slow, but if you’re training everyday, long/slow is likely a good idea to break up the more intense workouts.

      I am rambling. Please tell me if this doesn’t make sense!

  2. Interesting post! Mixing up the types of cardio in my workouts has proven to help my overall level of fitness. It’s crazy frustrating though when I’ve built my running up to 10km, and yet when I step on the ice for hockey..up and down the ice once and I’m bagged! That said, endurance training (running) has helped to reduce my recovery time (in between shifts on the ice).

    1. Shifts in hockey are about 3-5 minutes, correct? And from what I can see from my TV and/or arena seat (as I am not an avid player), it is fairly high-intensity stuff. So you’re likely working at your lactate threshold (and at times, utilizing anaerobic metabolism).

      Thus, long/slow running isn’t going to do much for you. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it won’t help you as much as you want it to. You need to work on high-intensity interval training in order to improve your hockey game. Thus, you need to be working out at and above your lactate threshold on a fairly regular basis. I would encourage you to try intervals on the bike or treadmill. I prefer the bike (I feel safer) and typically do the following:

      30 seconds max, 60 seconds active rest
      45 seconds max, 90 seconds active rest
      60 seconds max, 2 minutes active rest

      And then go back down to 30 seconds. I would repeat this at least 2-3 times. It’s hard, but it will really help you on the ice (well, I hope)!!

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