How To Supercharge Your Heart (Part 2): A Step-By-Step Guide

 In The Everyday Athlete

A step-by-step guide for beginners and the most effective training principles for intermediates and advanced Everyday Athletes.

**Important** If you haven’t read part 1, click here now to read it before going any further

Six-Step Guide to CV Training For Beginners

Step 1: Walk at least 10,000 steps every single day. This is fundamental for all humans at all fitness levels.

Walk at least 10,000 steps every single day. This is fundamental for all humans at all fitness levels.Click To Tweet

Step 2: Choose a modality or two—running, cycling, rowing, swimming, jump roping, canoeing, running sports, boxing, etc.—and fit in a 30-45-minute session at least once per week. Ideally, 2-4 times per week. It doesn’t matter about distance or intensity, just build the habit of going out and doing it. If you are running, try to stick to off-road. You’ll naturally develop patterns of varied intensities.

Step 3: Build a pattern of varied effort levels. Learn how long you can sustain a certain pace a little above your comfort zone and take note of how long it takes you to recover. Establish a pattern by making the amount of time spent at your higher intensity a constant variable. When a pattern is established, build on the pattern by increasing the intensity while keeping the duration the same. In other words, 30-seconds pushing yourself a little, followed by 90 seconds of recovery. Then 30-seconds pushing yourself a little more followed by 90 seconds of recovery.

Step 4: The first real goal for any beginner is establishing the ability to identify one’s own rate of perceived exertion (RPE). This is a scale out of 10 that rates the perceived amount of effort you’re putting in. This is not to do with the speed or pace at which you are travelling.

RPE scale:

1-2: Easy

3-4: Recovery Zone (maintenance/comfort pace lies at the top end of recovery zone)

5-6: Faster than comfortable

7-8: Hard pace, impossible to sustain

9-10: Max effort

Your comfort pace would sit at around 4-5 RPE. This is the pace that you feel could maintain for some time without having to slow down to recover. The above RPE scale is specific to beginners. As your fitness improves, your recovery zone will become a little higher.

Being able to identify your RPE at any given pace comes with experiencing it, then recovering back in your recovery zone.

I encourage people to learn by listening to their own bodies instead of relying on an external gadget to tell them how hard they are working.Click To Tweet

I encourage people to learn by listening to their own bodies instead of relying on an external gadget to tell them how hard they are working. However, at this stage (not before) many beginners might benefit from introducing the use of a heart rate monitor. Use the device and work at 9-10 RPE for a couple of repeated bouts after 20 minutes of lower intensity work. The highest number you can reach is 90-95% of your maximum heart rate. From here you can calculate your training zones if you wish. However, bear in mind that as you improve, your resting and maximal heart rates will change so you’ll need to keep retesting. Again, I’d advise you to ditch the tech and learn to master RPE.

Step 6: Regularly bring your effort up to near maximal for very short bursts and adapt to recovering on the move. Learn to recognize how much you need to reduce your pace to recover. Build confidence in your ability to recover on the move without having to stop completely. See how long it takes until you can summon the energy for another short, sharp burst. Congratulations, you’re not a beginner anymore.

Cardiovascular Training for Intermediates and Advanced

  1. Find your mantra.

This is the rhythmical breath pattern that every individual makes with each stroke/stride/revolution. To build your mantra, feel your heart beat. Practice diaphragmatic breathing while you move and send every breath down into your abdomen. Feel your pelvic floor with every inhale. Relax your neck, chest and shoulders. Build a breathing beat that you find relaxing and comforting and match it to the locomotion of your limbs. If running, feel the ground under each step, observe the lay of the land in front of you, listen to nature around you and become a part of it.

Typically, your mantra is built at your recovery or your maintenance pace. When your mantra is established this becomes your place of relaxation and comfort. It serves to help you maintain pace, ignore the gremlins telling you to slow down and ignore the superficial pain caused by blisters. Some people use music to help them achieve a certain level of relaxation. However, I’m of the opinion that a true mantra (where you’re at one with the terrain, your surroundings, your heart beat and breath) is impossible to find with music. Whatever works though! 

  1. Include regular resistance intervals such as bodyweight sets.

Through years of trial and error as a Royal Marines Commando (and with no real scientific knowledge), we figured out that by including short intervals of anaerobic work (such as bodyweight exercises) our rate of improvement would noticeably increase. Even more so than by just using speed intervals.

Example 1: Run 5km. Set interval timer to bleep every three minutes. Ten burpees on every bleep. Record overall time. Improve next time by running faster between burpees.

Example 2: Row 5,000m on a Concept 2. Every time the clock hits multiples of two minutes, jump off and do 15 push-ups then immediately carry on rowing. Record your overall time and beat it next time by rowing faster between push-ups.

The circulatory system becomes very good at moving blood from one body part to another. The resistance work also builds up lactate so your cardiovascular system must adapt by getting better at removing it. You’ll find your recovery rate improves dramatically with this regular training.

For the ninjas who are looking to reach high levels of performance, try this cheeky little formula: resistance set, sprint, recover, repeat.

Example 1: Run 10km. Set interval timer to bleep every four minutes. On the bleep drop down and do X number of push-ups (50% of one set max), then immediately sprint approximately 100m. Then drop your running pace to your fixed recovery rate.

Example 2: Row 5,000m. Every time the clock hits a multiple of three minutes do X number of push-ups, 20 hard rowing strokes, then return to your baseline recovery wattage. 

  1. Increase your lactate threshold.

Many people think that an effective formula for interval training is increasing the pace a little bit for a couple of minutes then recovering for a little longer. Sure, this will accelerate improvement more than maintaining the same pace throughout, but nowhere near as effective as going hard for 15-30 seconds then recovering.

