Evidence-Based Physical Activity Recommendations Part 3: Train to improve cardiovascular performance

This article is the third in a series of the physical activity recommendations, with an emphasis on cardiovascular training.

Have you ever wondered how you could improve your cardiovascular performance through training? Perhaps, you have decided to begin participating in 5k races or half-marathons, but want to focus on improving your times. In my previous articles in this series, I summarized evidence-based recommendations on national guidelines for physical activity , and resistance training from the American College of Sports Medicine and National Strength and Conditioning Association recommendations. In this article I will summarize some of the cardiovascular training recommendations from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Before, I go over recommendations, it is worth noting that cardiovascular training is also known as aerobic and cardiorespiratory training.

As mentioned in my previous article, there are national guidelines on cardiovascular training for healthy adults, however, these were mostly designed for beginners. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has designed cardiovascular training guidelines for those who wish to improve their cardiovascular fitness. For improvements in general fitness, 30 to 60 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise should be performed on 2 to 5 days per week. For those who are beginners, beginning with 2 to 3 days per week for 20 to 40 minutes should suffice. More advanced individuals may consider 5 or more days per week. The basic types of cardiovascular training rely heavily on intensity which is determined by using one’s VO2max or heart rate reserve (HRR). HRR calculations can be determined from a VO2max test or maximal heart rate calculations (simply maximum heart rate – resting heart rate). Once you have determined your HRR, you can now apply this to the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s basic types of aerobic training. If you are unable to determine your HRR, you can also rely on the difficulty on one’s training intensity using rating of perceived exertion or RPE via the Borg scale. RPE using the Borg scale is on a scale from 6 to 20. An RPE less than 10 is considered “very light”, 10-11 “light”, 12-13 “moderate”, 14-16 “hard”, 17-19 “very hard”, and 20 as “maximal”.

Traditionally, when most people think of cardiovascular exercise, they envision long, slow distance exercise. In general, long slow distance is usually performed at one’s race pace (usually 50- 85 percent of one’s HRR, or an RPE of 11-13). However, this is not the only method for performing cardiovascular exercise. Pace/tempo training is performed typically at a greater intensity which is determined at or above one’s lactate threshold (about 80-90 percent HRR in trained individuals, or an RPE of 14-17; 50-60 percent in untrained individuals, or an RPE of 12-13), for 20 to 30 minutes. Interval training is performed at a higher intensity than pace tempo (90-100 percent of HRR, or an RPE of 17-20), for bouts of 3-5 minutes with 3-5 minutes of lower intensity activity between bouts. A similar type of aerobic training is known as repetition training. This type utilizes sprints that are at 100 percent of more of one’s HRR for 30-90 seconds at time, followed by rest intervals that are five times longer. Lastly, the recommendation for all types of cardiovascular training is to increase frequency, intensity, or duration of activity only 10 percent or less at a time.

In summary, although there are evidence-based recommendations for cardiovascular exercise, there are also recommendations for those who seek to improve their cardiovascular fitness. For further information about cardiovascular training please visit the National Strength and Conditioning Association and American College of Sports Medicine.

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