When considering the different types of cardiovascular fitness, I consider there to be two top categories that blanket all sub-categories—traditional cardio and conditioning. For simplicity, I will not include commonly accepted sports. Sports—from basketball to hockey—can have a strong cardio component but I feel those are best considered as sport specific, for obvious reasons.
Traditional cardio encompasses all variations of running, biking, and swimming. For this writing I am mostly going to focus on running for traditional cardio, since that is the area for which I train people the most and have the most familiarity.
For training purposes, conditioning is any form of cardio exercise that is not covered under traditional cardio. A metcon workout in CrossFit is a form of conditioning but so is an aerobics class as is the HIIT class at your local gym that includes circuited weight work, calisthenics, and maybe even a touch of traditional cardio.
I am biased toward running for cardiovascular fitness so I will focus on it. To keep things simple, I will break the different types of running into sprinting, mid-distance, distance, and ultrarunning, then cover some competitively run distances for each.
Sprinting—this type of exercise, training, and competition focuses on max speed over short distances. The emphasis is on top speed and power, and training focuses on improving these areas, though a minor importance may be placed on mid-distance running.
Mid-distance running—this running category includes distances greater than between the 400 meters but less than two miles. This type of running still has a strong focus on speed but starts to get into the realm of cardiovascular endurance. Training places importance, on speed, power, and endurance.
Distance running—it is commonly accepted that anything over roughly two miles in considered distance running. However, this definition gives way to wide interpretation. For example, a 3k, 5k, half-marathon, marathon, and 50-mile are all examples of distance running, but place far different levels of strain on the body. At the same time, the exercise and training for the different distance running methods varies widely, though overlap occurs. The overall focus for training is endurance. Speed and power still have a place, but generally only for overtaking opponents, the home stretch, or traversing certain terrain.
Ultra-running—in general, anything over a marathon distance is considered ultra-running. Extreme endurance is the focus with the same basic tenets of distance running applied, just with more focus on running longer. Exactly what is ultra-running is subject to wide interpretation, but again, anything over a marathon distance is considered ultra-running, in general.
In Olympic sprinting, the 100, 200, and 400 are current events. To put this distance into context of miles, the 400 is roughly a quarter mile and the distances shorten from there. This type of exercise, training, and competition focuses on max speed over short distances.
Sprints are not common to recreational running competitions. Sprint distances require high speed, high power output. Endurance in the commonly accepted sense is not required. Heart rate is higher than longer forms of running. Training intensity, and therefore acute strain on the bodily systems, is much higher than longer runs. Due to the intensity, acute effort related injuries may be more likely. Maximal foot cycle and breathing cycle is required. A person may follow a breathing pattern of one inhalation for one step and one exhalation for one step, or one full breath for two steps.
In summary, sprinting as a form of cardiovascular fitness is the toughest form of running when considering intensity and is more likely to have a person reach maximal physical effort when compared to running longer distances.
Distance running in commonly referred to as anything over roughly two miles, so by that logic, mid-distance running would be anything between the roughly a quarter mile and two miles. This type of running still has a strong focus on speed but starts to get into the realm of cardiovascular endurance.
A person may follow a breathing pattern of one inhalation for two steps and one exhalation for one step, or one full breath for three steps. The level of effort will determine the exact breathing pattern. The harder to effort, the higher the breathing pattern. Unlike sprinting, where effort for quality work is always near maximal, quality mid-distance running work for cardiovascular fitness can have a lower overall speed in favor of more volume, which results in less intensity and reduced strain on the system. A person has a better chance of building running endurance with mid-distance running when compared to sprinting.
It is commonly accepted that anything over roughly two miles in considered distance running. However, this definition gives way to wide interpretation. For example, a 3k, 5k, half-marathon, marathon, and ultra-running are all examples of distance running, but place far different levels of strain on the body. At the same time, the exercise and training for the different distance running methods varies widely, though overlap occurs.
A person may follow a breathing pattern of one inhalation for two steps and one exhalation for two steps, or one full breath for four steps.
