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On Keeping the Goal the Goal – Cardio edition

I’m delighted that people are finally getting the message that cardio is not only not bad for them but it is actually essential.

For long time the fitness industry rebelled against the cardio craze of the 70’s and 80’s, taking a massive knee jerk over reaction and doing it’s best to tell everyone that cardio was bad, bad for you and all you ever need to do is lift heavy weights and sprint or do high intensity interval training.

Thankfully, and I’ll give a nod to the works of Joel Jamieson (8 Weeks out & BioForce) and James Fitzgerald of Opex. These two lads have done great work getting the word out that of the three energy systems, the aerobic system is the foundation that underpins the others.

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Combat athletes have known this anecdotally and instinctively since day dot. Kettlebell Sports athletes know this implicitly.

However, when I talk to my athletes and clients about cardio, the conversation often takes a predictable path, which is why I think we need to lay out a few points on how to think about the whole topic.

And we star with a quote from the Grand Visier of strength and conditioning, Dan John.

Dan has a (one of his many) quote which goes:

“Keep the goal the goal”

So, you decide that you need better cardio because you gassed out in BJJ last night. That’s fair.

So you go running. Also fair.

After a few runs, you start using Strava or similar and you’re now comparing this run against the last run and looking to make progress. Which is fair, but this is where we need to start checking ourselves.

Is the goal to be a better runner?

Probably not eh.

You’re running to achieve better cardio-vascular fitness. You’re running for the aerobic benefits.

And by aerobic benefits we mean the ability of the heart to push large volumes of blood around and the ability of the lungs to efficiently exchange gasses (Oxygen ad CO2) There are other considerations, but we’ll not confuse ourselves with them just yet.

In order to best train the aerobic system Phil Mafetone, an absolute authority on the subject, suggests we work at a heart rate of 180 – your age. Now this is a guideline, there is play in this.

But go too much higher and you will be working above the aerobic threshold, which isn’t your goal.

Roadwork has been a staple of boxing training since day dot, and for good reason.

Now relate this to your Strava times. So you ran 10k, great. Do you NEED to run it faster? If you run it faster are you still benefiting from what Mafetone calls “Maximal Aerobic Fitness) or MAF.

(I’m always jealous of these people that can make cool acronyms from their names!)

Am I suggesting that you put away your Strava? Not necessarily, what I’m suggesting is you only use it after your run to get a breakdown of the session. A Heart Rate monitor would be more useful (many HR apps will sync to Strava….) as you can see how hard you’re working.

But I still don’t like this as it can be a distraction while running.

You can use the talk test. Essentially, if you can hold a conversation then you are in the aerobic zone. If you can only snatch at short sentences, you’re working too hard.

I also love to nasal breathe as it has a stack of secondary benefits to it as well as slowing you down to a pace that is very likely to keep you in that aerobic zone.

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But first and foremost we must keep the goal the goal and not get tied up by the act of running.

If you’re simply looking for aerobic development, may I strongly suggest you also use:

Circuit training, long intervals with short breaks (45:15 works well) keeping an eye on the heart rate as you go. Select a variety of exercises, these can include relatively light strength exercises, kettlebell work and bodyweight drills work a charm. You can also have in stationary bikes, rower, jump jacks, skipping and sport specific drills such as shadow boxing, bagwork or floor drills.

These circuits should go on for a while, I’ve done them for over an hour in the past, but 20 minutes is a good start point.

These circuits are a great time to work on skill drills, such as a guard pass, or mobility drills such as cossack switches.

After all, the goal is aerobic fitness, so the exercises are of secondary relevance, we might as well pick ones that will give us maximal benefits across as many attribute categories as possible.

Other circuit formats would be to simply do one exercise for 5 minute then move to another, and carry on for 20 minutes though to an hour and a half. With this format, you don’t have to run from exercise to exercise, but don’t hang about either…

Or simply set a timer for X amount of time (20-90 mins) and cycle through a few exercises, for example: Kettlebell Clean & Jerk, Crawl, Sledgehammer Slams. Say 10 reps of each, keeping an eye on that heart rate!

A few weeks of this and you should feel like you are able to recover faster from the more intense training, that your gas tank is bigger, that you don’t hit that pain place as quickly.

And then, a few weeks out from an event, THAT is when you switch to the high intensity intervals, the heart in your mouth suck sessions.


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