A short history of endurance training (please skip if you don't care about fitness history)Not too long ago it was conventional wisdom that if one wanted to have great endurance (or 'cardio' in the bronacular) in most sports the thing to do was a lot of long, steady, low intensity exercise. Think of boxers going out for long steady jogs (aka road work) or field sport athletes taking endless laps around the field.
Then came poor Professor Tabata, author of some widely misunderstood and misinterpreted papers on high intensity interval training and the man who unwittingly lent his name to a workout protocol that has often been hailed as the be-all and end-all of endurance training.
Basically, Tabata showed that by working very, very hard (much harder than they could keep up for even a minute), cyclists could make the same improvements to VO2 Max by working 4 minutes a day (8 sets of 20 seconds of work, with 10 second breaks in between) as cyclists doing much more traditional training (30+ minutes at a time of lower intensity but constant work).
The fitness community jumped all over this notion. The idea that you could work harder, but shorter, seemed both like cheating and was hugely attractive to our "suffering brings results" gym culture. 'Tabata' intervals are hard. And they really do work, especially over a short period of time. The fact that the first burst of improvement tapered off after a couple of months, and that high intensity training was hugely stressful to the body, was largely ignored. In fact, in some ways the entire Crossfit industry became a system of increasing intensity at the cost of all else.
For a long while a lot of fitness enthusiasts and strength coaches thought that anybody other than an endurance athlete doing slow, steady cardio was hindering their athletic performance.
Then came the great Joel Jamieson (whose work I highly recommend). Joel, basing his training philosophy on studies imported from former Eastern Block countries, pointed out that many athletes do, in fact, need some steady state, low intensity training to maximize their cardiovascular endurance. Road work was back!
Theory (of an Aerobic Base)
I intend to, at some point, write at greater length about energy systems. I won't do that here.
Put simply, you have 3 energy systems, and of those, the aerobic system provides energy at the slowest rate but for the longest time. That is, you can get a lot more energy much more quickly out of the anaerobic alactic system, but it runs out in 10 seconds. You can get less, but still a ton of energy in a hurry out of your lactic system, but it runs out in a minute or so. Your aerobic system is slow (low power) but lasts much, much longer.
Which means that if your sport lasts only 10 seconds or less, you can work on just your anaerobic alactic energy system. But very few sports last only 10 seconds - even those that seem to often call for repeated bursts of 10 second outputs. American football is a great example - plays usually last 10 seconds or less, but over a game many players have to repeat that performance dozens or scores of times.
And how does the anaerobic alactic (or lactic) systems get recharged after a bout of exertion? That's right, aerobic energy!
Now a lot of different things go into developing your aerobic system fully, but one of them that is pretty important is cardiac output.
Cadiac output is simply how much blood your heart can pump through your body in any unit of time. Oxygen is carried through the blood; the more blood your heart can move, the more fit you'll be.
What determines your cardiac output? Well, without getting too math-ey you can think of it as two things: 1) how much blood your heart pumps with each beat, or stroke volume, times; 2) how fast your heart can beat. Get a heart that moves move blood with each beat, get greater output. Get a heart that beats faster, get greater output. So there are 2 limiting factors: Stroke Volume and Maximum Heart Rate.
So far that's fairly uncontroversial. The next part is a little more... theoretical, or at least less well documented in the literature. To increase your aerobic fitness you'd like to be able to, among some other things, increase both Stroke Volume and Maximum Heart Rate. That would maximize the ability of your body to deliver blood (and oxygen) to working tissues.
Maximum Heart Rate seems to be helped along by working at higher intensities. You're not gong to get a heart that can pump at 190 bpm for long periods of time by taking leisurely strolls on the beach.
What Jamieson and Soviet researchers assert (but which isn't treated as common knowledge in the Western medical community as far as I can find) is that Stroke Volume can be increased with training, but only when the training is done in a very narrow and specific range of heart rates.
Basically, the heart has to be stressed (forced to beat faster than it would while you, say, sit on the couch, or go for a leisurely walk), but if it beats too fast (like it does in high intensity training), then it doesn't fill fully and have a chance to stretch and increase its volume.
Put simply: to increase Stroke Volume, you have to work for a substantial period of time (more than 45 minutes) while keep your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute. This is NOT what you get from High Intensity Interval Training - that protocol either keeps your heart rate above the top of that range for most of the time or brings it above, then drops it below, and so forth and so on.
We're not looking for an average between 120 and 140, we're looking to stay within 120 and 140 for extended periods of time.
Practice (of building your Stroke Volume)
What You'll Need1. A Heart Rate Monitor. There is simply no way to do this right without constant monitoring. Ball parking your heart rate is simply not going to keep it in the range you need (which is really pretty narrow).
I highly, highly recommend something that gives you a continual readout of your heart rate, not the kind of setup where you can hold your finger(s) over a sensor or button for several seconds and get a reading. That's simply not efficient. I like this one very much, it's what I use and it certainly does the job without being too pricey, but there may be better ones available.
Total cost: $75.
2. A Timer of some sort. This is sort of optional - you could estimate the time, but I find this much easier to do if I have something that counts down intervals and either flashes or dings or something when it hits a predetermined time. I generally do this in front of a computer and use this free webpage as my timer.
Total cost: $0
3. [OPTIONAL} Resistance: some bands or very light dumbells. I like using 1 lb. dumbells for this workout (yes, I'm serious). As long as you can work hard enough to get your heart rate into the target zone you don't necessarily need equipment. You can get these at a store like Five Below, Amazon, or really any Target or sporting good store.