Distance running is less intense in an acute sense when compared to running shorter distances, meaning a person is running at pace the is significantly below maximal effort for part of the overall running distance. For example, a person will not run the same pace for a 5k as he or she would for a sprint or even for two miles. This means even if a person is running a 5k at maximal pace for that distance, he or she is still running significantly slower than the two-mile or sprint pace, which leaves the overall intensity down.
The initial portion of any distance run will generally be easy to moderate and become progressively harder. This does not mean a person increases pace as the run progresses, but rather that fatigue begins to set in, which results in more effort to maintain the same pace.
Understanding the ways different types of cardiovascular fitness, in this case running, stress the body is important for knowing how to train and recover for each. This same logic can be applied to any type of exercise that focuses on cardiovascular fitness.
In general, anything over a marathon distance is considered ultra-running. Everything I noted about distance running applies to ultra-running, since ultra-running is distance running. I differentiate between the two since many ultra running events covers distances such as 30, 50, or even 100 miles, which pushes into ultra-endurance. While the basic concepts of overall distance running apply, the application of each will vary based on the distance. Indeed, proper training and recovery become more important for ultra-running, since the body has to endure more work and time under tension.
Biking and swimming
The same basic ideas that apply to running apply to biking and swimming, though differences are present.
In biking the distance will always be longer. A short distance bike ride and long-distance bike ride are always going to be longer than comparable running events.
In swimming events will always be shorter than comparable running events. A short distance swim and long swim are always going to be shorter than comparable running events.
The same, or similar, type of events occur. For example, in Olympic running events the 100-meter sprint is the shortest Olympic event, while the shortest biking event is 250 meters, and shortest swim is 50 meters. Though different distances, each would be considered a “sprint” event for the respective competition type.
The same is true for mid-distance and long-distance events, though these are relative. For example, 1500 meters is the longest swimming event. While not long for running and certainly not for biking, a 1500-meter swim is a long event in water.
Each event requires different types of cardiovascular fitness. Biking and swimming sprint contests are short “power” events, while long distance work in both focus on endurance. As in running, the bodily systems are stressed differently. Sprint events will be more intense throughout while distance events will be easier at the start and become progressively harder.
There are other similarities as well as differences, such as breathing patterns, but again, I am not going cover biking and swimming much.
I am a fan of conditioning work. For the past few years, conditioning work has been part of my weekly program. Sometimes the work occurs five days per week; other times one day per week.
Conditioning work is infinitely varied. There is no limit to the different type of conditioning workouts that can be created. In that same line of thought, I cannot list every type of conditioning workout as defined by others. Instead, I note conditioning by how I approach it.
Two broad categories
For me, there are two broad categories of conditioning workouts—strength focused and cardio focused.
- Strength focused conditioning workouts build strength with minimal rest. Loads are relatively high, rest intervals are present but short, and cardio response is limited.
- Cardio focused conditioning workouts may use no external load, may have no rest intervals, and cardio response is moderate to high.
Each has a place in a training program. One approach is not inherently superior to the other. For specific goals, one may be better than the other, situationally speaking.
Strength focused conditioning workouts
An example of a strength based conditioning workout is a deadlift EMOM. I program such a workout with 80+% of 1RM with usually 8-10 intervals. For context, an EMOM is “every minute on the minute,” which means a person would perform one rep of an 80+% deadlift every minute on the minute for 8-10 minutes. In this instance, rest varies based on how long someone takes to set-up but is often 30-45 seconds. This can become daunting, especially as loads increase well above 80% of 1RM. In this type of workout, muscle fatigue will be the limiting factor, not cardio elevation.
To best make use of strength based conditioning workouts, the layout should:
- Have few exercises
- Use low reps
- Include rest as needed
- · Use heavy weight
Have few exercises
The more exercises, the more a person will have to spread their effort and energy. The more this effort and energy is spread, the less load a person can use. For example, if completing an EMOM, ideally one exercises should be included. Trying to do two or more will encourage increased speed, low weight, and increased heart rate, which are not goals for this type of conditioning work.
Use low reps
Too many reps will lead to moving through the sets quickly, accelerating heart rate, and not providing the muscle enough stimuli to encourage building strength. I like to keep reps at five or less, dependent on the workout layout. For example, an EMOM will generally have no more than two reps, but a round based workout may have up to five.
