Aerobic is one of those fitness terms that doesn’t get much respect these days. An analogy is the late Rodney Dangerfield in a sweaty T-shirt on the treadmill at the gym. (No, that gross-out movie was never made, but a working title might have been called “Humping Iron.”) The fitness term du jour is “cardio,” yet it’s nothing more than a generalized and rather useless idea of the heart and lungs being forced to work extra hard. Cardio is an imprecise and misleading term. Instead, runners need to know what going aerobic means. Why? Because building a healthy fitness and fat-burning conditioning base starts with training the body in an aerobic state. It’s not about “feel the burn” or “no pain, no gain.” To help runners better understand this important (and overlooked) aspect of training, the Natural Running Center is proud to present the first of a six-part series by Dr. Steve Gangemi, aka the Sock Doc, on the basic principles of aerobic training. — Bill Katovsky


Part I: Aerobic Activity Is the Foundation to Your Health and Fitness

by the Sock Doc

Aerobic activity will kill you. Aerobic activity will give you a heart attack. Aerobic activity will deplete your sex hormone levels and age you. Aerobic activity will waste away your muscles. Don’t do aerobic activity!

Headlines such as these have been circulating like wildfire lately. I’m not sure exactly why there’s more now – perhaps it’s due to the huge increase in people who are entering and running half or full marathons; I’ll get to them in Part V of this series.  Several CrossFit aficionados and various well-known personal trainers are anti-aerobic and they feel that you have to kick your own butt day in, day out, to achieve results (strength, power, and a ripped body). I’ll give you my take based off personal experience, professional experience, research, and knowledge gained from those who know more than me about various subject matters.Whether you’re an endurance athlete, strength athlete, or a little bit of both I hope there’s something you will learn. Even though I come from a deep endurance background, I’m not going to say aerobic training is the ideal way to train all the time, (because it isn’t). But aerobic exercise sure isn’t going to wreck your health and strength if done properly. Actually, it’s much the opposite. There’s a time for it all more or less.

What Exactly Do You Mean By Cardio?

To start off with, most people are using the word “cardio” to describe what they think is aerobic conditioning. A”cardio” activity can be either aerobic or anaerobic, depending on the level of effort and exertion required for that individual to do the exercise. Often people train “cardio” anaerobically – they are exercising at a high intensity. These people have neglected to develop a key component of their health and fitness – the aerobic system. Calling anything endurance “cardio” is just as wrong as calling everything you lift, carry, or throw “weight lifting.” It’s a generalized non-specific term. Just as cardio can mean walking 100 meters or running a marathon, weight lifting can mean carrying your laundry from your wash room to your bedroom or it could mean deadlifting three times your body weight. So let’s talk aerobic and anaerobic when it comes to “cardio.” If we don’t do so I might have nightmares of Richard Simmons in his running shorts. Nobody wants that.

Aerobic Capacity: Building a Solid Foundation

Your aerobic system provides a solid foundation for good health. It is the system that predominately moves you efficiently through the day as these muscles support your overall posture. Training your aerobic system will increase mitochondria in your muscle cells to generate energy (ATP) and increase capillary vascularization for increased oxygen utilization. These mitochondria burn fat and glucose (sugar), but they’re much more efficient using fat as energy over glucose – twelve times more. In general, Type I, red, slow twitch muscle fibers are aerobic and burn primarily fat for energy.

Aerobic conditioning is also a necessary foundation of virtually all training. Some exception could possibly be made for sprinting less than 200 meters (one time, no repeats), but most activities or sports will best be performed with a well developed aerobic system. The longer an event, the more your body will rely on the aerobic system. A strong aerobic base will even benefit one’s recovery in-between sets of strength training as well as anaerobic interval training too.

Many people, especially many “athletes” are running long distances with a very poor aerobic system, relying heavily on their anaerobic system to get them through their training. This anaerobic training is their “cardio” and it’s very, very unhealthy, which is part of the reason so many point to “cardio” as harmful to one’s health, especially when it comes to the immune and hormonal systems. So these anti-aerobic “cardio” gurus cite studies such as the one in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology in April 2004, “Intensive Swimming Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress and Reproductive Dysfunction in Male Wistar Rats: Protective Role of Alpha-Tocopherol Succinate” to back up their claims. Well, if you’re making a rat (or a human) swim intensively for three hours a day, five days a week yeah there is going to be oxidative stress and hormonal dysfunction. (As a side note in this study, the researchers noted the free radical damage could be protected with vitamin E.)

But this doesn’t mean aerobic “cardio” is bad. Swimming intensely for three hours (gotta be a long time for a rat) is going to tax the anaerobic system pretty significantly. This is not “aerobic” – it’s chronic anaerobic “cardio.” When you’re constantly using your anaerobic system more than your aerobic system, it puts a major stress to your entire body – your nervous system, cardiovascular system, hormonal system, immune system, and digestive system – pretty much all of it. For example, if you’re out for a long run, say 30-60 minutes, and your aerobic system is very poor, then you might be running at say 70% anaerobic and 30% aerobic. But if you develop your aerobic system, then at that same pace you could flip the energy utilization to 70% aerobic, 30% anaerobic. You’re a much more efficient athlete. This is evident when using a heart rate monitor { see sidebar at end of article} and seeing your HR lower at a given pace/exertion level than what it once was in weeks or months previously. If you have access to an exercise physiology lab and a gas analyzer you can measure your respiratory quotient – the level of aerobic (fat burning) vs. anaerobic (sugar burning) – occurring during your run or other workout.

