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Cardiovascular training (or aerobic training) refers to a form of exercise that involves the cardiopulmonary system. Cardio fitness is generally measured by the capacity of the heart and vascular system to deliver oxygenated blood to the working muscles.
In any endurance discipline – road cycling, marathon rowing, or triathlon – an athlete who has a high aerobic threshold will be able to sustain output for protracted periods. That is, their heart is strong, and it can pump a high volume of blood around the body. As McArdle observes, ‘a large maximum cardiac output (stroke volume) distinguishes champion endurance athletes from well-trained athletes,’ (Exercise Physiology).
An individual who participates in regular cardiovascular training will likely have a larger heart than an untrained person. In addition, they will boast a higher stroke volume (the quantity of blood that is pumped out of the left ventricle with each beat), a lower resting heart rate and greater 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 physiological characteristics and health benefits commonly associated with participation in regular cardiovascular training include:
Lean athletic physique
Low subcutaneous body fat
Low visceral body fat
Greater VO2 max
Improved cardio-respiratory efficiency
Greater bone density
Cardiovascular training benefits
The above list is just a snapshot of the benefits that cardiovascular training confers. In addition to the many advantageous adaptations cardio can trigger, it has also been shown to improve a broad range of health biomarkers.
As we’ll see in a little more detail below, aerobic exercise can help us maintain a healthy body weight, ward off viral illnesses, and manage some chronic conditions.
First, we will explore two of the most prominent health benefits of cardio. Following these, the discussion will focus on the ways cardio can enhance your fitness and sports performance.
Health benefits of cardio
One of the main benefits of regular aerobic training is that it ‘reduces systolic and diastolic blood pressure during rest and submaximal exercise,’ (Exercise Physiology – 475). This is important considering that high blood pressure ‘increases your risk of serious problems such as heart attacks and strokes,’ (NHS 2020).
Another reason to start doing more cardiovascular training is that it has been shown to reduce our susceptibility to coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD is a serious health condition resulting from the accumulation of fatty plaque deposits in the arteries (atherosclerosis). According to Dr Greger, author of How Not To Die, in the US alone CHD is the number one cause of premature mortality and is responsible for a staggering 375,000 deaths every year.
Cardio can help you outpace this dire statistic. Dr Kenneth Cooper tells us that ‘A good level of aerobic fitness also promotes less clotting in the blood.’ He goes on to say that is ‘especially valuable when treating patients with coronary heart disease after they have had a heart attack,' (The Aerobics Program For Total Well-Being).
Start cardiovascular training today!
But you don’t have to wait until after you’ve had a heart attack before you can start tapping into the CHD-reducing benefits of cardiovascular training. If you start including more aerobic exercise into your training routine now (as well as transitioning to a diet outlined in How Not To Die), you can dramatically reduce your risk of suffering from CHD.
And it doesn’t matter how little exercise you’ve done in the past or how untrained you currently are. In his book Exercised, Professor Liberman outlines a study that demonstrates how rapidly the body responds to modest amounts of aerobic exercise. After ‘thirty sedentary years’ a group of participants agreed to undergo a six-month training programme consisting of ‘walking, cycling, and jogging.’
After the intervention, Liberman reports, the ‘average volunteer’s blood pressure, resting heart rate, and cardiac output returned to his twenty-year-old level,’ (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health – p238).
Fitness benefits of cardio
Engaging in cardiovascular training does more than reduce disease risk. Keeping up your cardio also delivers a barrage of fitness benefits. In the NSCA’s Essentials of Tactical Strength & Conditioning, we are told that ‘aerobic endurance is an important fitness component’ that ‘fosters’ improved physical ‘performance.’ Cardio achieves this by attenuating the onset of fatigue during demanding tasks and activities. This enables you to workout longer or just cope better throughout a busy day.
Another benefit of developing cardiovascular fitness has to do with how it can enhance sports performance. Most 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 benefits of cardiovascular training include
Slows the decline of cognitive performance
Enhances neuroplasticity and neurogenesis: the birthing of new neurons
Reduced incidence of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus
Improve mental wellbeing
Decreases susceptibility to osteoporotic fractures
Reduced incidence of total mortality
(List adapted from Baranowski et al)
Cardiovascular training FAQ
Now that we’ve briefly looked at a range of benefits of cardiovascular training, the rest of the article focuses on the application of cardio.
Comprised of two sections, the first part outlines a range of aerobic endurance fitness tests. These tests provide you with an opportunity to assess your current cardio capacity.
The second part covers training methods. In addition to a list of cardio exercises, we will review the optimal weekly dosage required to access the health and fitness benefits.
How can cardio performance be measured?
There are a range of methods that can be used to measure aerobic performance. Some methods involve assessment equipment (and a bit of technical knowledge), while others can be conducted with little more than a stopwatch and a training track.
