Discover the many health and fitness benefits of cardiovascular training including best training methods and session plans.
Cardiovascular – or aerobic – fitness pertains to the efficiency at which the heart and vascular system can deliver oxygenated blood to the working muscles. In any aerobic discipline – cycling, running, swimming – an athlete who can sustain a high output is said to have a ‘good engine’. That is: their heart is strong and it can pump a high volume of blood around the body. As McArdle (2001) says, ‘a large maximum cardiac output (stroke volume) distinguishes champion endurance athletes from well-trained athletes.’
An individual with above average cardiovascular fitness will almost certainly have a larger than average sized heart, greater stroke volume (the quantity of blood that is pumped out of the left ventricle with each beat), low resting heart rate and above average muscular density in the muscles of the cardio-respiratory system: cardiac muscle, the diaphragm and the smooth muscles that line veins to assist blood flow.
Other general physiological characteristics commonly associated with the participation in regular cardiovascular exercise include:
Lean athletic physique
Low subcutaneous body fat
Low visceral body fat
Greater VO2 max
Improved cardio-respiratory efficiency
Greater bone density
Cardio Quick FAQ
How can cardio be measured?
Below I have outlined a range of tests that can measure cardiovascular fitness and be used as a method of tracking performance improvements.
The 2k erg row is the be all and end all of fitness tests. I say this because rowing recruits the two major muscle groups – legs and back – including most all other muscles in-between. Consequently, to keep so many muscles fuelled, the heart and lungs are required to work overtime.
What constitutes as a respectable 2k time? An Olympic rower will comfortably go sub-six minutes (1:30/500) – the world record stands at 5:35 which is an average of 1:23.5/500 (utterly insane). However, we must bear in mind that, like boxing, rowers are divided into weight categories. Heavyweights will pull the big sub-sixes whereas elite rowers from lighter weight categories aim for under 6:30. Really, for non-elite rowers, a time under or around 8 minutes is worthy of recognition.
As with any test there are multiple strategic methods of approach. Having tried numerous methods over the years, in my bid to go sub 6:30, I have found the four-phase method to be the most effective.
Four phase method
The 2k distance is split into 4 X 500m phases.
Phase1: We initiate the first 500 with 5 mammoth pulls bringing the pace at least 15 seconds below the target.
Phase 2: After those 5 big pulls we gradually ‘dial in’ to (or very near to) our target pace. By the time we are on pace the first phase will have concluded.
Phase 3: Between phases 2 and 3 we fight to maintain a consistent pace at (or close to) target. As we exit the third phase we will be entering the final 500m.
Phase 4: Over the final 500 – which can be further broken down into 2 X 250m – we aim to hold pace until that moment when we initiate the sprint.
Other rowing tests
The following tests range from intermediate to full marathon distance. Rows of these lengths are approached quite differently to the 2k erg. The pace must remain consistent and comfortably within the aerobic threshold.
Next to each of the four distances I have included current best times.
10,000m (31min 05)
21,090 (half marathon) (1hr 07min)
42,195 (full marathon) (2hrs 21min)
1.5 mile run
The 1.5-mile run is the cardiovascular test of choice throughout the British military. Though the attainment times vary across the different services, the objective remains the same: cover the distance as quickly as your physicality permits.
Of all the running tests the 1.5 mile is probably the trickiest. It sits in this physiological grey area between the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Consequently, if you start too fast you’ll quickly fill with led-like lactate before you round the first corner. But by erring on the side of caution, and maintaining a methodical pace, your time will only ever be substandard. Thus for the 1.5 mile strategy is everything.
To achieve the best possible personal time on this fitness test you must remain as close as you dare to your aerobic threshold (85% of maximum heart rate - ±5%). From the first to the final metre the pace should be one which we feel uneasy about: I’m not sure if I can sustain this for the duration – is the recurring thought we must prove one way or another.
A respectable time for the 1.5 mile would be 10 minutes or under. Sub 8 minutes is excellent and sub 7:30 is exceptional. (These times are based against military attainment: elite fighting units, such as the Royal Marines or Parachute Regiment, requires a prospective recruit cover the distance in 9:20).
When considering times for certain running distances – 5k, 10k, half/full marathon – it is perhaps best to focus our attention more on pacing. A 6-minute mile pace is to runners what a 20mph/average is to cyclists. That is, a coveted benchmark which indicates superior athletic performance. The further away from this benchmark pace – 6-minute mile – the slower your time in whichever distance you are testing yourself over.
10-mile time trial
The 10-mile time trial is ubiquitously used as a means of measuring a cyclist’s cardiovascular capacity and power outputs. It is to cyclists what the 1.5 is to runners – to wit a challenging high-intensity short distance test that hurts from the first metre to the very last.
For the duration of the distance the cyclist, if he or she harbours any real hope of achieving a good time, must maintain an aerobic output perilously close to the upper maximum; a watt or two away from triggering the anaerobic energy system.
