Conditioning for Life


Having a high level of conditioning is coveted by many, but achieved by few. Conditioning is also a term that gets tossed around a lot in the fitness industry, so it can be quite confusing as to what it actually means. Some of the confusion may arise from the lack of context, since conditioning is dependent on the circumstances. Conditioning is the ability to continue to sustain effort in a given situation, so a boxer, baseball pitcher, and alpine skier will all have different specific types of conditioning. Conditioning is what many people equate to being "in shape," so looking at the example above, being in shape can take many different forms for many different people. With this article, I want to address not only what it means to have good conditioning for the everyday athlete, but also how I train my clients to achieve beyond what they expected. This article will be primarily focusing on the more cardiovascular side of conditioning, and the methods presented are best utilized in conjunction with a resistance and mobility training plan which will be addressed in subsequent articles. Much of the information below is adapted from the work of Joel Jamieson, leading expert in conditioning and recovery-based training.


We should never think about application without first considering the science and why training in these different methods is important. In order to get the most out of your training program, we must think about improving our biological power. In the words of Joel Jamieson,

"The easiest way to understand the concept of biological power is to think of your body as an engine capable of generating horsepower just like any other engine. This horsepower is what your body uses to do everything from walking to running, to generating power in a punch or kick. When you increase the amount of horsepower your body can generate, you then have more energy to do all these different activities. More importantly, you also have the potential to do them much faster and for much longer periods of time without fatigue."

That sounds almost too good to be true, and for good reason. That is most of the story, but it also needs to be viewed within the context of how much energy you are capable of expending/intaking as an absolute maximum, meaning that you can't just go on forever like the energizer bunny (although some top endurance athletes can sustain for incredible lengths of time). So, there is an absolute upper limit that can be attained, but we must also think within the context of where we are at now. I can't go from couch to marathon in a day, so fitness needs to be slowly and methodically built over a long period of time, basically until you reach a level you are happy with an willing to sustain (which can take years or more, depending on how far you want to go).

Developing conditioning involves two sides of the energy management coin, energy production and energy utilization. Energy production can be limited by the rate and duration it can be produced. Energy utilization can be made more efficient by getting better at performing the activities you want to improve, so when you work out try to get better at what you're doing (sounds easy, but is difficult). In order to improve energy production, we need to look to the cardiovascular system and the muscular system. The cardiovascular system is the system for the intake and distribution of oxygen (and loads of other wonderful things) to the rest of the body. We need the lungs to be able to take in a lot of oxygen and exhale C02. We want the heart to be efficient, meaning every time it beats it delivers a lot of blood to the vascular network. We also need the vascular system to be well developed so it can deliver all the blood efficiently and effectively to the rest of the body. With the muscular system, we need it to be able to effectively utilize the oxygen and other nutrients it receives, as well as producing the energy it takes to power the muscles. This is quite the task, but as stated above, we can slowly and methodically build our conditioning to very high levels if we do it in the right fashion.

Getting Started

This is the perfect place to get started on your fitness journey, or to rebuild a baseline if it has been a while since you've been in shape. In order to begin to develop an aerobic base, which is the foundation of good conditioning, we need to first think about what we want to happen inside our bodies. We want our hearts to be able to pump more blood each time it beats, for the lungs to take in and transfer more oxygen to that blood, and to have that delivered and utilized effectively by the muscles. The methods below will outline the best approaches to take at this stage to develop this base, and should be completed 2 to 6 times per week for 20 to 60 minutes per session, depending on fitness level. I would recommend following the 80/20 rule, meaning that 80 percent of the workouts are relatively low intensity and 20 percent are moderate to high intensity, so if we are training conditioning 4 days per week, have one day be higher intensity and the rest focused on building that low aerobic base.

Cardiac Output: This method is unbeatable at strengthening the foundation of aerobic fitness and allows you to develop the capacity needed for a high level of conditioning. An important component of this type of training is the concept of pacing, or being able to manage your energy output for a long period of time. The key to this method is to keep your heart rate around 130-150 BPM (lower for older athletes) for 30-60 minutes. You should be able to talk at this pace, not be gasping for breath. You can utilize any traditional cardiovascular exercise you like, such as running, cycling, elliptical, anything that allows you to pace yourself and keep your heart rate in the aerobic range.

