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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 04, 2008

Dear Mark: Chronic Cardio

By Mark Sisson
190 Comments

Dear Mark,

I’m still having a hard time understanding what “chronic high level training” is, exactly. How much is too much? Is there a heart rate zone you guys can give me? A time limit? Am I overthinking this??

Thanks, Charlotte, for posting this question last week. As is so often the case, another MDA reader (hats off to you, Mike OD!) offered great advice. We thought the question was well worth revisiting. First off, let’s investigate the concept of chronic cardio. Intense cardio as we commonly think of it today means long stretches at a sustained heart rate in the 80+% range.

The fact is, our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t ramp up their heart rates significantly for over an hour every day, and I don’t think we should either. They walked at a very low level of exertion, burning almost entirely stored fats. Once you get into the zones where less fat is burned and where there’s a big dependency on glucose to fuel muscles, your body goes into a less efficient mode of fuel oxidation. There are biochemical costs associated with this shift. Your muscles and liver can only hold 500-600 grams of precious glycogen (stored glucose) at any one time, which means about 2 hours’ worth for the best trained individuals and less for most people. That means that to come back and work out hard the next day requires at least 600 more grams of carbs every day. That’s just too much glucose and insulin to deal with every day.

I don’t recommend pushing this limit or even approaching it. Why bother? This kind of training (and diet) raises cortisol levels, increases oxidative damage, systemic inflammation, depresses the immune system and decreases fat metabolism. About the only thing good it does is improve cardiac muscle strength – and even then you get too the point of diminishing returns fairly quickly.

As you know, I recommend a different approach that more accurately mirrors what we evolved doing. In those simpler (but not really “good old”), primal times, we spent several hours a day engaged in low level activity. A few times a week, caveman/woman life required brief spurts in high intensity anaerobic mode to run from various predators, hunt down dinner, engage in “play” etc. Each of these modes resulted in its own unique and very positive growth response.

This pattern, for most of us, isn’t easily replicated as a result of our busy lives. Instead, I suggest anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour of low to moderate level aerobic movement such as walking briskly, hiking, cycling, etc. It doesn’t need to be every day, but at least a few times a week is important. The goal during these sessions is to maintain the zone that burns mostly fat. For very fit people, this could be as high as 70-80% of your maximum heart rate, but we’re really talking 60-70% for most people. The benefits of exercising at this zone are numerous and the risks minimal. It’s the ideal level of activity for decreasing body fat, increasing the capillary network, and for lowering blood pressure and reducing risk for degenerative diseases, including heart disease.

Add to this routine a few anaerobic, “interval” workouts once or twice a week. Weight-bearing, anaerobic bursts are the best training for building muscle, and lean muscle mass is critical to health. It also increases your aerobic capacity, natural growth hormone production and insulin sensitivity.

Traditional running sprints are one option, but we presented several others last month for your perusal. Put your all into it for 20-40 seconds and then rest for two minutes or so between “sets.” You can start out with three or four bursts and work your way up to as much as eight. As always, get in some warm up time and stretches afterward. It’s no fun pulling a muscle.

Finally, working all muscle groups through dynamic strength-training sessions (ie: lifting weights) a few times a week helps further build and maintain muscle mass, insulin sensitivity and growth hormone release.

Finally, let me add that I’m not trying to squash anyone’s passion for competing. As a former competitor myself, I totally “get” the drive to compete. Do I think that mode of existence is healthy, particularly in the long run? Not really, but I still understand what brings people to it. I simply want to convey that certain and sometimes significant health compromises are inherent to competition training. If anti-aging, longevity and robust excellent health are your primary goals, high-level training isn’t the best way to achieve them.

Now, for those who aren’t into the competition mission, you have the advantage of making your fitness routine and health about ideal balance. And I’m a true believer in achieving the balance that allows people to live the longest, healthiest lives possible. Thanks for your questions, and keep them coming!

Abraaj Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

My Weekly Workout Routine

Anaerobic Exercise HGH Link

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190 Comments on "Dear Mark: Chronic Cardio"

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Migraineur
8 years 7 months ago
I have discovered that if I have to make exercise a separate activity, I won’t do it. It has to be a natural part of my life. What do you think of this? I think it seems kind of like what Grok would do, even if the activities a modern person needs to do are a bit different. * Walk 2 to 4 miles a day. (I don’t have a car, so I already do this.) * Carry a load during most walks (groceries, laptop – Grok probably carried an antelope or something). * Sweep and mop my 1200 sq… Read more »
Gelgamark
Gelgamark
3 years 10 months ago

It’s pointless and stupid unless you want to stay the same as you are.

