Myths: Chronic cardio

Chronic Cardio. Where did that term come from? Browse websites supporting the fitness system CrossFit, fitness writer Mark Sisson’s “Primal BluePrint” site and other Paleo-inspired exercise sites (Paleo Sprint, Paleo Hack, Primal North, the list is long) and you’ll find warnings about  “Chronic Cardio”

The concept of “Chronic Cardio”seems to be used  to help distinguish new training models from what is seen as “traditional endurance training” . However, from my view as an athletics coach, the definition used of “Chronic Cardio” is based on a misunderstanding – it’s a so-called “false dichotomy” and what is called Chronic Cardio in the literature on the websites of the proponents of the term  is actually a training form that is rarely used by real-world runners. It’s almost a caricature of the training done by average  runners the world over, rather than the a real training system to compare against.

A classical example of the type of articles posted can be seen here at Crownhill CrossFitters. It appeals to emotion and fear by asking the reader whether they prefer to look like a skinny marathoner or a sprinter (actually, I’d rather not looked like pumped up Dwaine Chambers in that photo!) and the scientific evidence presented is the result of the misunderstood view of endurance training, not actual real-life training.  But what is the definition of Chronic Cardio anyway and why should we care?

Definition of chronic cardio

Chronic cardio refers to long duration steady state training done at 80 to 85% of Max Heart Rate (let’s take me as an example – this would be 158 to 168 heart rate. Looking at my Lydiard training plan here (similar to what we give our clients) there are zero workout in this zone – not even Saturday’s steady run or the tough fartlek. Even if I go all the way to the most intense phase of our training – the stamina phase – I find only two workout in the week dipping into those heart rates for any significant length of time and those are interval sessions. So the state known as “Chronic Cardio” basically does not occur in our plans.

And this despite these being “old-style” “hard-nosed” type high mileage training schedules with up to seven days running per week.

Sites proposing CrossFit training and similar forms instead of traditional endurance training are aware what market to appeal to – with constant references to “marathon training” as a synonym to “Chronic Cardio” when in reality traditional marathon training plans only feature this when executed incorrectly.

Endurance hysteria

The whole topic of “Chronic Cardio” returned to the fore recently with a constant series of the same article proclaiming how “endurance training is bad for you“. Jason Fitzgerald has already debunked this well and truly here, so I will not attempt another go but let me summarise why endurance training is not actually damaging and why “Chronic Cardio” is either a carefully propagated marketing myth or a failure from its proponents to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

Not wanting to project any ill motives on proponents of the “Chronic Cardio” paradigm, I am going to assume that these coaches were not subjected to the correct type of “old school training” when they formed their opinions on endurance training. This argument is supported when you read Mark Sisson’s descriptions of his own running career which seems to have been a daily diet of threshold runs or harder.  Mark seems to have become the victim of the culture of “no pain, no gain” and constant threshold running prevalent on the US track scene in particular for a long time. Had Mark grown up as a Lydiard athlete, his views would undoubtedly have been informed entirely differently.

Frank Horwill’s system in England is likewise often being applied dangerously close to what can be described as “Chronic Cardio”, or as one elite athlete described it on a recent workshop: “I got the feeling the system throws a lot of eggs at the wall to see which ones will stick”. Similar tactics are still employed today and it is the very antithesis of the old school coaching methods practiced by Newton, Cerutty and Lydiard who cultivated athletes from strength to strength and build health for life .

First understand, then teach

Here to me is the failure to understand before going out to teach others – Chronic Cardio proponents adopted the damaging training done by some coaches in the 80s to 00s as their default view on running training.  In fact, you will find that the type of running they warn against (above 80-85% Max Heart Rate or about marathon to half-marathon effort) is never practiced day in and day out unless by complete beginners whose training often consist of running as hard as they can every day for as long as they can (which could be as little as 5 to 10 minutes).