It’s for this reason why a thorough warm-up is an essential and indispensable preparatory prerequisite of this test.
Before we willingly subject ourselves to between 25 and 35 minutes of physical agony, we need to ensure that our physiological systems have made acquaintance with the anaerobic threshold – just a handshake will do it.
The best method of approach for the 10-mile time trial is really quite simple. Once sufficiently warmed up we would from the start line get up to pace before covering the first 100 metres. From here on out our objective is to hold this pace for as long as physically possible. It is only over the final mile when we would consider increasing the pace, perhaps sprinting for the line if the legs haven’t melted to jelly.
If you fancy having a bash at this test the current world record for the 10-mile time trial stands at 16:35 (Cycling Weekly) – which is a little shy of 40 miles per hour. Insane!
How much cardio should I do?
The weekly volume of cardiovascular training would be largely determined by your fitness aspirations. For example, if you were looking to make health improvements or just wanted to ‘tick-over’, then 2 sessions of 45 to 60 minutes would probably suffice (in addition to resistance or circuit training).
However, aspirations that encompass events or competitions – half-/full marathons, triathlons, etc. – would of course require considerably greater training volume. This is discussed in more detail below.
Is cardiovascular training important?
Yes! But if you want more than a monosyllable see Benefits of cardiovascular fitness.
Best training methods for developing cardiovascular fitness
Few people recognise just how responsive the cardiovascular system is. For example, studies have shown that a mere 60 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise (such as gardening or walking) is enough to ‘maintain’ cardiovascular fitness – whilst also ‘reducing the risk of a first heart attack’ (McArdle et al – Exercise Physiology – 483).
Here we’re merely considering maintenance. To develop and advance cardiovascular fitness, say in preparation for an event such as a marathon, the intensity and training volume must both be consistently high. Otherwise the necessary physiological adaptations that result in augmented physicality are unlikely to take place. It is not uncommon for an elite level endurance athlete to exercise for 30-plus hours per week in readiness for a competition.
But if your ambition is more modest – for example, to be able to sustain light to moderate cardiovascular exercise for an hour – then an exercise regimen that consists of 2 to 3 continuous training sessions of 45 to 60 minutes would be a good start.
Range of relevant exercises
Conventional cardiovascular training involves continuous or steady state activities. Continuous training is exactly as it sounds: performing the same exercise without rest for extensive periods of time. To qualify as continuous training the activity should last longer than 15 minutes. There is no upper maximum duration; an Ironman can take anywhere between 8 to 20 hours to complete and the Enduroman (London to Paris triathlon) over 80 hours!
Cardiovascular exercises include:
But cardio is not solely limited to those exercise listed above. A circuit comprised of calisthenics and resistance exercises, if completed at sufficiently high intensities and with minimal rest, will also stimulate the cardiovascular system. Don’t believe me? Try the following circuit on for size:
Benefits of cardiovascular fitness
‘Regular aerobic training reduces systolic and diastolic blood pressure during rest and submaximal exercise,’ (McArdle et al – Exercise Physiology – 475). This is eminently a good thing. According to the NHS high blood pressure ‘increases your risk of serious problems such as heart attacks and strokes,’ (NHS 2020).
Furthermore, regular aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce one’s susceptibility to coronary heart disease (CHD), which is a serious health condition resulting from the accumulative build-up of fatty plaque in the arteries. In the US alone CHD is the number one cause of premature mortality and is responsible for a staggering 375,000 deaths every year (Greger 2017 – How Not To Die – pp9).
Of lesser importance, another benefit of developing cardiovascular fitness has to do with how it can enhance sports performance. Most all sports, to a greater or lesser extent, require an element of cardio fitness. From football to fencing, golfing to gymnastics, boxing to basketball, cardio is an indispensable attribute that not only enhances the pleasure of participation but can be a contributing factor to the successful outcome of competition.
Other reported benefits of cardiovascular training include:
Enhances neuro plasticity and neurogenesis: the birthing of new neurons
Reduced incidence of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus
Improve mental well-being
Decreases susceptibility to osteoporotic fractures
Reduced incidence of total mortality
(List adapted from Baranowski et al)
Cardiovascular fitness pertains to the efficiency at which the heart and vascular system can deliver oxygenated blood to the working muscles.
Large maximum cardiac output (stroke volume) distinguishes champion endurance athletes from well-trained athletes.
The cardiovascular system is highly responsive.
A mere 60 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise (such as gardening or walking) is enough to maintain general health and cardiovascular fitness.
Engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise has been shown to reduce susceptibility to strokes and coronary heart disease.
We’ve arrived at that point in the article where we dispense with theory and get practical. Below you will discover links to challenges and circuits that will put your cardio to the test.
30 Day Challenges
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Greger, M. Stone, G (2017) How Not to Die. USA. Macmillan.
McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., Katch, V. L (2001) Exercise Physiology Fifth Edition. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.