Jordan
Jordan
3 years 7 months ago

I think it’s a great idea, despite what the previous guy said. It’s been 5 years since you posted this, so now the obvious question is: did it work for you?

camdwy
camdwy
3 years 5 months ago

I read that when they found that Ice Man of the Alps back in the 90s, they claimed that he carried a bow that weighed like over 40 lbs or something. I guess even the Ice man was power full enough to carry such a heavy piece of wood probably every place he walked to. Maybe human genetics leans towards muscle mass and strength like most primates vs long endurance body types of gazelles and cheetahs.

kfg
kfg
3 years 3 months ago

That’s 40 lbs draw weight, and it’s an estimation. The bow was actually an unfinished staff he was working on. It was made of yew, as they have been for thousands of years, and thus wouldn’t weigh any more than a modern longbow made with traditional materials. A few pounds.

kfg
kfg
3 years 3 months ago

OK, so I looked at the 2013 to make sure I wasn’t replying to a five year old comment, but missed noticing the day. Ok, that happens and we all get got now and again and get over it and get on with our lives, but what really embaresses me is not noticing the “tell” about the gazelles and cheetahs.

I really need to get the hell away from the dullards for a while. They seem to be rubbing off on me. Ewwwwww!

Migraineur
8 years 7 months ago

P.S. I think my laptop weighs as much as an antelope. Maybe a small one.

Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago

Migraineur,

That’s all perfect stuff. Real Grok-like. How much to mop my floor twice a week (no cats)?

Vasco
Vasco
8 years 7 months ago
hi, this is the first time I’m leaving a comment, maybe I should’ve before because I guess it’s always nice to hear how good of a job everybody’s doing here at MDA. the article says that training the the 60-70% max heart rate range is (for most people) “the ideal level of activity for decreasing body fat”. I’ve read and heard this countless times before, in “fitness-magazines” that also talk about how carbohydrates are healthy as well as from people that weigh double their optimal weight. However, each time I hear it or someone tells me I get a bit… Read more »
Derek
Derek
3 years 11 months ago

Can you post the article? Thanks!

Jeremy
Jeremy
3 years 3 months ago

Which car will last longer?

sammie
sammie
8 years 7 months ago

this sounds like a great plan to keep but i have a question…

I’ve been underweight for a while and trying to gain a little more until i stop living so tired. ive been told to absolutely abstain from exercise but this doesnt seem right?
what should i do for diet/exercising?
[without killing myself lol]

Vasco
Vasco
8 years 7 months ago

can’t edit, so I’ll have to post another comment:
I think I meant annoyed, not aggrevated, which isnt even a word. sorry bout that and the other typos.

Dave C.
8 years 7 months ago
Vasco, I assure you that you are not alone–there seems to be some considerable debate over the notion of a “fat-burning zone” and the best methods of exercise to promote the use of fat reserves as fuel. And I wonder about the substitution of the 60-70% of max heart rate exercise for the hours of wandering the plains by our primal ancestors. That being said, I still believe Mark is outlining a good program to follow and his lower-effort exercise doesn’t have to be jogging/running. I find that I can go on a bike ride without having to push too… Read more »
tatsujin
8 years 7 months ago

For what it’s worth……
My workout this morning lasted approx 20 minutes.
That included a 3 min. warm up and 5 min. of stretching at the end.
Fast, furious and heavy. It left me feeling energised and ready to take on the day.
The trainers always look at me when I walk out, I can feel them thinking….”well he obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing”

Marc

http://www.feelgoodeating.blogspot.com

Dave C.
8 years 7 months ago

LOL!! My workouts have evolved based on the sample workouts you sent me, Art’s heirarchal sets, and some of the stuff from Crossfit. No routine, never boring, quick!! 🙂

Vasco
Vasco
8 years 7 months ago

I just wanna mention that I do mostly crossfit-type workouts myself, many of which I have from ross enamaits books, if anyone knows him. fun and quick workouts too. and I do almost all of my workouts in the 3.5*3.5meters room that I live in (I’m german army) (of course not the sprint work)
I love Art’s blog, but I dont see him so much as an authority on actual workouts as on the ideas behind primal/evolutionary fitness.

