How to Improve Your Cardio
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How To Improve Cardio
I can hear all the meathead gurus out there going, “No one wants to do cardio. It will hinder our gains. It will keep us small.” The meme then comes in about not wanting to train like distance runners but wanting to train like sprinters. That is fair. To a point. But we also have to understand that endurance-based training can enhance strength gains and improve sports performance.
Let’s begin by saying that cardio can improve recovery time for all athletes. If we take it a step further and think about field sports like football, lacrosse, soccer, and field hockey, as well as intense combat sports like MMA, wrestling, and BJJ, we start to see that all of those sports have extreme strength components, extreme explosive components, and they also happen to have endurance in them.
We need to understand how athletes can enhance their explosive endurance so that they can hit big movements or gain positional domination or dominate down in the trenches. To do this in sports performance, athletes need to have some sense of endurance.
Thinking of endurance through physiology, we can start with mitochondrial respiration. Mitochondrial respiration is when the body uses some form of energy, like glycogen, and then the body will use that energy source to create ATP. ATP is the body’s currency; it is what determines how the body moves. By using oxygen, then transferring energy into ATP, the body can then start to move. This is all from mitochondrial respiration. If this doesn’t happen, we can’t move anymore.
We know that we have to improve mitochondrial respiration while knowing that we can also increase the volume of mitochondria so that we have more mitochondria respirating. This is a key concept to understand as we move forward to see how it can impact performance with endurance.
Most research around endurance-based training is based on sprint interval training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and long, slow distance (LSD) training. In essence, from all three of those categories, we want substrate metabolism to trigger and enhance an athlete’s overall endurance and we want mitochondrial mass to improve overall endurance.
Not so simple, lol.
Simply As Possible
By understanding the respiratory aspect, the mitochondrial mass aspect, and also understanding things like citrate synthase activation and regulatory proteins from something known as P53 we can start to see the endurance mechanisms in fine detail.
But in all reality, most of this stuff is going to go back to which type of training can increase an athlete’s mitochondrial mass/volume and an athlete’s mitochondrial respiration. This is how we can look at cardio as simply as possible to figure out what type of endurance is needed for whichever sport the athlete is training for.
What Improves What
Knowing that it comes down to mitochondrial mass and respiration within three types of training (sprint interval training, HIIT, LSD) we want to see what improves what. Initially, we know that HIIT and LSD contribute to increasing the mitochondrial mass.
Imagine being a CrossFitter and trying to create a bigger base, we want to start with the LSD. Sitting on a rower every day for a year plus will improve the mitochondrial volume within the body. On the other side, sprint interval training, along with a little bit of HIIT training, has been shown to improve the respiration rate of an athlete’s mitochondria. If mitochondria are respirating more effectively, an athlete can turn over ATP at a higher pace. Couple that with a big base, a big volume of mitochondria, and the mitochondria is respirating at a more efficient rate the athlete will have more energy and can sustain their movement pattern at a higher intensity for a longer period.
First, we can begin by testing athletes. Start by seeing if five to ten minutes can be sustained at a steady state. Is the athlete able to do that or do they die off quickly? We can do this with hill sprints as well. Does the intensity maintain throughout the efforts or does the intensity drop off? If by the fourth hill the intensity has substantially dropped off the athlete is unable to have positive respiration at a high intensity over a longer period. This hypothetical athlete will probably die off in the third period of a wrestling match. As football players, they probably have no chance of making it to the fourth quarter. This is great information.
With our tested information, we can start to then bring in LSD work. Twelve to fifteen weeks out from training camp, we can spend two days a week building the respiration mass and volume by getting on a rower or bike for 30 to 60 minutes. The LSD training will also improve athletes’ overall recovery from their strength training work. The cool thing about LSD training is that we can talk to athletes about strategy and work on the mental aspects of the game.
Over time we can slowly start to do HIIT training. As the athlete develops and their work capacity increases, we can start to play around with doing sprint-based interval training at certain times of the week as well as LSD training at certain times of the week. The key is to assess and figure out how each impacts the specific sport being trained for, the athlete’s overall respiratory capacity, and the performance of the individual athlete in training and competitively.
Throughout the summertime, we can have athletes on the bike or rower one to two times a week for thirty to sixty minutes. It is a great time to test athletes on their plays and their strategies. Then one day we might do five-minute repeats as a HIIT workout. Then one day we might do 10 to 15-second bursts followed by 60 to 90 second rest periods, which is more sprint interval training. This is where we will see an athlete’s overall respiratory capacity increase so that they can start to sustain that work over a longer period.
Ideally, by the time we get to the season, an athlete is capable of doing 5 to 10 sprint interval-based training bouts with a minimal diminishment in their overall quality of work. We need to collect data. We can use the cardio gains to impact the play of the game, like running a no-huddle offense in football to wear down the opposing team’s defense. Here is a meta-level of seeing how the endurance aspect can transfer over to the sporting competition.
We know that endurance and cardio training improve recovery, can enhance sprint interval training, improve explosive endurance, and help tremendously in the competitive environment. We also understand the difference between mitochondrial mass and mitochondrial respiration and which type of training impacts what aspect of the mitochondrial function and how it creates ATP. Finally, we think about which training transfers best to the sport and when to bridge the various training applications. All of this done correctly will lead to better performance on the field and a positive impact on strategy, especially as a coach.
Yo, It's Dane
Welcome to the Garage Strength Blog, where it is my goal to provide you with the experience and knowledge I've gained in the strength and conditioning world over many years of learning from both successes and failures. I train elite-level athletes in a multitude of sports from the high school to professional levels, already producing 5 Olympics and 30+ National Champions. If you want to be the next champion I train, check out my strength programs below!
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