Tempo Intervals: This is a moderate-intensity method that is a step up from cardiac output and will allow you to continue to develop the practice of pacing and energy management, this time between bouts of effort. For this approach we will us an Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM) protocol, meaning at the beginning of each minute will be active, and the rest of the minute will be recovering. Perform 10-12 seconds of work at approximately 70% output, then actively recover for the rest of the minute to bring the heart rate back down. Repeat this for a total of 10-20 minutes/rounds, progressing depending on fitness level. I like to utilize a rowing ergometer for this, but it can be performed on a bike, treadmill, etc.

High Resistance Intervals (HRI): This method is another step up from Tempo Intervals, and this time involves a much higher intensity. In order to perform this on a treadmill, set the incline at 15% and cover as much distance as possible for 5 seconds, then actively recover until the heart rate returns to 130-140 BPM (lower for older adults). If the HR does not reach 130-140 BPM for the first few intervals, actively recover for 60 seconds between efforts. Set the total time to 10-20 minutes, depending on fitness level, and count the total number of reps completed in the prescribed time. This can also be performed on a bike, sled, rower, etc.

High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT): This method is phenomenal at promoting endurance in the fast twitch muscle fibers of the lower body (or upper body, if you can get creative). The idea is to perform continuous work at a high resistance to improve the endurance of the fast twitch fibers. The easiest way to set this up is to ride on a bike at high enough resistance to only pedal 25-30 RPM for 10-20 minutes, keeping the HR under 160 BPM. This can also be performed as an uphill lunge or a sled push or drag, so long as the effort is sustainable and tapping into those fast twitch fibers.

Building on the Foundation

After building your aerobic base, or if you are starting with a moderate level of fitness, this section will be best to continue to build on what you have and set yourself up for potentially very challenging workouts. At this level of conditioning, we should be able to handle about 4 to 6 days per week of training, up to 90 minutes per session (including resistance training, so don't get too intimidated). This is also a point when you can begin to handle more frequent challenging workouts, so alternating between high and low intensity throughout the week is recommended. Try to aim for 2 to 3 days of high intensity work, complimenting those sessions with lower intensity days to keep the base and help recovery. You can use the methods listed in the previous section for your lower intensity days, and the methods below for the higher intensities.

Explosive Repeats: The goal of this method is to develop the explosive endurance of the fast twitch fibers and further develop dynamic recovery. Choose an exercise that is easy to measure power output or distance covered (I like KB swings, double-leg bounds, and explosive push-ups). Every minute on the minute (EMOM), perform the movements as explosively as possible for 8-10 seconds (or 8-12 reps) followed by active rest. Repeat until no longer able to produce the same power output, aiming to increase this up to 20 minutes before increasing work period.

Intensive Intervals: Also known as Alactic Intervals, this method trains the explosive power of the alactic (without oxygen) system as well as the aerobic capacity to recover between bouts of intense activity. To use this method, perform short intense work periods of 5 to 10 seconds followed by 1 to 2 minutes of active recovery. You will want to monitor your power output and keep consistent recovery periods, and I would recommend using a rowing ergometer or assault bike since those are easy to measure power output. Perform 10-20 sets, depending on your ability to maintain high power output. If your power decreases, record the number of intervals performed and seek to improve in subsequent workouts. You will want your heart rate to return to 130-150 BPM during the recovery periods, so adjust the intervals as necessary depending on fitness level.

Threshold Method: The purpose of this method is to train near the anaerobic threshold in order to improve the power generated at the threshold and to increase the ability to maintain good posture and movement quality under fatigue. In order to establish your anaerobic threshold, cover as much distance as possible in 12 minutes at a steady pace and record your average heart rate. Once established, the threshold method can be used by measuring the power output or distance covered while keeping the heart rate at or 5BPM above threshold for approximately 90 seconds to 10 minutes, depending on fitness level and number of intervals completed. To perform this method properly, warm up for approximately 5 minutes before increasing pace to the threshold, and maintain the pace for as long as prescribed before decreasing the pace for active recover. Depending on the length of the work intervals, anywhere from 1 to 6 work periods can be utilised followed by 1 to 5 minutes of active recovery. Attempt to maintain the same pace during the work period, and keep track of distance covered and 60-second HR recovery to gauge improvements over time.

