Cardio Sucks But You Can Get Better At It

Believe it or not, I used to be terrible at cardiovascular exercise. I never appreciated the need for it since I grew up playing power based sports. Like many of you, I shared the mantra “CARDIO SUCKS?”

Early on, my crutch was the albuterol inhaler that was prescribed to me for sport induced asthma. All seemed good but I became very reliant the inhaler. Even the THOUGHT of increasing my heart rate would send me running to puff on the medical pacifier.

With the preventative maintenance, I rarely experienced and asthma attack in sport but I would frequently excuse myself out of team conditioning and wind sprints. My actions were medically justified but I often missed out on the bonding built through the shared suffering of team conditioning. This pattern carried from youth sports and into college football.

The Realization

Being both a college athlete and an Exercise Science major, I was exposed to extensive athlete testing procedures. One day in a class lab, I was selected by my Advisor to perform a maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 MAX) ramp test on a treadmill.

In this test, you wear an air tight mask on your face while you run on a treadmill. Starting at a walking pace, you increase by both speed and incline every three minutes until you hit absolute failure. The mask measures the contents of the air that passes in and out of your mouth. At the completion of the test you get a number that is measured in ml/kg/min. This score is a direct measure of how much oxygen your body can process per minute while factoring total body weight.

After the test, my advisor looked at me in front of everyone and said, “Here we are guys, meet Captain Anaerobic.” He mocked my performance in front of my peers.

I basically failed the test and felt terrible about it

In actuality, failure in a test like that is not possible. There is no failure in exercise testing. What it truly meant was that my score was so low that I didn’t actually hit my available capacity. I panicked when my heart rate elevated. The emotional response I trained during all the years of excusing myself out of team conditioning prevented me from performing my best.

Needless to say, I was completely embarrassed.


Since maximal effort wind sprints used to send me running to my inhaler, I performed cardiovascular exercise at a lower intensity to reduce the dependence. I sprinted with the football team (and blasted the inhaler as needed) but mid-week and on the weekends, I made time to hop on the elliptical. I exercised my breathing for one hour at a time and at a pace I could hold for 5 hours, multiple days a week. The goal was to practice to breathing at a slightly elevated heart rate. What I was intuitively doing is known as polarized training.

It took some time but things started to get easier for me. As I got more comfortable with a sustained elevated heart rate, I became less afraid of the higher end heart rates. I learned to train UNDER my max heart rate and slowly over time I did not need my inhaler as much.


Even though I was making progress, it took me years to actually understand the physiology of building more aerobic fitness.

To improve any fitness activity that raises your heart rate, you need a balance of both slow / steady breathing and hard powerful efforts. This combination will improve both efficiency of the pump (heart) and increase the size of the transport highway that circulates your blood and oxygen.

Over time, NON -MAXIMAL aerobic fitness increases the amount of piping your heart can use to circulate blood. This adaptation takes place during bouts of extended long and slow physical exercise. High intensity sprints strengthen your heart so it can pump less blood with each beat further into the system. We can think of this process as becoming more efficient.

Yes, you can just focus on strengthening your heart with high intensity interval training and see significant progress.  Eventually as the time domain extends, you will quickly run out space and fill up all the pipes…. hence the need to build more pipes.

Believe it or not but I actually began to enjoy the process of raising my heart rate through running and bike riding.

Fast forward less than a decade of this consistent practice and I completed some pretty cool events.

4 Marathons,

7 Half Ironman distance triathlons,

1 Full Ironman distance triathlon,

Countless 5k’s, 10k’s and half marathons,

Relay and ultra-distance relays

I even qualified for Age Group Nationals in Off-Road Triathlon.

Since adding in consistent longer bouts of aerobic training, I have not used an inhaler in over 14 years.

It’s very common to share a disdain for aerobic exercise since it can be very uncomfortable in the beginning. A lot of mistakes will be made from pushing too hard as we learn how to pace ourselves accordingly but we only learn from making mistakes. Next time you see a class workout pop up with lots of running and biking, rather than skipping it, come on in and take the opportunity to learn about your body. I promise you’ll be better for it.

See you in the gym!

-Coach AG

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By |2019-05-23T17:20:41+00:00May 23rd, 2019|Coaches Corner|