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Anaerobic versus aerobic training: how to choose the right cardio for your training goals



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An image of me, trudging on the treadmill, bored as an outing before I heard about anaerobic cardio exercise.


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Once there was a fitness goal, a young girl spent hours on the treadmill, one workout of 30 minutes at a time in a stable condition. She wanted to lean out – aka lose body fat to improve muscle tone – and had always heard that cardio was the best way to do this.

So she ran and ran although she really liked sitting on the treadmill . But she never achieved that goal.

The girl was me who has been studying the physiology of exercise for years now and understands that 30 minutes a day on the treadmill – or doing any kind of steady-state cardio – will not necessarily help me my long-term fitness goals.

Fast forward six years: I am now following a training routine that includes only one steady-state cardio training per week (unless I train for a race; more about that later). The rest is all high-intensity interval training weightlifting and CrossFit . And to my surprise of around 2014, I have, among many others, achieved my goals for body composition.

If you too have clambered on the treadmill StairMaster or elliptical and you are looking for a way out, this is it.

Steady-state cardio versus intervals

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Running a long-distance race is about as aerobic as it gets.


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What most people usually know as "steady-state cardio" and "intervals" are scientifically aerobic and anaerobic exercise, respectively. Aerobic means "with oxygen", while anaerobically means "without oxygen".

Your body uses different energy pathways to support different types of exercises. When you train aerobically, your body uses oxygen to support sustained exercise. This type of exercise is what most people think of when they think of cardio: walking, jogging, cycling, walking, steps, swimming.

When you do anaerobic exercises, your body produces energy without oxygen. This happens when your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, and blood vessels) cannot spread enough oxygen to support the exercise requirements you are doing – therefore, anaerobic exercises are only performed in short bursts or intervals.

Examples of anaerobic exercise are sprinting the 100-meter mark, long jumps, high jumps and burpees. In principle, any movement that requires a great deal of effort over a short period is an anaerobic exercise. Even heavy weight lifting (lifting a lot of weight for only one to five repetitions) uses the anaerobic path, but for the purposes of this manual we adhere to cardio exercises.

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The great thing about anaerobic exercises is that you can turn any traditional aerobic exercise into an anaerobic workout. Take cycling as an example: cycling for 20 minutes at an even pace is aerobic, but cycling for 30 seconds very fast, resting for 30 seconds and repeating a total of 10 minutes is anaerobic.

Your body often switches between aerobic and anaerobic exercises during workouts that require different levels of exercise. In the example above, if you rest during your 30 seconds but continue to move at a slower pace, your body uses oxygen to support that 30 seconds of simple movement.

Read more: Fast-twitch versus slow-twitch muscles: How to train for both speed and endurance

Advantages of aerobic and anaerobic exercise

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Aerobic and anaerobic exercises have many health benefits, including improved heart health.


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Steady-state cardio and intervals both offer their own set of benefits – but they are only beneficial to you if you do the right type of cardio to achieve your goals.

Aerobic training primarily improves endurance and endurance, or your ability to practice for long periods of time. It increases the capacity of your cardiovascular system to provide your working muscles with the oxygen and nutrients they need to keep moving.

Aerobic training has also been associated with improved immunity, reduced risk of many chronic diseases, improved heart health, increased mood and stronger bones – various benefits that make aerobic training more valuable than just fitness outcomes.

When it comes to components of fitness, anaerobic exercise primarily improves speed and strength. It can help you to run fast, jump higher and walk steeper slopes. It is also known that anaerobic exercises increase your VO2 max promote faster and more significant weight loss and contribute to improved body composition – this is why HIIT earned its place as a top training option for people focused on losing of fat.

Anaerobic exercises also have health benefits: such as aerobic exercises, interval training can reduce your risk of chronic diseases, improve heart health and strengthen your bones, especially if you incorporate resistance training at your intervals. Anaerobic exercise can also speed up your metabolism, especially during the hours after your workout.

Read more: Getting out of breath while walking stairs: what is normal, what is not

Should you do aerobic or anaerobic exercise?

To determine what type of cardio you should do, first look at the long-term outcome that you want. It is useful to play the "if, then" game with this. For example:

If you want to run a marathon … then you have to do aerobic exercises.

If you want to get faster … then you have to do anaerobic exercise.

If you want to get a personal record on your 5K … then you must do both.

The reason that you have to include both forms of cardio in the last example is because reaching a personal record for a 5K requires speed and endurance. You will not exceed your best time if you keep running 3.1 miles at the same pace – adding one or two speed-based interval workouts each week will improve your anaerobic capacity and allow you to run faster for longer.

Read more: The 7 most important workout movements you must do

Cardio or intervals in a stable state: what is better?

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As the above examples show, there is no "best" form of cardio – it all depends on your goals. In fitness there is a saying: "Train for what you do." This usually applies to people who compete in different fitness disciplines, but you don't have to compete with anything to apply the concept to you.

See it this way:

  • Runners walk
  • Weightlifters lift weights [19659053] Bodybuilders build muscles
  • Triathletes swim, run and cycle

Seems pretty clear, right? It all goes back to the "if, then" game – work out according to your goals.

However, you do not feel that you are stuck with a type of cardio because of your current goal. All movement is good movement, even if it does not directly correlate with the outcome you want now. In fact, you can benefit from changing your routine to prevent boredom and burnout, as well as reducing your risk of repetitive stress injuries.

When I train for a long-distance race, I could trade a long run for an interval-style workout for no other reason than I feel like it. I will probably someday make up for the long run, but even if I don't, that one trade will not hurt me in the long run. As long as the majority of your training matches your goal, you are golden.

Read more: Nike Run Club, Strava, Daily Burn: the 7 best running apps

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The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a doctor or other qualified health care professional for any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.


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