This blog post is going to be controversial for some. I’m putting that out there right now so you know what to expect.
What I’m about to write about goes against my past better principles when it comes to health and fitness. In fact this is kind of hard for me to digest as it relates to an addiction that has given me great comfort in the past.
I read this article recently ‘Why women should not run’. The title intrigued me like a red rag to a bull because as most of you that know me, or that follow my blog, will know – I LOVE to run.
The title was bit of ruse because what I think it should have been is ‘Why Women shouldn’t do lots of steady state cardio’ but I get that that isn’t quite as catchy and provocative.
The whole premise of this article was (and here comes the controversial bit) – Cardio makes you fatter!! Or should I say long steady state cardio makes you fatter. When I say fatter, I don’t mean going for a run or hitting the stairmaster is like downing a deep fried snickers bar or drinking a jumbo bottle of coke with a big mac and fries. What I mean is lots of long monotonous, steady state, cardio moves you away from positive results when it comes to fatloss. Yes really. I’m being deadly serious here. It also places, repetitive stress on your muscles, joints, adrenals and metabolism.
This is a hard-hitting statement I know. I feel the full brunt of it like a slap in the face as someone who has been the worst offender of seeking sanctuary in hours upon hours of cardio in the past. It was my best buddy, my stress relief, the slayer of all evils (both mentally and physically) and my 101 back to basics formula for getting in shape, but I’ve started to see the light. Gradually over time, it’s been a long pilgrimage to where I am now, but I think I’m almost there, I think I’m starting to get it and I want to share the buzz of what I’ve learnt when it comes to cardio.
I’m definitely not the cardio offender I was a few years ago when I would happily munch up 25k’s pounding the pavements prior to my breakfast and my pre dinner appetizer would most likely be either another run or date with the cross-trainer. Fate played a hand these past few years by serving me up a side of various injuries, health issues and more generously two beautiful sons (far better than any running trophy I could hope to win). This meant however, I could no longer log the hours and hours of cardio I’d become as deeply addicted to as they if they were a daily shot of heroin.
Back to the article “Why woman should not run’ – do read this article if you get a chance – it’s deeply thought provoking and holds a lot of truth that should be taken on board if your primary goal is fat loss and shifting the love handles and muffin top.
It doesn’t put me off running, but it does make me consider the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of my running.
It’s not running particularly that is the problem and it’s not even cardio, it’s the type of running or other cardio. It’s those long, steady state sessions that are done day in day out. The monotonous cardio sessions that are often an obligatory part of the workout week, done to burn calories or get time on your feet, or in the bid to sweat off a doughnut previously eaten, these are the sessions that do the damage.
Why? ……because by the very fact that they are repetitive, steady, can be done for long periods of time, means that the body gets used to and adapts to these sessions very quickly. As the body adapts to these cardio sessions (that often work when you initially start a fitness routine) they start to pack less of a punch as the body (which is a very smart machine designed to run as efficiently as possible) quickly learns to economise by expelling the least amount of energy possible to keep the sessions going. The body also recognizes and reacts to the repetitive stress and exertion as a signal to get clever at storing fat and slowing the metabolism.
I won’t go on too much about this as if you read the article it will explain more of the science about why lots of steady state cardio can move you towards love handles rather than away from them. What I do want to go on to say is the stuff that’s missing – the small print, the answers to the questions that you may well raise like I did. Things like:
“But what if I’m training for a marathon?”
Ok so if you are training for a marathon or other endurance sporting event then yes you need to run/bike/swim etc and a large amount of your training will be made up of running/biking/swimming or whatever the sport is your training for. If you are training for a marathon then your goal is to run 26.2 miles without stopping so you need to bust out the miles training. However, if your primary goal is to lose fat then embarking on long, plodding runs is not the way to do it. There are better ways to lose fat and if most of your running training is chugging along at the same pace day in, day out, then it is more likely to adversely affect your thyroid functions and cortisol levels and sabotage your fatloss goals.
“But my friend just took up running and lost 20kilos?”
Yes there are the people that take up running or start exercising on the cardio machines at the gym and lose a chunk of weight, but most of the time these are people that did nothing before and had a good amount of weight to lose, so this initially makes a big difference and often they clean up their eating at the same time too. However, over time – the weight plateaus and what worked before no longer works, but they are so afraid to stop running or change their routine in case they go backwards. They keep doing the same routine or (and here is where the cardio addiction starts taking full hold) they increase the running and with it their frustrations and potentially push themselves towards adrenal fatigue, burn out and yep possible weight gain. I’ve been down that road and it’s not pleasant.
“What about the marathon runners/endurance athletes that look as lean as a whippet?”
Yes there are marathon runners or other endurance athletes that look like lean and wirey whippets, but these are often the elite, that devote their time to their sport like it were a career (actually often it IS their career). They usually have a good amount of intensity, intervals and even some weights mixed in to be the best of the best, along with a good diet, a professional support team and specific rest. Or they are the people that are simply genetically predisposed to be leaner.
There are always the exceptions to the rules but look to the rules rather than the exceptions, particularly if you are not getting the results that you yearn for. Rather than look to the runners, iron man athletes etc that are at the front of the pack that are the top %, look to the majority that come in the middle, 4 to 5 hours for a marathon or 14+ hours for an ironman. Yes they have achieved an amazing thing (I am in no way trying to diminish their achievement) but they often do not look like the uber lean athletes at the front despite still covering the same distance. Again it all comes back to why you do the sport, to lose weight or achieve the accomplishment of completing the event.
