Guest Blog from Alwyn Cosgrove, CSCS - owner of Results Fitness (Newhall, CA)
Cardiovascular programming is an ass backward concept.
I don’t know when I first thought this – but it was confirmed to me when viewing Lance Armstrong’s performance in the New York Marathon.
I’d been taught through my college education and countless training certifications and seminars that cardio vascular exercise was necessary to improve the cardio vascular system and subsequently aerobic performance.
But there seemed an inherent flaw in that argument….
Let’s say I tested your aerobic fitness through a treadmill test.
Then – for sixteen weeks – we developed a five-day per week aerobic training program that involved you running at various heart rates and for various lengths of times – progressively increasing in difficulty and duration – and this resulted in a very significant improvement in your aerobic fitness.
At the end of this sixteen week period, how much do you expect your swimming times to have improved? Marginally, if at all.
Seems dumb to ask right? However – if we have one cardiovascular system – why doesn’t your cardiovascular system improve across the board regardless of the activity?
Why didn’t Lance Armstrong – with perhaps the highest recorded VO2 max in history – win the New York Marathon? Or beat people with lesser aerobic levels than himself?
The greatest endurance cyclist (and possibly endurance athlete) of all time – the seven time Tour De France winner – finished 868th and described the event as the “hardest physical thing” he had ever done.
Runners World Magazine actually examined Lance’s physiology (and VO2 max which was tested at 83) and compared them to the numbers of Paul Tergat (the World Record holder and defending NYC Marathon Champion at the time).
"This figure wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t for the pioneering research of famed running coach Jack Daniels, Ph.D., who first published his Oxygen Power tables in 1979– According to Daniels, who’s rarely off by more than a smidgen or two, a max VO2 of 83 is roughly equivalent to a 2:06 marathon”
Based on his other physical qualities the magazine suggested that Lance was capable of running 2:01:11.
The world record at the time was 2:04:55
Lance ran 2:59:36 (and don’t misinterpet me – that’s still a great time). But it’s clear that the physiology didn’t transfer the way even the running community expected.
The flaw in this thinking was looking solely at aerobic capacity — VO2 max – the “engine” as it were. And it’s fair to say that Lance had a “Formula One” engine.
But he didn’t have the structural development for running. Lance was a cyclist – his body had adapted to the demands of cycling. But NOT to the specific demands of running (in fact Lance had only ran 16 miles at once EVER prior to running the marathon). Lance had developed strength, postural endurance and flexibility in the correct “cycling muscles” – but it didn’t transfer to running the way his VO2 max did.
The muscles don’t move because of cardiovascular demand. It’s the reverse. The cardio system is elevated because of muscular demand. We need to program the body based on the movements it’s going to perform – not based on the cardiovascular system.
Basically, if that muscular system cannot handle the stress of thousands of repetitions (which is what running, cycling etc is) then we have to condition that muscular system first. And by doing so, we automatically improve cardiovascular conditioning.
The only reason that there is any demand on the cardiovascular system is because the muscular system places that demand – the muscles require oxygen in order to continue to work. In fact cardiovascular exercise is impossible without moving the muscle first.
I’ve seen this across various sports. The cardio conditioning required to run a 10K won’t transfer to motocross or jiu-jitsu.
Conclusion – If cardio training doesn’t transfer well from one activity to another – and it only ‘kicks’ in because of muscular demand – why don’t we program muscular activity first – in order to create a cardiovascular response.