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Is Your Cardio Health Improving?

Feb 24, 2020
Ashley Lawrie

Author: Riley Pearce
Director of Social Media
Reading Time: 3.5mins

Cardio workouts are credited as being the best type of exercise for improving heart health because these forms of exercise mainly benefit our cardiovascular health (hence the name cardio).

By running, cycling, rowing, or even walking you ask your heart to pump blood harder, and your lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide faster. But how exactly do you get the benefits of cardio training? What is the minimum effective dose of cardio and how can you test your progression? 

In a lab setting you could test your VO2 Max using a fancy machine that calculates your oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange at maximum effort. This would provide you with the most accurate reading of your VO2 Max. With that you could create a very specific training plan to increase this value and systematically improve your cardiovascular health.

In reality the majority of us do not have access to this type of equipment, nor do we need this level of accuracy to plan our training. 

This is where RPE, or rate of perceived exertion, can be extremely helpful. The scale, which goes from 1-10, is an easy way for you to report your perceived level of effort. The scale typically coincides with the percentage of your maximum heart rate you’re training at as well. For example if you report an RPE of 5-6, this typically means you’re training at 50-60% of your predicted maximum heart rate. 

When you are training to improve cardio fitness, you ideally want to be somewhere between a 6 and an 8. In this zone you’re likely feeling slightly breathless, to being able to say just a few words at a time during the exercise.

This scale is great for training because your individual perception of exertion is unique to you. So instead of saying everyone needs to train on a treadmill for 20 minutes at 7km/h at an incline of 40% in order to improve their cardio fitness, we can adjust the time and effort level so that it works with your individual rate of perceived exertion.

Related Article: Cardio Before or After Your Workout?

So now that you know what level of intensity you need to train at in order to improve your cardio fitness, how do we track progress?

There are a few ways to do this. 

The first method would be to perform the same cardio exercise every training session and track your RPE after every session. As soon as you drop below a 6, you can increase the intensity of the exercise and start a new phase of your cardio training.

The other method would be to try and train at the same level of RPE and track the time you train for at that level, the pace (if you have a machine, or a smart watch for outdoor activities). 

The last way to track your cardio fitness progress is to pick the RPE you want to train at and perform your exercise. At the end of the workout, check your heart rate. You can do this with most smartphones, smart watches, or the old-fashioned way with your pulse at the wrist. 

For the latter technique, take your index and middle finger to your wrist and find your pulse. Once you’ve found it, start a timer for 15s and count the number of beats you feel in that time. Take that number and multiply it by 4. That’s your beats per minute.

Once you have your active beats per minute, set a timer and check your pulse regularly until it returns to around 100bpm. Stop the timer. After every session repeat this process. If you are training at the right intensity, the time that it takes for your heart to return to ~100bpm will decrease. The better your cardio fitness level, the better your heart is at recovering.

In summary, if you want to improve your cardio fitness and therefore decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease you can do so in these ways:

  • Train at an RPE of 6-8 (on a scale of 1-10)
  • Every training session either try to train for longer at that RPE, or train until your RPE drops below 6.
    • At this point, increase the intensity of your training.
  • Keep track of the RPE, time, and distance of each training session to track your progress
  • To take your tracking to the next level, record your active heart rate, and then time how long it takes for your heart to return to ~100bpm.
    • As this time decreases, your cardio fitness level is increasing.

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