Chronic Cardio, have you heard the term? If not, maybe you’ve heard of overtraining or overreaching? Chronic cardio describes a pattern of overly stressful cardiovascular workouts that last for too long and are conducted too frequently, with insufficient rest periods in between. Does this sound like you? Basically, we’ve taken something that we all know is good for us and took it too far. I get it. Exercise is fun, it makes us feel and look good too, but when it becomes chronic and we abuse the flight or fight the nervous system, that good thing we love can wreak havoc on our bodies.
I know I used to fit into the chronic cardio category and would routinely get injured, an illness or exhausted which would keep me sidelined and unable to do what I love until I figured out how to train smarter not harder. For me, chronic cardio presented itself in the form of sleepless nights. I would be tired all day long and then get a big boost of energy before bed that would keep me from getting quality rest at night. This term is affectionately referred to as being tired and wired which indicates excessive cortisol and hormone disruption. For years I couldn’t figure it out and would regularly tell friends and family that, “if you’re experiencing stress, you need to hit it with more stress” because, at the time, I found a way to hack my elevated stress levels with things like ice baths and sauna protocols that reduced stress and helped me sleep, sometimes. Now, I’ve realized that these recovery tactics are fantastic at boosting recovery but I’ve also learned that too much of a good thing can be bad news bears.
We know that cortisol is a stress hormone and when it floods the body it can feel good. Your senses are heightened, heart rate increases and so does focus. Cortisol is great when running from a tiger but this process is meant to be short-lived not constant which is how most folks in our modern society operate on a daily basis eventually leading to burnout or adrenal exhaustion. Since our lives are already stressful enough adding additional stress like chronic exercise can push us over the edge and lead to illness and/or injury. Excessive cortisol can also lock you out of fat-burning, affect sleep, and your ability to manage daily stress. I see this all the time when working with clients, you know the type. The type A go-getters that want to burn it at both ends, have their cake and eat it too, and the type that will sleep when they die. They often have stressful careers, busy home lives, sleep poorly, and wonder why they’re not losing weight despite going to the gym 5-6 days per week.
We must be careful about how we apply stress and learn to listen to our bodies to know how much stress we can handle. Your body is giving you tons of signals throughout the day, but most people have gotten so far out of touch with their bodies that they are unable to recognize these signals, mostly because of the constant overly stressful state we live in. One practice that has greatly improved my ability to measure how myself and the clients I work with are responding to stress is HRV or Heart Rate Variability.
Heart Rate Variability
Heart Rate Variability is a measurement of how well your parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system is communicating with your sympathetic (fight and flight) nervous system. Generally speaking, you want to have a high HRV score. A high HRV score indicates that you are handling stress well and a low HRV score would indicate the opposite, that you are under recovered, low on sleep, overtrained, and/or overly stressed. When you track your HRV over time you can see well your body performs and responds to a variety of stressful situations.
HRV helped me get more in tune with my body. Before adding HRV to my morning routine I would regularly overreach by engaging in chronic cardio too often. I thought that if I wanted results, that meant pushing my body hard every time I went to the gym. After 3 days of hard exercise in a row, I would start waking up 2 hours before I was supposed to and wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Then, instead of taking time to recovery, I would often confuse the signs of overtraining and go work out hard again which led to more issues with sleep. As soon as I started tracking my HRV, it was very evident that this early wake-up time was correlated with poor recovery. My HRV scores were telling me it was time to take a break from the gym, not head in for an early morning workout (which I almost ALWAYS did.) As soon as I started obeying this rule, the sleep issues disappeared and I spent a lot more time recovering which improved my overall health and eventually, my results in the gym. Fast forward a couple months of tracking my HRV and I was able to train much more frequently and was able to cope with day to day stress much better.
How to Track HRV
To track HRV all you need to do is purchase a Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor and download the SweetBeat HRV app on your phone. If you have a heart rate monitor already check the app to be sure it’s compatible. Next you’ll run a “3 Min HRV Checkup” session and pick a time that you can check at the same time every day so that you get an accurate comparison from day to day. I like to check mine upon waking while lying in bed. The session takes about 5 minutes and the app will start to make recommendations on whether you should train, have a light workout or suggest a rest day after collecting a couple days’ worth of data. Be sure to follow the recommendations for exercise and compare the recommendation to how you actually feel. Overtime you will learn to correlate different feelings in your body and get more familiar with what your body needs on a given day. After doing this for a while, you may be able to predict the session results by becoming more in tune with your body, the ultimate goal in my opinion.
180 Minus Your Age
If we look to our ancestors, we see that they never engaged in this type of overachieving, chronic cardio and instead tended to recover more and exert themselves much-much less often. This way, they could be ready to fight or run for their lives in a moment’s notice. Can you imagine running a marathon one day and having to run from a tiger the next? I want to throw up just thinking about it! No, we don’t have selection pressure anymore and we can get away with being sedentary and still benefit in today’s society, but which is better? The answer is both are wrong. On one hand, we have the folks that tend to be extremely sedentary and on the other, we have another group of folks that tend to exercise too much. Both result in negative health outcomes, so how do we find a solution for both? I’m glad you asked!
Another great way to avoid Chronic Cardio is by applying the Maffetone Formula which is defined by 180 minus your age. This formula is also referred to as your Aerobic Maximum. Here we use a heart rate monitor instead of going by perceived exertion which has been proven to fail because of our tendencies towards overtraining. Often times, we think we have to work out harder and more intensely to get a good workout because we think anything less than sweating our balls off in the gym, won’t be effective. We’ve learned to associate suffering with getting fit. In fact, these types of efforts are actually counterproductive to us reaching our weight loss, fitness, and longevity goals. Instead of boosting our fitness, helping us lose weight, and making us feel better, we actually do the opposite resulting in less immunity, more stress, and fatigue.
Maffetone training takes some getting used to and the benefits come from adhering to this formula over the long term. In the beginning, you will think that this type of exercise feels too easy but over time you will become more efficient and you will increase your output at a lower heart rate. This way you improve fitness without the risk of fatigue, injury, burn out, and your workouts will leave you feeling rejuvenated instead of fatigued.
Maffetone 180 Minus Your Age Formula Adjustment Factors
The Maffetone formula offers some adjustment factors to the calculation based on your current state of health and fitness. Take 180 minus your age as your baseline number, and then adjust it accordingly if appropriate:
- Subtract 10: Recovering from illness, surgery, disease, or taking regular medication.
- Subtract 5: Recent injury or regression in training, get more than two colds annually, allergies, asthma, inconsistent training, or recently returning to training.
- No Adjustment: Training consistently (4x/week) for two years, free from the aforementioned problems.
- Add 5: Successful training for two years or more, success in competition.
How to track Aerobic Maximum
Tracking Aerobic Maximum is simple and you can use the exact same app that you would use for tracking HRV, the SweetBeat app, using the exact same Polar H7 chest strap. All you need to do is open the app and run an “Anytime Check-Up” session. You can even set alerts to go off when you pass your Aerobic Maximum. Run the session while training and once you hear the alert you want to slow down or stop to bring your heart rate down. After your heart rate recovers, start again until you hear the alarm. If the alarm goes off more often, it’s time to stop the workout for the day.
When it comes to exercise, more is not always better. In the case of chronic cardio, more can actually hurt your health, not enhance it. We have to break away from old ways of thinking to reach our full potential. For some, this means being more active without overtraining and for others learning to work out smarter not harder. The two tools outlined in this article, HRV and Maffetone Training, can help you optimize your health and fitness goals without sliding into an overtraining routine that compromises our goals. Give these tools and tactics a try for yourself and let me know what you think!