How fast you can maintain a given pace is directly proportional to the rate you can remove lactate from your working muscles. Lactate is a bi-product of the energy-making process. The harder you work, the more lactate builds up. When the amount of lactate reaches a certain level, your brain tells you to slow down so your cardiovascular system has a chance to remove it. By performing short (15-30 second) speed intervals to a maximal speed then bringing the pace down to recover, you are sending a signal to your brain that it needs to increase the size of your heart. More lactate equals more blood needed to remove it and that makes for a stronger, more elastic heart.

People feel sick during hard exercise because the brain thinks they’ve been poisoned. The high levels of lactate in the blood are detected so the brain tells the stomach to vomit. If the vomit feeling occurs during not so hard exercise it’s a sign that the cardiovascular system has some serious room for improvement or poor food choices may be an issue.

The recipe for the quickest cardiovascular improvements is 15-30 seconds at 8-9 RPE, followed by one to four minutes recovery (depending on the modality).

The real key and secret to highly effective cardiovascular training lie in the gradual improvement of your recovery rate between bouts of intensity. 

People feel sick during hard exercise because the brain thinks they’ve been poisoned.Click To Tweet
  1. Control and program your recovery pace.

I was chatting to a former Team America cyclist (Taylor Starch, a.k.a. Quadzilla) about his cardiovascular training on the national squad. We high-fived over breakfast like giddy schoolboys when we discovered that we both have the same training secret. We stumbled upon it through years of intelligent trial and error. We’d also never heard anyone else talking about it so we assumed we each separately invented it. Having said that, I’m sure someone else has written about it before because it is inevitable that thousands of cardio beasts are practicing it having stumbled upon it themselves. Despite the advice from most fitness magazines, there is no new training principle—it’s all been done before. I digress…

After dropping down from your 8-9 RPE burst of intensity for 15-30 seconds, measure your recovery rate. Identify a) the pace that you need to drop to for recovery, b) the duration you need to remain at this pace, and c) the comfort pace you can then return to after a short recovery. Once these have been identified, you have some constants to form a baseline for programming. I used this programming method in a recent blog post for helping people improve their 500m rowing time by 5-20 seconds.

Sample Program For Improving 5km Run

Current best time: 26 minutes

Month 1: Run 5km. Sprint like a tiger is chasing you for 20 seconds, then return to 3 RPE for three minutes and 40 seconds (use a Gymboss interval timer and set it to 00:20/03:40). Total run time is around 30 minutes, but this doesn’t matter. Practice at least twice per week so you learn to feel your recovery pace and stabilize it. The entire 3:40 remains at the same pace. This is where you could use a GPS if you struggle with that. Or learn to build your mantra and don’t rely on tech.

Month 2: Run 5km. 9-10 RPE for 20 seconds. Run at 4 RPE for 3 minutes 40 seconds, (i.e., a little bit faster than month one). Again, use a GPS if it helps. Learn to trust that you will recover after the bout of intensity, it just may take a little longer. Maintain this slightly faster pace throughout the 3 minutes 40 seconds. Practice at least twice per week. Your overall time should be a little faster, but that doesn’t really matter. The emphasis is not on maintaining this overall time, it is on your ability to run for your life for 20 seconds and maintain your new recovery pace constantly for the next 3 minutes 40. The overall time is just for interest.

Month 3: Run 5km. 9-10 RPE for 20 seconds. Run at 5 RPE for 3 minutes and 40 seconds (i.e., a little faster than month two). This is where mental resilience plays a role. Despite your brain telling you to slow down, maintain 5 RPE during the recovery phase. Again, this should be the same pace throughout (use a gadget if need be).

By the end of month three, you will have developed an intimate understanding for your own capability. You’ll know the maximum pace you can sustain for a given distance without slowing down. Your cardiovascular system will have adapted to removing lactate while maintaining pace by increasing the size and elasticity of the heart and arteries. I would expect anyone to knock 10-20% off their best effort 5km time. The more advanced you become, the higher the recovery pace between bouts.

Other Major Affecting Factors

Blood is 55-60% plasma, which is mostly made of water. If you are dehydrated, the volume of your blood decreases. The heart rate must, therefore, increase so it can send blood to the working muscles. To make the most of your CV training, you must remain properly hydrated.

Resting heart rate is a good indicator of CV capacity, but ensure you’re fully hydrated for a more accurate reflection. It takes several days of optimal water consumption to reach hydration.

It’s very straightforward to build cardiovascular capacity on a body of any age that moves well. The master components of everyday athleticism are mobility, stability, and balance. If you spend most of your day in a chair, it’s highly likely that you won’t move well because your brain has adapted to be efficient at the stimulus you’re providing. Chair-shaped humans tend to break during physical activities. #justsayin’

Words From The Community: –

“Simple! That’s the best way I can describe the guidance Phil gave me on CV programming. That’s also the biggest compliment I can give it too, as anything other makes a program hard to stick too!

I’ve added the recommended programming into my current weekly strength cycle and in only four weeks I have knocked four minutes off my 5km time.

I’ve also grasped the principles behind the programming, which has depended on my understanding of CV training in general. Thank you, Phil. 5km time drop in four weeks: 27:34-23:25. Bodyweight drop: 252lbs-240lbs.”

––Jonathan Haddock


How To Supercharge Your Heart (Part 2): A Step By Step Guide
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How To Supercharge Your Heart (Part 2): A Step By Step Guide
A step-by-step guide for beginners and the most effective training principles for intermediates and advanced Everyday Athletes.
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Strength Matters
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