“But I love cardio/running/distance cycling etc”
If you love running, cycling, or a date with the stairmaster, then do your business and go enjoy. Life is for living and exercise should be a pleasure (even when it’s gut busting). However, if you are doing it begrudgingly every day in the hope it will turn you into a ‘Victoria Secrets’ model – yet notice no change and are getting increasingly frustrated, then I’m willing to bet it’s the cardio (along with a bad diet) that’s the problem. If you want to lose fat but really enjoy the cardio – put some in by all means but limit the amount and also vary what you do.
“Does that mean I don’t do any cardio? What do I do instead?”
Not all cardio is off limits when it comes to getting in shape. The cardio to limit is the middle ground – the 55 to 75% of your heart rate cardio – that you can maintain for an age, this is the cardio to cut back on. Do the cardio that sits either side of this middle ground. I’m talking HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions that get your body shifting like your life depended on it. Short, sharp, intense sessions that boost both your fitness and also put your metabolism into overdrive.
Then at the other end of the heart rate and exertion scale there are things like walking and generally moving and keeping active. It’s still important to move the body everyday, either through walking or similar so it remains supple and functional. The body is meant to move or it seizes up. Incorporate lots of activity in your day whether it be walking to work, going out for a paddle, taking the stairs rather than the lift, a spot of hot yoga or playing with your kids kicking a ball around.
Also add in some metabolic conditioning style circuits and definitely some resistance training – vary it up – your program should be varied and have a combination of light and shade, ie easy sessions, sessions that challenge you and leave you totally starfished on the floor, sessions that are fun, sessions that recover your body and mind like tai chi, stretching and breathing meditation and of course rest.
Still not convinced?
I know there will be cynics. I get it, I really do because that’s the mindset I’ve been in so long. I’ll say it again – I LOVE TO RUN. I feel like I was born to do it (even though my body seems to be injured 50% of the time these days and there is a lesson in itself), but I will still keep doing it because I love it but I now have a revised thinking into the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of my running.
At the peak of my competitive running I was running 140k’s or more week in and week out and yes I was lighter but hey here’s the thing I WASN’T leaner, I was lighter (on the scales) but fatter ie my fat % was higher– a few percent higher and I didn’t have the six pack I have now either. What changed was an injury that meant I couldn’t run for nearly a year so I had to get creative. My body changed and with it the doubts that cardio that could be the font of eternal health and a slim physique. See the pic below if you don’t believe me. The picture on the left was me at my peak mileage and when all I did was run and bang out sessions in the cardio cinema. The picture on the right was taken when I was doing limited running (probably less a third of my original running and cardio program with the addition of weights and circuits). What’s more the picture on the right you’ll see I was heavier but way leaner – honestly what one do you think looks better. When I returned to running I cut down the amount of running I did and shifted up the intensity but even up to now in times of doubt, or body image panic I’ve turned back to banging out hours of cardio like it was a homing beacon but not any more, it’s time to stop.
My Cardio Cold Turkey Challenge
So to prove to you how convinced I am by this ‘cut down the cardio’ message I will offer myself as an experiment. This may all go horribly wrong but as cocky as I might sound I doubt it.
I going to embark on a 6-week program banning steady state cardio subject to a few rules (see what’s in / what’s out below) Interested in joining me? Read on for more deets.
The Cardio Cold Turkey Challenge Rules – What’s in & What’s out
In the table below I have listed the types of activities that are in or out of the Cardio Cold Turkey Challenge
Keep all of the above to under an hour in duration with the exception of very low intensity like walking, yoga, stretching. The reason for this being that going over the hour will prompt the release of cortisol making your body more likely to store fat and place excess stress on your adrenals.
Look at all the things you can do compared to what you can’t – doesn’t sound so bad huh. You can do this. If I can you can.
How to Benchmark the Evidence
The purpose of this Cardio Cold Turkey experiment is to prove that cutting steady state cardio will not make you fatter and also that it will not adversely affect your fitness either. So to prove this I will do a benchmark of my current fitness and physique at the start and end of the 6 weeks. This will involve
- Running a 1 mile time trial
- Doing my measurements
- Taking my body fat %
I will also make a general note of my energy levels, sleep patterns and keep my food similar to what it is at the moment which is 85 to 90% clean with a few treats.
The idea is to see if cutting out cardio makes a difference to my body or my fitness. I believe this may give both you (if you join me) and I new found faith that excessive cardio is not the holy grail of getting into your skinny jeans, and that you will become healthier, leaner and actually quite liberated from following this new regime.
So who is with me?
Even if you aren’t going to join in the Cardio Cold Turkey Challenge, then please do consider and digest this article, think about the message I’m putting across and if you still go back to hours of plodding along, sweating up a storm (because I sound totally barking mad and just too plain ridiculous) ask yourself; is your current routine getting you the results you desire and if it isn’t why are you continuing to hold onto it so desperately.
The articles, recipes and workouts written on this blog are not written by medical professionals. It is a personal blog, (and although I hold a diploma in personal training and have worked in the fitness industry), the writings found here are based on my personal experience and research. If you have any existing medical conditions or contraindications then you should consult a medical professional before starting any exercise regime.
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