Steady state cardio for combat sports

Victoria Pendleton

British cyclist Victoria Pendleton comes 1st in the 500m Time Trial. A 500 meter time trial takes around 35 seconds, yet Pendleton will spend hours a week on steady state cardio

This is probably going to be the least fashionable article on the web this year, but it needs to be said. Miles make champions. How many times have you heard that before? But with the avalanche of stuff on the web now about Tabata, interval and HIT training I thought now would be a good time to look at the role of good old-fashioned steady state cardio.

Now if you’re a distance runner or a cyclist, then obviously this article is not for you, but more and more I’m meeting other sports people, who aren’t doing any base low-level cardio work at all. Fighting sports like, Boxing, Judo and  MMA and host of other sports like Rugby, Tennis and Football all benefit from having a good solid base of cardio fitness. Recovery after a match/competition, and the ability to train harder and longer will all be improved by the inclusion of some base level steady state cardio.

The question for none endurance athletes is how hard, much and how often?

Look at this recent interview with top British Cyclist Victoria Pendleton:

In the morning, Pendleton will spend 90 minutes out on the road. She tends to avoid the hills around Manchester, where her training is based, because she requires aerobic exercise, which is longer in duration but low in intensity, rather than anaerobic exercise, which is short and intense. ‘I tend to stick to the flat on the roads and travel at a moderate 20 mph because the hard work is done in the gym and on the track. If I went into the hills I wouldn’t be able to help myself but pedal hard and fast which would convert my muscle fibres away from how I want them.

The key point here for me is that by sticking to the flat and traveling at a moderate pace Pendelton keeps the intensity low to stop her training her type 2 muscle fibres. Recently people have been telling me if I do too much cardio I’ll get slow. Now whilst it’s true that with a lot of cardio you can change type IIa to type I for most non endurance athletes this is not going to be an issue. Firstly because you shouldn’t be doing that much of it and secondly because if you do it right you’ll won’t affect your type IIa fibres at all.

So before we go any further let’s have a quick recap on the three types of muscle fibres:

Type I – Red fibers.
Slow oxidative (also called slow twitch or fatigue resistant fibers).

  • Large amounts of myoglobin
  • Many mitochondria.
  • Many blood capillaries.
  • Generate ATP by the aerobic system, hence the term oxidative fibers.
  • Split ATP at a slow rate.
  • Slow contraction velocity.
  • Resistant to fatigue.
  • Found in large numbers in postural muscles.
  • Needed for aerobic activities like long distance running.

Type IIa – Red fibers.
Fast oxidative (also called fast twitch A or fatigue resistant fibres).


  • Large amounts of myoglobin.
  • Many mitochondria.
  • Many blood capillaries.
  • High capacity for generating ATP by oxidation. Split ATP at a very rapid rate and, hence, high contraction velocity.
  • Resistant to fatigue but not as much as slow oxidative fibres.
  • Needed for sports such as middle distance running and swimming.

Type IIb – White.

Fast glycolytic (also called fast twitch B or fatigable fibres).


  • Low myoglobin content.
  • Few mitochondria.
  • Few blood capillaries.
  • Large amount of glycogen.
  • Split ATP very quickly.
  • Fatigue easily.
  • Needed for sports like sprinting.

Now the type of training Pendleton is describing if done correctly will work primarily the Type I fibres. It’s possible if you work a bit to hard you’ll be recruiting some of the type IIa fibres, but you’ll never engage or effect your type IIb fibres and so your power and speed won’t be compromised.

Cyclists call this pace “an all day pace” for runners it’s known as an “easy pace”. It’s the kind of training that doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything. In fact if you can’t hold a conversation whilst training at this pace, you’re going to fast.

Endurance athletes – swimmers, cyclists, runners will do hours and hours of this. But the good news is for those of us that engage in combat sports you can get away with a lot less. How much less? Well that will depend upon a lot of factors. If your aerobic capacity is good then a surpassingly small amount of easy cardio will maintain it. If its poor then you will need to do more (probably something best left for the off-season when it won’t impact on the rest of your training so much). But the point is that it should be so light that you could almost do it every other day and not have it affect your main training. Thirty to forty-five minutes three times a week shouldn’t compromise your other training. If it does, then either you need to slow the pace down or you’re already overtraining with your other training already.

So what happens when you undertake slow steady state cardio?

Well the first thing that happens is that you burn a lot of calories, great if you need to make or maintain a weight. It will teach your body to use fat for fuel (see Monday’s article for more details on the benefits of better fat utilisation) but over time, you’ll also get the following adaptions as well.

  • An increase in the amount of blood that’s pumped per heart beat
  • An increase in the ability of the blood to carry oxygen
  • Better buffering of acid build up, which will delay fatigue
  • More capillarisation around skeletal muscle
  • An increase in both mitochondrial number and density

An important thing to remember is this all takes time, lots of time. But make it part of your training regimen and you’ll get improved recovery both between rounds/bouts and between contests/training sessions and also the ability to tolerate lots of skill work with less fatigue. Remember, these should be light easy sessions, so don’t push it. In fact they are ideal as an active recovery.

And what about the HIT, Tabata training, well it definitely has its place, but the problem is that’s it so intense that if you try to do it all year-round you are going to burn out. For a really good look at the pros and cons of steady state vs interval training here’s a great article by Lyle MacDonald.


About thegymmonkey

I'm a fitness junkie,interested in injury rehab and get back into competition. View all posts by thegymmonkey

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