Dave C.
8 years 7 months ago

I have a very seldom used formal living room that I would love to turn into a crossfit-style gym. I might have a tough time selling that to the wife but then maybe not (she does 4×15 pullups, dips, and pushups three times a week). By the way, I lived in Berlin for six years and I really miss cycling and running in the Gruenewald–especially mountain biking in the winter (followed by a cup of Gleuhwein!) 🙂

Mike OD
8 years 7 months ago
Wow…thanks for the gold star..I put it on my fridge! Ha. In response to anything that follows “So I was reading some fitness magazines….”, everything after that is mostly outdated and wrong. Fat burning is an all day event dictated by hormones. So how much fat one burns during exercise is really not important or accurate. Real success from people are ones that made more changes to healthy lifestyles (walking, riding bike, playing sports) than those stuck on treadmills at the gym….as you will see the same people year after year on the same treadmills. 15 min of shorter higher… Read more »
Zach
Zach
5 years 9 months ago

Now all you need to do is provide scientific evidence for this.

Dave C.
8 years 7 months ago

>>15 min of shorter higher intensity training will burn 4-5x more fat all day long than 40min on the treadmill<<

I want to believe this so let me pretend I’m Gary Taubes AND I’m from Missouri: Show me! Got a cite for that of a real scientific study? Without it “I read in a fitness magazine” = “I read on a blog.” 🙂

charlotte
8 years 7 months ago
Wow, thanks for the explanation Mark! I really appreciate your advice (and everyone else’s tips and comments were interesting too). I’m a chronic overexerciser. I do at least 2 hours a day but sometimes 4-5. Since stumbling upon this blog though I’ve ramped it down a bit (not timewise but at least intesity wise!). I found it very interesting what you said about our glycogen stores only lasting about 2 hours. So when I “bonk” after a hard workout, am I simply feeling my glycogen run out?? And is that why I crave straight sugar when I get home? (Literally… Read more »
Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago
I had this long response this morning that got lost when I tried to reply…on my own damn site!! Anyway, MikeOD is right. The fat-burning effect of exercise is minimal. In fact, doing more exercise usually only increases appetite as the body tries to overcompensate for the loss of energy. Unless you are an elite athlete or on a very strict calorie-controlled diet, exercising more probably won’t do much to help you burn fat effectively. Most recreational marathoners carry around an extra layer of bodyfat as their bodies hoard the fat stores and burn the carbs off. On the other… Read more »
tatsujin
8 years 7 months ago

DaveC,

Good to hear that. Those crossfit guys have some very cool stuff! I incorporate it too.
Marc

http://www.feelgoodeating.blogspot.com

Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago

Dave C,

Ask and ye shall receive. Reader Chris posted this on his blog today http://conditioningresearch.blogspot.com/2008/02/why-is-weight-training-healthy.html
wherein he cites a study released today that shows that mice who lift weights burn more fat. Well, not exactly, but mice who developed more type2 fibers (the kind you get from lifting) burned more fat than mice with more type1 (slowtwitch – marathon) fibers. Granted, mice are not people, but this mouse model could help explain it all. Thanks, Chris.

Chris
8 years 7 months ago

Glad you like it!

Migraineur
8 years 7 months ago

Mark – who mops twice a week who doesn’t have pets? Besides, wouldn’t that drive me over my intensity limit?

DaveC
DaveC
8 years 7 months ago

Thanks for the link Mark. I subscribe to Chris’s blog but I can’t read it at work. For some reason our firewall thinks it has “malicious content.” You hiding secret messages in there, Chris?! 🙂

This whole trip for me began with doing kettlebell workouts that fit in the Crossfit concept. And your “Case Against Cardio” sealed the deal! Like one of the trainers says in his signature on the kettlebell forum: “Train Like An Athlete…Not A Hamster!”

Time to head out for some sprints on the beater bike!

Chris
8 years 7 months ago

Nothing malicious that I am aware of. My work is like that too – things that seem totally innocuous are strangely blocked…other stuff gets through.

