“How do I improve my cardio?”

You don’t.

You improve a specific outcome.

Let me explain.

Cardio is a nebulous term. It could mean endurance, it could mean stamina, it could mean going for a long hike. Cardio is so broad and a large gamut that asking how to improve cardio is like asking how the human body works.

I always get this question when someone fails their test, or didn’t do as well as they wanted. Inevitably they blame it on their cardio (which may not actually be the case, but that’s a topic for another day). They’ll ask me about the best ways to improve cardio, and they’ll mention how so and so says to do high intensity interval training (HIIT), or do Tabata, or join Crossfit, or do [insert the latest cardio fad].

All those things can help, especially in the short term. But without a cohesive plan, you’re throwing sh!t at the wall and hoping for the best. You’ll see improvements quickly, but you’ll also hit a plateau quickly. And it won’t help if that plateau falls short of your goals.

What you need is a specific outcome to shoot for. For example, say you want to run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes. That’s a specific outcome.

Now you need to build out a plan, one where the workouts makes sense.

Here’s an example of how you could structure an interval style workout, using the goal as the basis for the pace of the workout. I’m going to use 400m as the workout:

  • 1.5 miles = 2.4 km = 6 laps of a high school track (and assuming you run in lane 1 the entire time)
  • 12 minutes = 2 minutes per lap

You know you need to run 2 minutes per lap, but you currently don’t have the capacity to do so. Here’s what you do:

  • After a thorough warm up (at least 5-10 minutes), run 1 lap for 2 minutes (+/- 1-2 seconds)
  • Rest for 2-3 minutes (or more, depending on your fitness level)
  • Run the next lap for 2 minutes (+/- 1-2 seconds)
  • Rest for 2-3 minutes or more

Continue this format until you’ve completed 6 laps.

(Some of you may ask about running on the treadmill. You could use the treadmill, running at level 7.5 if the machine measures in miles. But I suggest running outdoors as much as possible. You learn how to pace yourself better and not rely on a machine to get you going. Use the treadmill as a last resort.)

Over time, you reduce the amount of rest you take between sets. From 2-3 minutes, to 1-2 minutes, to as low as 30 seconds. When you do reduce rest, I suggest reducing by 15 second increments. Eventually the goal is to run 6 straight laps with no rest, thereby achieving the specific outcome.

This is a very simplified approach, and doesn’t take into account other factors (ie improvements in fitness over time, recovery between workouts, other types of workouts you may be doing, etc.) that will affect performance and progress. At the least, this gives you an idea of how to structure a workout that is built for one intended goal, which in this case is 1.5 miles in 12 minutes.

Also, this isn’t the only type of workout you can do in your program. You can incorporate steady state runs, hills, longer intervals, sprint only workouts, technique workouts, etc.

Remember, improving cardio is not a useful goal.

Improving a specific aspect of cardio, that is useful.

It gives you better direction and you can structure your program to be more effective, instead of choosing random workouts that you’re not sure will help you.

Get specific, and build from there.

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