Let’s start this post of with a disclaimer. I do program steady-state cardio, occasionally for variance and in small bouts for active recovery. For some individuals, it’s programmed as a form of mental recovery. So I’m not bashing that form of exercise (Not training, exercise. There’s a difference.). But, I don’t program steady-state cardio frequently because our programs are founded on three essential factors – safety (should be self explanatory), effectiveness (how quickly the program gets results, or, efficiency), and efficacy (the program does what we say it’s going to do) – and steady-state cardio doesn’t meet any of those criteria.
What is steady-state cardio? It’s simply endurance activities. Going long and far at submaximal intensities. Think further than 2km on the rower, or more than 3km of running, but doing so often, as in more than one to two times a week. I’m not referring to competing at these distances, I’m referring to regular exercise in these time and modal domains.
What does that form of exercise do for you? It develops your aerobic (cardiovascular/cardiorespiratory/endurance) capacity. It also makes you store fat and lose muscle. But endurance athletes look so slim? Sure they do, but they’re skinny-fat. It’s a phenomenon in which body weight is (really) low, but body fat is really high. This happens as a direct result of this form of training because muscle is heavy and requires a lot of energy and calories, whereas fat has a lot of calories and is the predominant fuel source during such long distances. So when you spend lots of time exercising in those time and modal domains your body naturally gets rid of muscle and holds on to fat.
To simplify that, simply compare the physiques of a 10km runner and and 800m sprinter. I used those distances because they’re not on complete ends of the spectrum like marathon runners and 100m sprinters. It should be very clear that the 10km runner is slim but with very little muscle tone – skinny fat. Whereas the 800m athlete is significantly more muscle bound. Not bulky, but with more muscle. That should be evidence enough, but still not convinced?
A good amount of research shows that individuals who frequently (more than twice a week) exercise in long distances have unduly high cortisol levels and very low testosterone levels. High cortisol + low testosterone = little muscle + lots of fat = skinny fat.
Now that I’ve cleared that up, AGAIN, let’s (AGAIN) look at how you can avoid that while still increasing your endurance capacity. You exercise at higher intensities for shorter durations and less frequently. Yes, less exercise = more favourable results, all round. And you get to spend more time living life instead of aimlessly pounding the roads. And what if you’re training specifically for endurance events? It’s in fact very much the same – less volume of endurance activities and more high intensity and strength work. Research shows that if all you’re doing is endurance training, and you cut that volume by 20% to replace it with properly programmed strength and conditioning work, your endurance performance INCREASES.
20% less endurance training, but your endurance performance goes up. That’s where safety, effectiveness and efficacy are highlighted.
What does the undue amount of endurance exercise do for your health? Well you now know that cortisol and testosterone levels go out of whack, your muscle mass diminishes and that’s the most important factor relevant to lifespan, you’re at higher risk of developing overuse injuries, and stronger people are harder to kill in general.
To close, you can still be CrossFitting three or more times a week but end up skinny-fat and unhealthy because of the huge amount of endurance exercise you have been layering over that. Just as you can’t outtrain a shitty diet, you can’t out-eat too much endurance exercise.