How to Increase Cardiovascular Endurance Without Sacrificing Muscle Mass

Instead of cardiovascular endurance, we are going to go ahead and use the term “conditioning” because we are ultimately conditioning the body to efficiently supply the heart, blood vessels, and lungs with oxygen rich blood to better work muscles during physical activity. However, increasing endurance does not mean running 70 miles per week, it could be something as simple as running for 20 minutes, 2-3 times a week. If you have never done any type of endurance training, then this could work wonders for you right off the bat. However, as we adapt to the training stimulus, we will need to increase either the frequency or intensity of this training to continue to see improvement.

Next, we have the concept that most people seem to misunderstand. Just because someone does long endurance type events, does NOT mean that they will lose muscle mass. Studies have proven that if we combine the elements of conditioning, nutrition, and weight lifting we find that a balance will not disturb the muscle mass.

First, let’s look at diet and nutrition, we can break it down into a simple equation. If you work out for X number of hours, you will need to replenish your body with a certain number of nutrients. If you throw another variable into the loop, in this case it would be cardio, you will now have to consider that the body is burning more calories. If you’re not supplying your body with enough calories, especially protein, you can’t expect to gain or maintain the muscle mass that you do have. By increasing nutrition consumption, you will be able to maintain muscle mass. Because cardio taxes your body differently, since it focuses on endurance not strength, the food you eat will have to be adjusted. It is wise to increase carbohydrates to match the amount of cardiovascular training that you are now doing. Your overall workload will be increased by adding conditioning to your regimen, so carbohydrates are to keep you fueled through those longer workouts. You also need to make sure you are getting enough protein in your diet as well because your muscles will be breaking down more with the increased workload. Keep in mind the intensity of your workout, depending on the concentration of your workout, you may only need to increase your current diet by 500 calories.

The next step in balancing cardio and weight lifting is alternating between the exercises you are doing; a variety of aerobic and anaerobic workouts will allow you to condition your body without losing the gains of lifting. Doing cardio and weight lifting back to back will prevent you from performing at your best during each part of your workout and lead to no improvements in endurance or lifting. You should alternate between your aerobic and anaerobic workouts to avoid fatigue during training and maintain and even improve muscle growth and development. You heard me right! It is definitely possible to do endurance training 3 times a week and still gain muscle! All you have to do is alternate between aerobic and anaerobic training days. 

The go to aerobic exercise to increase conditioning and the most available one is running. Fartlek’s are amazing running drills that just about anyone can do. Fartlek runs are simply defined as running at different speeds for a specific amount of time. For example, if you are on a track, then you would sprint the straight a way’s and jog the curves. However, running just is not for everyone for whatever the reason might be. If you are this person, don’t worry because there are a variety of different methods you can use. Biking, rowing and swimming are all great alternatives for those who are looking for something other than running.  

CrossFit training has blown up recently and continues to grow. Personally, I am a big fan of CrossFit style training because it covers nearly every aspect of fitness. Strength, power, endurance, mobility, speed and agility are all covered in this type of training. CrossFit is centered around what they call “Metcons” which stands for Metabolic Conditioning. Metcons are usually full body workouts that are at a high intensity and are aerobically focused. CrossFit is a great training option, as it involves Olympic lifts and kinetic chain exercises. It’s a fast pace workout routine with different lifts in a comprised period of time.

Disclaimer: If you are new to CrossFit, I highly recommend that you work with a coach/trainer to gradually build your work capacity and slowly improve weight lifting technique to prevent injury.

 For lifters looking to stay in the gym and get the same results without having to run, you should try HIIT. Traditionally, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is made to build speed, power, and endurance for athletes. This is done by having a short burst of high intensity effort that targets the anaerobic system and usually builds up lactate. Some of you may know about lactate and the burning feeling it can cause in your body after intense physical activity, but some of you might not know that a buildup of lactate causes the body to enter a stage called oxygen debt. While in this state the body will start to use oxygen to break down sugar and other carbs to create energy for the body in a process called cellular respiration. Using oxygen to turn carbohydrates into energy is usually accomplished in aerobic training. The more that we condition our body this way, the faster your body recovers and removes the lactate in you. This is the principle of adaptation. The more that we do conditioning, the faster you are able to recover, thus allowing you to work harder for longer periods of time. Bang! That is how you can improve your cardiovascular endurance while maintaining your muscle mass.

Important things to note while doing HITT: keep your heart rate between 85-95% of max heart rate during the duration of the workout if possible because this will lead to the best lactic buildup/breakdown during your workouts. Make sure to wait at the very least 1 day before doing another HIIT workout. As you continue to do HIIT workouts, remember that as your body adapts to the exercises you should be increasing the length of the exercises, shortening resting periods between exercises, and increasing the duration of the overall workout.

Hope you all enjoyed this one! Please reach out if you have any questions or concerns.

Published by Jeffrey Spagnolo

B.A. Exercise Physiology, Athletic Training Assistant, Sports Medicine Student, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach, Personal Trainer

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