Below I have outlined a range of accessible tests that you can use to assess your current cardio capacity. But the tests can serve a higher purpose than informing you of your aerobic fitness start point. If implemented as part of a training programme, they can be used to monitor and measure progress. Applying tests in this way is an effective method for tracking performance improvements.
2k rowing test
The 2k 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 a respectable 2k time? An Olympic rower will comfortably go sub-six minutes (1:30/500m) – the world record stands at 5:35 (an average of 1:23.5/500m). 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 (2:00/500m average) is worthy of recognition.
As with any test, there are multiple strategic methods of approach. Having tried numerous methods over the years, 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.
Phase 1: We initiate the first 500 with five mammoth pulls bringing the pace at least 15 seconds below the target.
Phase 2: After those five 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 the pace until that moment when we initiate the sprint.
Other rowing machine fitness test
The following tests range from intermediate to full marathon distance. Rows of these lengths are approached quite differently from 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.
5000m (14 min 56 secs)
10,000m (31 min 5 secs)
21,090 (half marathon) (1 hr 07 mins)
42,195 (full marathon) (2 hrs 21 mins)
2.4 km run test
The 2.4 km run test (1.5 miles) 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 fitness test, strategy is everything.
1.5 mile run time
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 miles would be 10 minutes or under. Sub 8 minutes is excellent and sub 7:30 is exceptional. (These times are based on military attainment: elite fighting units, such as the Royal Marines or Parachute Regiment, require a prospective recruit to 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, the slower your time in whichever distance you are testing yourself over.
Related: Improve your cardio performance with this HIIT Running Workout >
The 10-mile (16k) time trial is commonly used as a means of measuring a cyclist’s cardiovascular capacity and power outputs. It’s 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 that a thorough warm-up is an essential and indispensable preparatory prerequisite of this test.
Related: This Cycling Workout builds stamina in the legs
Cycle fitness test preparation
Before we willingly subject ourselves to between 25 and 35 minutes of physical torture, we need to ensure that our physiological systems have made acquaintance with the anaerobic threshold.
The best method of approach for the 10-mile time trial is quite simple. Once sufficiently warmed up, you would reach race pace within the first 100 metres. From here, your objective is to hold the pace for as long as physically possible. It is only over the final mile that you 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 – which is a little shy of 40 miles per hour. Insane!
Other cardiovascular endurance test
12 minute Cooper run
Bleep test (multi-stage fitness test)
V̇O₂ max test
How much cardiovascular training should I do?
The weekly volume of cardiovascular training would be largely determined by your fitness aspirations. For example, if you are looking to make health improvements or just want to ‘tick over’, then two to three weekly sessions of between 30 to 45 minutes would probably suffice (in addition to resistance or circuit training).
The above recommendations are similar to those prescribed to the sedentary participants in the study outlined by Professor Liberman. A six-month light- to moderate-intensity cardio training programme was all it took to help the volunteers lose 10 pounds of weight and increase their cardiovascular fitness.
However, if you aspire to enter an endurance event – such as a half-/full marathon, cycle race, or triathlon competition – you would have to increase your training volume considerably. It is not uncommon for an elite-level endurance athlete to exercise for 30-plus hours per week in readiness for a competition.
Best cardio exercises to lose weight?
All cardiovascular exercises can help you lose weight. But to tap into the weight-loss effectiveness of cardio requires consistency. ‘The greatest benefits of aerobic endurance exercise are achieved through consistent, long-term, participation,’ (NSCA’s Essentials of Tactical Strength & Conditioning).
How to improve 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,’ (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 training volume must be consistently high. Otherwise, the necessary physiological adaptations that result in augmented physicality are unlikely to take place.
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 training sessions of 45 to 60 minutes would be a good start.
Cardiovascular training 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 eight to 20 hours to complete and the Enduroman (London to Paris triathlon) over 80 hours!
A list of cardio exercises
But cardio is not solely limited to those exercises 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 this Bodyweight Circuit >
Cardiovascular training takeaways
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.
A consistent cardio workout routine can confer many advantageous physiological adaptations. These include a stronger and more capacious heart; augmented red blood cell count; improved viscosity of the blood; increased efficiency of the vascular system; expansion of the arteries and veins (vasodilation); increased density of capillaries (capillarisation); reduction in cholesterol and ‘harmful’ LDL fat (low-density lipoprotein).
The cardiovascular system is highly responsive and many of the adaptations listed above take place in a matter of weeks.
For those who are untrained, just 60 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise (such as gardening or walking) is enough to maintain general health and cardiovascular fitness (according to McArdle).
Engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise has been shown to reduce stroke and coronary heart disease risk factor.
About Adam Priest –
A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing practitioner. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites.
Cooper, K. (1982) The Aerobics Program For Total Well-Being. Evens & Co. USA.
Greger, M. Stone, G (2017) How Not to Die. USA. Macmillan.
Lieberman, D. (2021) Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest, and Health. Penguin. USA.
McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., Katch, V. L (2001) Exercise Physiology Fifth Edition. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.