Anaerobic Conditioning: Are You Ready? Probably Not

Type II, white, fast twitch muscle fibers are primarily anaerobic, (some are a mix of both fast and slow twitch), – they burn sugar and creatine phosphate and are more for power and speed. They’ll increase your mitochondria too, but the anaerobic system will fatigue much quicker than the aerobic system. High intensity workouts tend to be predominately anaerobic as is much of strength training due to various Type II muscle fibers being utilized and developed rather than Type I aerobic fibers. This however is a generalization, as some forms of strength training can also develop the aerobic system. Anaerobic activity incurs oxygen debt and a build-up of lactic acid; muscle imbalances and fatigue can result if continued. Muscle imbalances can been verified through certain manual muscle testing evaluations, (it’s a very accurate neurological assessment when performed correctly), as well as by visual inspection – one hip higher than the other or one shoulder rotated inwards, for example. Pain, poor performance, and injury often result from chronic muscle imbalances.

Essentially, you’re almost always using both systems, (the exception would be an all out sprint), depending on several factors which will be discussed later – exercise, diet, and lifestyle (overall stress levels). Anaerobic endurance and strength is essential in many circumstances and sports, but it is the aerobic system that will provide you with the endurance to work, play, think, sleep, and go several hours without food. Oh yeah, without a healthy aerobic system you won’t be a star in the sack – impotence and premature ejaculation for men and lack of sex drive as well as the inability to achieve an orgasm for both sexes is partly dependent on a healthy aerobic system (many other factors too).

Training Truly Aerobically

The line between predominantly aerobic and predominantly anaerobic is determined by your lactate threshold (LT).  Below the LT you will be more aerobic than anaerobic, and above you will be more anaerobic than aerobic. True aerobic training is focused around lower-effort training zones 2 and 3, not the typical 3+ zone most are training their chronic “cardio” in. The “180-Age Formula” is also a great way to determine your aerobic training zone. Finding your heart rate zone is discussed more in Part II. Training around your LT too often is not a wise idea. Some call this area the “Red Line” or “Black hole” – it’s a great way to overtrain and should be left for hard days (hard group rides/runs) or racing days. A conditioned athlete may be able to endure this rate of exertion for well over one hour; whereas an unconditioned weekend warrior may be lucky to withstand fifteen minutes. Therefore, anaerobic training is often best performed as shorter, hard interval training above your lactic threshold, well into the anaerobic realm of training. This is where High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has its place. This will be discussed next in Part II along with developing your aerobic system regardless of your sport or goals.


Using a Heart Rate Monitor

From the weekend exerciser to the professional athlete, heart rate monitors are the most ideal way to make your workouts much more effective, thereby increasing your fitness level while creating a healthier lifestyle. In my opinion, everybody should be wearing a HR monitor every time they exercise.

A heart rate monitor allows you to monitor your heart rate with a quick glance at a wristwatch that is constantly receiving your heart rate from a wireless transmitter belt worn around the lower part of your chest.

Today’s heart rate monitors come with a wide variety of functions and are extremely affordable. The one thing all heart rate monitors do is what gives them their name – they monitor your heart rate, so you don’t have to continuously stop to take your heart rate or guess at what it might be. Simple heart rate monitors will usually just give you an accurate heart rate display on the wristwatch. Some will tell the time of day and/or have a stopwatch function, allowing the user to get by with wearing just one watch while exercising. Other functions of heart rate monitors include a countdown timer, lap counter, back light illumination, target zone settings with audible out-of-zone alarm, time in training zone display, average heart rate display, and day/date calendar. Some monitors are even capable of downloading your workout information into your personal computer with the use of an interface adapter. Polar and Garmin are two companies that make great monitors.

Heart rate monitors work the best when a runner, cyclist, or triathlete knows how to properly use them. Putting the monitor on to see your heart rate can be interesting and fun, but it will be most valuable to your health and fitness program if you know how to properly monitor your heart. The maximum aerobic heart rate formula developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone is a great way to help you determine at what heart rate you should be exercising most often.

Follow the guidelines below to see what HR you should be exercising at.

1)Subtract your age from 180
2)Modify this number by choosing below:

a.If you have or are recovering from a major illness or if you are on medication, subtract an additional 10
b.If you have not exercised before or have been exercising but have been injured, sick, going “down hill” or have asthma or allergies, subtract an additional 5
c.If you have been exercising for more than two years and making progress without any problems, add 5
d.If you have been exercising for up to two years without any significant problems, then keep the result of 180 – your age

Now that you have your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate number, it is important that you exercise accordingly with a proper warm up and cool down.
•    Warm-Up for 10-15 minutes at a heart rate of 10-15 beats below your Max HR.
•    Exercise at an intensity 0-5 beats below your max heart rate, but not over
•    Cool-Down for 10-15 minutes at a HR similar to the warm-up, but now with decreasing intensity.

If you plan to exercise only 20-30 minutes, your workout will be a warm-up and cool-down.

This formula is ideal if you’re starting an exercise program and is also perfect for any experienced athlete as it correlates with their aerobic training zone