Like the hamster line. I was watching my cousin’s kid doing his swimming training at the weekend – up and down the pool for long intervals – 90 minutes in total. They are great athletes, but it looked so boring and lacking in “fun” . When the kids let loose a bit and started fooling around, the coach told them off.

DaveC
DaveC
8 years 7 months ago

Chris,

I’ve been involved in age-group swimming for four years (I officiate both USA and high-school swimming). I’m in awe of what these kids go through. I’ve spent many hours and many miles running and cycling, but at least I had some variety in what I was looking at while doing so. Swimmers spend hours looking at a black line. My club tries to let the kids have some fun along with the hard work but make no mistake…it is hard work.

Stuart Buck
8 years 7 months ago

How about Tabata intervals? I looked up several studies, and they all seem supportive (one study indicates that they are superior to intervals with longer rests). See http://stuartbuck.blogspot.com/2008/02/why-doing-sprints-is-great-for-your.html

Mike OD
8 years 7 months ago
Good stuff here. Dave C – Damn you got me (hiding Muscle Media 2000). Ha. Anyways, can’t find any studies off hand, but I’ll ship some of my clients who have lost fat and look great. It’s through 10 years of observation and on hand training with people that I have come to my philosophy on training. Lots of good research coming out nowadays to prove it all, but I don’t need a study to back up what I already know. Developing the right kind of muscle fibers and keeping their nutrition on track seemed to get 95% of their… Read more »
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[…] Mark, in the comment section of Dear Mark: Chronic Cardio, said  “It all comes down to this: fat loss depends 80% on what […]

Dave C.
8 years 7 months ago

Mike,

No “gotcha” intended—just was curious what the science was behind the claims. I’m in your camp–I’ve bought in since I first read Mark’s Case Against Cardio.

BTW, enjoyed your input on diet-blog. I’m guessing several of us have very similar RSS lineups! 🙂

Dave C.
8 years 7 months ago

OH…and one more thing…fitness magazines aren’t even close to dispensing worthless advice when compared to golf mags!!! 🙂

derek
8 years 7 months ago

>>Most recreational marathoners carry around an extra layer of bodyfat as their bodies hoard the fat stores and burn the carbs off.

Uh… ever been to a marathon expo? Most marathoners are pretty damn thin. And most runners know that yeah, you don’t run at 80% of your maximum heart rate two days in a row. That’s a surefire way to burn out. Easy/hard/easy/hard.

Anyone who is exercising more than five or six hours a week and claims to be doing it for the health benefits is probably lying anyway.

Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago
Derek, I used to be a marathoner, so I went to lots of expos. MOst recreational runners are what we call around here “skinny fat.” They may look thin, but that’s because they have less muscle mass than the average person. Conversely, they do carry a few extra % of body fat, but you just don’t notice it. Also, I would bet many runners train at 80% max HR a lot. For a 40-yr-old who’s max is 180, that means only 144 BPM. That’s pretty “easy” to maintain for over an hour a day for someone training to run a… Read more »
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[…] last week’s great discussion about chronic cardio, we wanted to highlight a related question we received […]

derek rose
8 years 7 months ago
Also, I would bet many runners train at 80% max HR a lot. For a 40-yr-old who’s max is 180, that means only 144 BPM. That’s pretty “easy” to maintain for over an hour a day for someone training to run a 3:15 marathon. You are probably right about that, but that’s like saying that you shouldn’t do any bicep curls because your muscles need 48 hours to recover between workouts. Well, only do your bicep curls on alternative days! Anyone who’s serious about running should get a heart rate monitor and be sure to keep their HR under 70%… Read more »
Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago

Derek,

Cox is clearly ripped and it’s the intensity of his hard training days that keeps him that way. I agree that most elites have low body fat, but most age-group run-only runners have higher body fat than you’d expect.