Total cost: $5.
What are the Options
The typical way to get your Stroke Volume work in (or, as it is typically called, building your aerobic base), is to do something of fairly constant intensity for a long time. Jogging is the classic example (though jogging only 'works' if you're reasonably fit - if you're out of shape, even an easy jog will jump your heart rate well over 140 and prevent it from being effective as Stroke Volume Training).
I will sometimes hop on a treadmill and walk at an incline for my SVT. You would have to wear a heart rate monitor and find the right speed/ incline combination to get the heart rate you want. DO NOT aim for 140; aim for 130, and try to keep it around the middle of the range. More is not better. Staying in the higher range will not make this more effective.
What I like to do instead, in my ever present desire to kill as many birds with one stone as possible, is to do a kind of interval training that keeps my heart rate in the target range. And since I'm working at a fairly low intensity, the work doesn't get too fatiguing (no burning in the muscles) and I can stay reasonably fresh throughout. That means I can practice actual kicks and punches instead of, say, burpees. The work just isn't hard enough to bring me to the point where the techniques start getting slow or sloppy. There's no 'burn' to ruin performance.
How To Do Interval SVT1. Set your timer to count down 15 seconds and repeat.
2. Do a brief stretching/warmup routine.
3. Strap on your heart rate monitor.
4. Do your 'work set'. Once you've been working for at least 2 minutes (8 sets total) check your heart rate. If it's below 120, plan do a more intense work set next time. If it's above 140, plan do an easier work set next time.
5. Repeat for at least 50 minutes (for some reason 50 minutes 'works' for me - I get to shower after and still total under an hour of time, and 50 minutes works out to 200 reps, which resonates with me because I'm a very digital person. By all means do more if you want). Make small adjustments to your work set every 15 to 30 seconds to keep your heart rate between 120 and 140.
What's the Work Set?Here's the tricky part: you need a few options to layer so you can get your heart rate up and down as needed. Do some sort of movement and some sort of technique or techniques. The work SHOULD NOT take up all 15 seconds of your interval. Your aim is to do some hard, snappy work, maybe 3-5 seconds worth, then have time to stand still, catch your breath, check your heart rate, and wait for the timer to go off again. Then repeat. 200 times. I watch Netflix while doing this.
I like to layer things like this:
1. Every rep I do some sort of squat kick. I usually do these very wide - I step out to the side in a very wide horse stance, then pop back up as explosively as I can and throw a kick (usually mae geri or mawashi geri) with the trailing leg. So I might step to the right, pop up and throw a left kick, then a single punch with the left hand. Next rep I step the other way and kick and punch with the other hand. If I'm feeling stiff I'll start with 4-12 'sets' of knee kicks, building up range as I go, instead of trying a max height roundhouse kick right away.
2. I find mawashi geri brings my heart rate up, mae geri brings it slightly down, so I'll mix in sets of one or the other if my heart rate is creeping up on 140 or down below 125.
3. I often need a little extra to get my heart rate up, so I'll add in a jab - cross punch combination after each kick. If my heart rate creeps up towards 140 I'll stop these, then add them back in as it drops.
4. I do all my punches with a 1 lb dumbbells in each hand. The use of weighted implements is controversial, and worth discussing in another post, but I believe it's good for my technique. Feel free to skip them. I DO NOT recommend going very heavy with the dumbbells for reasons I'll discuss another time.
5. I'll switch out hooks and uppercuts for the jab-cross as I feel like it, for added variety.
If a squat/front kick/punch gets your heart rate too high, skip the punch. If the squat/kick gets your heart rate too high, just step to the side and kick, or just squat, or alternate those two. If the squat/kick/punch/extra punches repeated every 15 seconds isn't enough to get your heart rate above 120, make sure you're really putting power and speed into every technique. If your'e really working as intensely as you can with each rep, you can try bringing the rest down (so repeat your work set every 10 or 12 seconds).
If you'd rather focus on forwards movement instead of lateral, do a forward/backward lunge instead of a sidestep as your movement base.
The important part is to learn, via constant feedback from your heart rate monitor, which combinations push your heart rate higher and which get them lower, and have a few options in mind with each round.
My HypothesisI have never had a workout seem to improve my overall well being as much as this one. I mean, I've been in decent shape, where I was able to spar without getting slow or tired, do lots of kata, etc., but this workout has me needing less sleep and feeling fresher when I'm NOT working out, and that's unusual for me.
My hypothesis is this: the SVT is actually improving the stroke volume of my heart, or at least improving the efficiency of my cardiovascular system in some way. That means that when I'm at rest, and my oxygen demands are fairly stable, my heart doesn't have to work as hard (beat as fast) to supply the blood I need.
Where before SVT every time my oxygen demands rose my heart rate had to go up quite a bit to fulfill them, now my heart rate doesn't have to rise as high. That means that all the hormonal and nervous systems that raise heart rate when its needed don't have to work as hard or excite my system as much. My sympathetic nervous system isn't firing as intensely to keep me alive. And that is effectively reducing my physiological stress.
My hypothesis might be wrong, of course. Regardless, I'm getting in some quality reps of my techniques, and I feel good during and after the workout. Unlike Tabata style HIIT this won't leave you feeling wrecked and shattered afterwards.
Please give this a try and let me know what you think in comments!