Include rest as needed
Rest should be included as needed in strength based conditioning workouts in order to keep heart rate down and to encourage adequate recovery between minutes, rounds, etc. to enable lifting more weight. An EMOM inserts rest by default, but a person will need to pace round based workouts (or similar approaches) to keep heart rate down.
Use heavy weight
Completing a strength based conditioning workout with low weight is counterproductive to the goal of the workout. What is heavy is relative to the lift, the trainee, and the level of fatigue that person already has. For example, I often complete a strength based conditioning workout on day three of my workout program. I have two days of heavy lifting behind me as well as some fatigue and soreness as a result. When selecting load, I consider my how I feel and understand I may not be able to use as much load as if I were at full energy.
In general, we consider 70% of 1RM for movements such as Olympic lifts to be heavy and 80% of 1RM for movements such as powerlifts. Again, fatigue must be considered. For example, if fatigued, I will still target 70+% or 80+%, but I may stick to the lower end. This may mean staying closer to 80% of 1RM for a movement such as the deadlift instead of working to 90+%.
Cardio focused conditioning workouts
An example of a cardio focused conditioning workout would be CrossFit workout Fran. The workout calls for 21, 15, and 9 reps of the thruster and pull-up. The goal is to complete the workout for time, and faster is better. Moving as fast as possible to complete the workout significantly elevates heart rate and breathing, as well physical response associated with both, making this a cardio based session. Completed with minimal rest, or ideally no rest, the difficulty of the workout increase exponentially. Some people cycle this workout in two minutes or less, meaning 1 rep every 1.3 seconds for 120 seconds.
To best make use of cardio based conditioning workouts, the layout should:
- Not use heavy weight
- Minimize rest
- Use high volume
- Be fast paced
Not use heavy resistance
Resistance should be light to moderate. This applies to weighted movements as well as calisthenics. For example, if you cannot complete more than a handful of pull-ups consecutively, the movement should not be part of a cardio based conditioning workout. By that logic, a high percentage of one-rep max should not be used either. I suggest no more than 70% of 1RM, though often the amount should be much lighter.
Long rests will not keep the heart rate elevated or equal a strong cardio response. As long as you keep your heart rate up, pacing yourself is better than significant rest. How much rest you should use is relative. In some instance zero rest should be the goal, in others up to 30 seconds may be advisable. The layout of the workout dictates how much rest should be use and at what point in the workout.
Use high volume
Volume should be relatively high. The specifics of the workout and ability of the individual dictates the volume. Completing five rounds of five reps of five exercises is not usually going to illicit the ideal cardio response. By that logic, completing a two-minute workout generally is not either, unless you are already so fit that you can push the intensity to max for those two minutes. At a minimum, we generally look for at least seven minutes of relatively constant work.
Be fast paced
You are not going to get the cardio response you want to you take it easy. Performing 100 body weight squats in seven minutes is likely not going to give you the ideal cardio response. Double or even triple that number and it might. Even better, try to perform 100+ box jumps in seven minutes or alternate 10 pull-ups with 10 box jumps for seven minutes while minimizing rest. Using these types of approaches will results in the workout being fast paced and more likely to provide the ideal cardio response.
Example workouts for each broad category
So that pretty much wraps this up. I will leave you with a few example workouts for each broad category.
Strength based conditioning workouts
- Almost any EMOM with a compound exercise at 70% or greater of 1RM. For example, barbell deadlift, back squat, clean, or snatch at 70-80 % of 1RM every minute on the minute for 10 minutes.
- Five rounds of a clean, jerk, jerk, clean and jerk complex with 70+% of 1RM with 30-60 seconds rest between rounds.
- Seven rounds of three barbell back squats and three barbell deadlifts, both at 80-90 percent of 1RM. Only rest long enough to set-up properly for each exercise, or if that is too short, rest 30-60 seconds between rounds.
Cardio based conditioning workouts
- 10-minute AMRAP of 200 meter run followed by 10 pull-ups.
- 21, 15, 9 of barbell deadlifts and handstand push-ups
- 7 rounds of 100 single unders, 20 pull-ups, and 20 push-ups
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Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.