I also agree it would be fun to put an elite marathoner through crossfit programs. The danger of specialization in distance running is that you lose almost every other aspect of total fitness (strength, power, flexibility, speed, agility, etc)

trackback

[…] sites. We’ve been hashing out several of these points over the last few weeks: the role of strength training in optimum fitness, the relationship between muscle mass and organ reserve, and the impact of […]

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[…] rest of what I talk about on the blog, and that’s because, well, it is. As I mentioned in the Chronic Cardio post a couple weeks ago, I certainly understand the drive toward athletic competition and the […]

Amelia
Amelia
8 years 7 months ago
This is the 1st time I’ve stumbled upon this website. I love working out and do it often enough so that at the end of the month, I make sure I have more “workout days” than “rest days”. Usually I do 45-60 minutes of cardio, abs and use weights on-and-off. I have two questions: 1) You always hear that “women won’t bulk up when using weights because they don’t have enough testosterone”– I know that there are certain excercises I can’t do if I want my jeans to fit. I am the opposite of “manley” but have played sports all… Read more »
Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago
Amelia, 1) Running is usually known for slimming legs down more than any other cardio exercise. If that’s not the case with you and/or you don’t want “muscular” legs, the best bet is swimming. 2) Cardio does burn some calories (and running is best at it) but it’s the KIND of fuel that it burns that we talk about here. I’m not against cardio per se…just doing over an hour for several sessions a week. My ideal regimen for health would be going for 2 hour hikes (low level aerobic) and then 2 sprint sessions a week (to promote fat-burning… Read more »
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[…] few weeks back my Chronic Cardio post got a lot of response and initiated some great discussion. Since it’s one of the […]

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[…] interested in what our readers want, so drop us a line in the comment boards. And as per our “Dear Mark” series of posts we began this year, the topic can be personal. So what are you waiting for? […]

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[…] it. You certainly don’t need cardio to produce the full effect (you can if you want, within guidelines). As we often say here “80% of your results come from how you eat.” Conversely, eating more […]

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[…] question on the comment boards. I’ve talked a lot over the course of the last few months about chronic cardio and the very real disadvantages of this type of training (higher cortisol levels, oxidative damage, […]

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[…] a shark is chasing me. I am panting after each lap. The whole cardio grind is not the way to go ( Dear Mark: Chronic Cardio | Mark’s Daily Apple ). Maximal efforts on short bursts of energy is a great way to keep the body on its toes and not […]

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[…] como sempre interessantíssimos e de leitura obrigatoria. São os seguintes: Dear Mark: Chronic Cardio, More Chronic Cardio Talk e A Case Against Cardio (from a former mileage king). Algumas […]

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[…] I’ve also pointed to Mark Sisson’s writing the dangers of excessive “cardio” – Chronic Cardio […]

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[…] means ditching long, arduous “chronic cardio” workouts that keep the heart rate elevated to the 80%+ max HR range. Our ancestors […]

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[…] few things can suppress the immune system as quickly as chronic cardio or a single excessive weekend warrior workout (usually anything under 45 minutes is fine). I can […]

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[…] your trek. Working at high levels of exertion day after day, month after month (the ultimate chronic cardio) inevitably depletes natural glycogen stores and leaves you dependent on carb loading. Constant […]

Jeremy
7 years 3 months ago
I’m a CrossFit affiliate owner (CF Hampton Roads in Yorktown VA). Been CFing for 5 yrs. I’m also a former tri and marathoner and MDA fanatic. The PB & MDA have become two of my primary blog sources. Robb Wolf (www.robbwolf.com (work friendly)is CrossFit’s lead Nutrition “guru” and is an excellent source for Evolutionary nutrition and fitness discussions including gluten/lectin/autoimmune connections and the whole insulin gammit. CrossFit’s efficacy is founded in the same principles that MDA preaches: all the good things from fintess come with intensity–short durations of high intensity to be specific. While CrossFit quantifies its gains as increased… Read more »
Mark Sisson
7 years 3 months ago

Well put, Jeremy!

Zach
Zach
5 years 9 months ago

But he could move stuff all day long, when your muscles give out after an hour. What isn’t to like about that?

trackback
7 years 3 months ago

[…] Dear Mark: Chronic Cardio – Feb. 4 […]

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[…] with the same basic physiological makeup. And so an outfit like Weight Watchers will push the chronic cardio, the ankle weights, and the step classes because of some underlying, self-defeating assumption that […]

Cormac
Cormac
7 years 2 months ago
Hi Mark, I have recently discovered the site and it makes very compelling reading. I might just get a copy of your book. One thing on the cardio. I have recently watched some of a british (BBC) documentary of name that escapes me. It was about how the human race evolved and travelled from africa to populate the world. As part, the documentary went to east africa and spent time with north east african hunter gatherer tribes. They were trackers and when they picked up a trail they ran at a reasonable pace for sometimes an hour or more. These… Read more »
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