Steady State Cardio vs. High Intensity Interval Training

Steady State Cardio vs. High Intensity Interval Training

By: Travelle Gaines

Travelle Gaines Blog

Taj Gibson trains/Image courtesy of Travelle Gaines

Whether you do cardio to improve your life or performance in sports, the goal is to improve the function and capacity of your energy system. Many people decide the intensity of their workouts based on what they’re looking to accomplish. Some prefer steady state cardio (Aerobic) while others prefer high intensity interval training (Anaerobic). Both yield great cardiovascular results, so neither is a bad choice. Steady cardio is an aerobic exercise performed at one steady pace for an extended period of time, maintaining a level heart rate. High Intensity Interval training is an anaerobic technique that alternates between short, intense activities with a maximum recovery period. This technique changes the heart rate, vigorously improving your work to rest ratio (Energy System Capacity).

However, a blend of both is an even better option. Instead of slower, steady state cardio, try a combination of utilizing both energy systems. Your muscle groups, nervous system, and hormones will act in synergy, using efficient movements and patterns to help your body work as strongly as possible. All these benefits result from time-efficient workouts that are much shorter than your average lower-intensity cardio session. The program you choose should reflect a balance of getting good at what you’re not good at, and even better at what you are good at.

You can measure intensity in a variety of ways: number of reps, distance covered in a specific amount of time, or the time it takes to complete a specific number or reps or distance. Traditionally, intensity has been monitored by tracking heart rate, but this isn’t always reasonable for everyone. We know that heart rate will track differently to the different types of exercise (e.g., we wouldn’t expect your heart rate to get as high on a bike as we would while running at the same intensity level).  If you’re just starting out, or it’s the first time you’ve worked out in a while, use heart rate to measure intensity, but pay attention to how it feels when doing a different exercise that requires more energy. This way, you’ll be able to incorporate a wider variety of movements into your workout while still having a valid method to quantify intensity.

Begin with improving your overall aerobic threshold. Some great exercises are:

  • Outdoors: paced walking, walking up hills, biking, rowing
  • Indoors: biking, treadmill climbing/walking, elliptical training

Using the aerobic zone, or the intensity at which your body is using its aerobic metabolism system to produce energy, will improve your cardiovascular system and prepare your muscles for greater speeds.

Next, try moving to a higher intensity level. At this level, you’ll ride, run, or climb as hard as possible for between 10-30 seconds, with maximum levels of recovery. In order to get the most out of these workouts, you’ll need to pack as much power and energy into these segments as possible.

Some of the best activities for this are:

  • Sprinting (flat or uphill)
  • Shuttle runs (5 yards and back, 10 yards and back, 15 yards and back)
  • Bicycle intervals
  • Treadmill sprints
  • Rowing for speed

A balanced training program should use different combinations of these exercises and different intensity levels to create varied and personalized workouts. You can spend more time in the aerobic zone initially and progress to performing intervals, where you will spend more time in higher-intensity zones to improve your overall endurance, strength, and power.