Challenging Yourself

Now that you have build upon a solid foundation, or if you are starting at a relatively high level of fitness, it's time to take on more challenging workouts. The goal here is to challenge your already developed systems, and support the higher intensity workouts with the methods listed in the first section. You should be capable of handling 3 intense days and about 5 to 6 total sessions per week. In addition to utilizing higher intensity methods above, we will introduce a few more challenging methods to keep improving upon your conditioning and reach very high levels of fitness. For each of these methods, keep your overall workloads in mind so you do not go too hard too often and end up overtraining.

Cardiac Power Intervals: This method uses the highest intensity possible to drive the heart rate up to maximum levels. This is a very fatiguing approach, and keeping good posture and movement quality will be critical for success. To perform, choose an exercise (rowing and assault bike are my favorites) that will allow you to sustain your maximum heart rate for 20-30 seconds, followed immediately by 60 seconds of passive recovery and then 2 to 3 minutes of light, active recovery. Perform this for a total of 2 to 4 intervals, and again will be very fatiguing and should only be used by individuals with a high level of fitness.

Extensive Intervals: Use this method to increase your lactic power and capacity, which basically translates to how much muscle burning you can tolerate. Again this is a very advanced and fatiguing method that should not be used by beginners. In order to perform, choose an exercise where you can easily monitor power output or distance covered (I like the rower or assault bike) and use a work period of 30 to 60 seconds (shorter for lactic power, longer for lactic capacity). Attempt to cover the the maximum distance for each of the work periods, followed by 1 to 4 minutes of active recovery depending on fitness level. Repeat for 2 to 5 rounds, again depending on fitness level.

Putting a Program Together

With all the different methods above, it can be quite daunting to know how to start and where to go. What I recommend is to first use a standardized fitness test (Rockport Walk Test and 12 minute run are my preferred) in order to see where your fitness level is currently at. Once that is established, you can see where you would want to start: Low/Below Average for the first section, Average for building on the foundation, and Above Average and beyond can begin to use the more challenging methods. I would recommend starting easier and building up, as you can always work out harder next time but never easier last time. Beginners or those who are currently below average should plan on training in 4 to 6 week blocks, retesting fitness at the end of each to ensure progress is being made. Intermediate and Average fitness level individuals will want to train for periods of about 6 to 12 weeks before retesting to see improvements, and Advanced or High fitness levels should train for periods of 8 to 16 weeks and will most likely have some type of a competition that will serve as a measure of progress (5K, marathon, Spartan Race, etc.). Below are some guidelines on how to plan training phases and monitor progress.

Beginner 6-week Program

Cardiac Output, 2x per week 30 to 60 minutes

Tempo Intervals, 10-20 minutes 1x per week

Retest using Rockport Walk or 12 Minute Run

Intermediate 8-week Program

Weeks 1-4:

Cardiac Output, 45-60 min 1x per week

Intensive Intervals, 10-20 sets 2x per week

High Resistance Intervals, 10-20 minutes 1x per week

Weeks 5-8:

Tempo Intervals, 10-20 minutes 1x per week

Intensive Intervals, 10-20 sets 1x per week

High Intensity Continuous Training, 10-20 minutes 1x per week

Threshold Method, 3-5x 2 minutes active 3 minutes recovery 1x per week

Retest using 12 Minute Run or Race

Advanced 12-week Program

Weeks 1-6:

Cardiac Output, 45-60 min 2x/week

High Resistance Intervals, 10-20 minutes 1x per week

Intensive Intervals, 10-20 sets 1x per week

Extensive Intervals, 2-5 rounds 1x per week

Weeks 7-12:

Cardiac Output, 45-60 min 1x/week

Intensive Intervals, 10-20 sets 1x per week

Extensive Intervals, 2-5 rounds 1x per week

Cardiac Power Intervals, 2-4 rounds 1x per week

Tempo Intervals, 10-20 minutes 1x per week

Retest at Race