I was the same in my early days – I began with 20 minute runs and ran them as hard as I could. Was it the best way to gain fitness? Certainly not. Is it the way I train today as an experienced coach? Of course not. In old school coaching the majority of running is done between 65% and 75% of Heart Rate Reserve (well below the “danger zone” and what Lydiard called “bread and butter” runs). On top of this there is a primacy on variation (just as CrossFit recommends), plenty of focus on living and exercising naturally (just read Cerutty) and an understanding that technique needs to be honed before any serious training can take place. A runner, humming around every day in terrible hi-tech footwear at 80% of Max Heart Rate or higher and with an unnatural lifestyle is obviously going to be one stressed out organism and all of the effects of Chronic Cardio will appear. An old school coach looks at all of these factors. Athletes with stressful jobs are assigned less intense workouts than those who have plenty of free time. Old school coaches dig into athletes sleeping patterns, moods and “inner demons” (some practically ate and slept with them!) to apply the old school principles in the way that’s right for the athlete. There’s no one blue print and there’s not one method – just principles.

So for modern fitness brands to compare their methods with traditional athletics training they first need to dispense with the “Chronic Cardio” red herring and compare themselves to the old school methods of Cerutty, Newton and Lydiard. These methods are practiced today by Brother Colm, Mark Wetmore, Greg McMillan and others as well. We have been on this journey and it’s not a straightforward one as a lot of the knowledge needs to be hunted down in out of print books or sought out by personally contacting athletes and coaches to fill in the gaps left by pure reading. Like all other coaching you cannot learn old school methods purely through your intellectual mind (reading), you need to meet, work with and serve an apprenticeship with an old school coach.

Recommendations to Chronic Cardio proponents:

Is it impossible to suffer “Chronic cardio” syndromes even when running at the slower intensities (less than 80% MHR) generally used by the likes of Lydiard?  No, some people are so stressed that the best training they could do is go to bed for 3 days. This is another instance where reductionist scientific studies cannot tell you anything useful – they simply do not look at enough variables over a long enough time-span – they are good only for the type of newspaper headlines we have seen recently. Old school coaches spend their lives with this through trial and error to arrive at training that makes athletes stronger. Lydiard ran at various paces from 50 miles per week to 300 miles per week until he found a recipe that allowed him to get stronger rather than stale. Even then, his method can only be replicated fully if you also recreate the other variables he had around him (active life, good food, natural surroundings, strong group dynamic).

The chronic cardio term needs to be dispensed with so we can have a serious discussion about training methods rather than comparing the disastrous practice of constant threshold running with superficially seductive approaches that promise you enormous results without much time investment. An active natural life is not that – it’s something you live and breathe every moment. We need stronger education around the actual practices and principles used to train athletes in the 50s, 60s and 70s so that the general perception does not become the watered down training approaches, created for modern day runners with poor biomechanics and unhealthy diets, such as “Run faster, run less” or the “magic bullet workout of the week” culture that you can pick up only too easily from “Runner’s World”.

To be successful as an elite runner you need to secure a foundation of natural lifestyle, eat natural food, perfect a natural running technique and then do a mountain of endurance work in the manner prescribed by the great old school coaches like Lydiard, Cerutty and Newton*. How big exactly this mountain needs to be and the specifics of how you do the workouts will vary by ambition and individual but of one thing you can be sure – even if the successful runner needs to master a range of movement skills, he will have spend an enormous amount of time running to reach the very pinnacle of his sport.

* As a caveat, it should be recognised that too much of anything can be damaging and how much is ‘too much’ is individual and time-specific. There are many types of ‘over-training’ (sympathetic, parasympathetic, aerobic, anaerobic, structural) and all are results of pushing the body too far out of its comfort zone too quickly. Specialisation also carries a cost – if all you do is run, even at ‘safe’ intensities, then you will be limited as a human being and we should not pretend that its optimum for health. Specialising in a sport is not a pursuit of health – it is a pursuit of excellence in that given activity and that can have health costs. These are generally minor and accepted. ‘It’s the life in the years, not the years in the life’.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.