The Case Against Cardio



I’m going to let you in on a little secret….cardio sucks.

Yes it does.  Be honest with yourself.  If you loved cardio so much you would be running marathons instead of training to kick people.  But it’s a necessary evil so we should just suck it up and log our requisite daily miles, right?

Not necessarily…

Studies are showing that chronic cardio (defined as a sustained period of exercise, typically longer than 30 minutes, with a HR 80+%) has detrimental effects for the aspiring fighter.¹  The main culprit for the negative effects is a little hormone called cortisol.

Cortisol, also referred to as “the stress hormone” poses a problem when the amount in your body remains elevated for longer periods of time.  The main issues a performance-focused person such as yourself should be concerned about are:

  • Decrease of muscle tissue
  • Increase of fat storage
  • Increased inflammation
  • Decreased immunity

All big no-no’s for the competitive fighter.

But what about the positive effects chronic cardio has on endurance?  Surely that makes up for its shortfalls.  First, don’t call me Shirley (nyuk nyuk nyuk).  Yes, you will experience some modest increases in aerobic capacity and your VO2 max, but I would argue aerobic capacity is one of, if not the, lowest priorities a competitive fighter should focus on improving.

Blasphemer! You don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ll never come to you for training advice again! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

Got the ranting out of your system?  Good, now wipe the foam from the corners of your mouth and listen up.  Think back to the last MA competition you witnessed.  Chances are it went something like this…

The fighters were squared off…

They circled each other throwing the occasional jab or kick to feel the waters…

All of a sudden there was an explosion of activity!

Some points were scored and the fighters resumed circling each other.

The techniques and the rules might be different but the tempo is always the same; short, explosive periods of intense activity followed by long lulls where not much happens.  Why is this important to note?  Because it will affect the way you view endurance training, foo!  Your conditioning should translate over to how your sport flows.

Does running the same speed for 30-60 minutes look anything like a sparring match?  No, not at all!

So what’s a better alternative?

Enter the humble sprint.

To clarify, I’m actually using “sprint” as a general term to signify high levels of exertion ranging from 90-100% of you MHR in this post, but the common definition of sprinting (running REALLY REALLY fast) is also applicable.

So why forgo the long, boring cardio sessions in favor of a quick, intense sprint session?  You mean besides the reasons I’ve already listed?  Check out this study.  It’s a little wordy with science-ey jargon and the experiment was performed with a smaller group, but the evidence in favor of sprints over cardio is strong.  Allow me to point out a few key pieces:

  1. The study shows that moderate-intensity endurance training only affected the aerobic capacity and had no effect on the anaerobic capacity of the participants.  Meanwhile, the high-intensity interval groups experienced gains in both aerobic AND anaerobic capacities.
  2. The sessions for the moderate-intensity groups lasted a whopping 60 minutes at a time.  The high-intensity interval sessions lasted a total of 4 minutes (8 rounds of 20 seconds of work with 10 second rests in between each round).


You’re getting more benefits in 7% of the time!  Not only does it boost your aerobic/anaerobic capacities, but sprinting triggers your body to produce HGH, causing you to burn fat and build muscle.  Can it get any better?  Why yes it can!²

“OK, you’ve convinced me.  Where do I start? What should I do? How often should I sprint?”

Since sprinting is a maximal effort exercise, you should probably not do a sprint session every day.  If you are neck-deep in training, you should shoot for 1-2 sprint sessions a week depending on your level of fitness.  Only do your sprint session(s) when you are feeling energetic and fresh.  Let’s now look at the 4 variables you can affect in a sprint session and my recommendations:

  1. Sprint Duration: 15-30 seconds
  2. Rest Duration: 10-120 seconds
  3. Number of Sprints: 4-8/session
  4. Type of Sprinting Activity:  Discussed a little later

Focusing on shorter sprint durations will increase your explosive capabilities while longer sprints will build your endurance.  The rest duration/number of sprints per session are dependent on your fitness level and training goals.  Typically, beginners will do less sprints with longer rests.  As you progress, reduce the rest periods and increase the number of sprints.

Types of Sprinting Activity

Many exercises can be used during a sprint session.  The key component is picking an exercise you can easily increase the intensity of.  As such, simpler exercises work better.  Exercises with too many steps can slow the athlete down and reduce the effectiveness of the sprint session.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Regular Sprints
  • Hill Sprints
  • Swimming Sprints
  • Cycling Sprints (use a cycle with adjustable resistance)
  • Sled Push/Pulls
  • Flutter Roundhouses (will post pics of this drill soon)

Most Taekwondo students are familiar with flutter roundhouses and have developed a love/hate (or just hate) relationship with them.  If performed at full speed in a sprint session it will make all the muscles from your lower abs to your thighs burn like the fiery depths of Hades.

So should you completely forgo conventional cardio?  Only you can make that call.  Between sprinting twice a week and all the training/sparring you will be doing, your endurance should be pretty solid.  If you find yourself still gasping for air, you might try incorporating some lighter cardio 4-6 times per week (not lasting any longer than 15-20 minutes per session).  You might also vary the cardio you do.  Try jumping rope, running, swimming, and rowing.  See what kinds you enjoy.  Just don’t waste too much time and energy on it that could be better spent elsewhere.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  With that, I will leave you with 3000 more words…

 SVC1 SVC3SVC2 Take your pick.

References/Related Content


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s