The best cardio workouts for over 40’s

What are the best cardio workouts for the over 40’s?

A better question would be…what is the best way to structure a conditioning program for the over 40’s?

Which would then prompt the reply, what are your goals?

Your goals ultimately determine what your conditioning program needs to look like. If you play 5-a-side football regularly then your program will look different to someone who wants to run 5k fast. They, in turn, will look different to someone who takes part in BJJ.

What they all have in common is that they are based on a strong aerobic base and less volume than you did in your 20’s.

stair run

Why is conditioning work so important?

Having a good level of conditioning or “cardio” is of primary importance to anyone in their 40’s and beyond with 1 in 7 men and 1 in 11 women dying from cardiovascular disease. A good level of cardiovascular fitness will help reduce the chances of this being an issue.

In fact, a higher VO2 Max, a measurement of the body’s ability to utilise oxygen, relates directly to increased longevity as shown in this study.

From the conclusion…

As yet, it is not possible to extend the genetically fixed lifespan with regular exercise training, but the chance to reach the later end of natural lifespan increases with higher physical fitness in midlife, where targeted preventative efforts may be launched. CRF (VO2 max) is the strongest independent predictor of future life expectancy in both healthy and cardiorespiratory-diseased individual”

Let’s talk about energy systems

It is technical but I will make it simple.

You can split the energy systems into 2 parts, the aerobic and anaerobic systems. You can then split the anaerobic system into two,  the anaerobic – lactic, up to about 90 sec, and the anaerobic-alactate systems, up to about 10 sec.

Lets take a look at them…

The Aerobic System

The most complicated in a technical sense there are many parts to the aerobic system but we will not dig deep into them today.

The aerobic system is what allows ultra runners to keep running for a 100 miles. It is what allows football, rugby, hockey players and others to repeatedly sprint during a match. At the most basic level it is what keeps you alive. It is what keeps the blood pumping around your body.

Your aerobic system is essential to maintain life. It forms the basis of all forms of energy production, even highly anaerobic work can’t happen without it. Whilst during the anaerobic periods the main source of ATP is through the anaerobic pathways this changes as the time period gets longer. The tipping point where we switch from predominantly anaerobic to predominantly aerobic is about 30sec. After 30 sec you get more energy form the aerobic pathways than anaerobic pathways. It takes to 60sec before the aerobic system becomes the predominate energy supplier.  Up to 30 sec energy production from the anaerobic system is so high it takes to the 60 sec point before the aerobic system tips the balance.

The fuel for all muscle contractions is ATP and the aerobic system can produce tonnes of the stuff. The aerobic system can make use of fats, sugars, proteins and break them down into usable sources of ATP for the cells to work.

The Anaerobic – Lactic System


hard effort cycling

Probably the most uncomfortable system to develop the anaerobic – lactic system is a buffer between the aerobic and anaerobic-alactic system. It provides an important part of energy production in at high intensities for short to moderate time frames. A classic event that relies on this system is the 400m sprint. Other sports do make use of this energy system but not to the extent you might think.


Outside of this or very similar activities the energy production will come primarily from the two other systems. Energy production from it peaks at around 30 sec and produces very little in the way of power after 90sec.

It is this system that we think of when thinking about the build-up of lactic acid or more correctly speaking lactate. Lactate is used as an energy source by the heart and is produced in some quantity at all times when glucose is used as a fuel source. When this happens aerobically the quantities of lactate are cleared very quickly but not so under anaerobic conditions. Under anaerobic conditions, this isn’t happening and the lactate is able to build up.

As noted lactate is simply a result of carbohydrate metabolism and isn’t responsible for the fatigue we associate with these types of events. This fatigue is a result of lengthy periods of high-intensity anaerobic work that lead to changes in the environment of the cells.

In simple terms, these then prompt your brain to tell you to stop doing the activity.

Lactic acid is not your enemy!


The Anaerobic – Alactic System


Much more powerful than the other two. The anaerobic-alactic system is what provides the energy for the hardest work you do. From short sprints to lifting heavy things this is the system that powers it. It is our go-to system when the shit hits the fan and we have to into fight or flight mode and either kill the lion or outrun your friend.It is a very simple system of energy production but very short lived and after just 6 seconds you are starting to tap into the lactic system.


How do we develop these systems?

To be truly well conditioned you need to develop all 3 systems but the bulk of the work should always fall onto the aerobic system. Even the famous Tabata Protocol has much more aerobic work in it than anaerobic. The aerobic sytem is what drives recovery between bouts of anaerobic work and allows oyu to do it again.

The aerobic system

In developing the aerobic capacity is a pretty simple process. Run,  cycle etc ideally for a minimum of 30 min at HR of 120-150 4-6 times a week. There is no need to be more complicated than this. We can make it a bit more interesting and it is better if you go for a bit longer but that is it at its most basic.

We also really need 4-6 days a week of training. This is because of the high turnover of the mitochondria which are the powerplants the aerobic pathway.

You can develop anaerobic pathways quickly but progress stalls after a few weeks. With cardiac output work you can literally do it for years before you will see any drop off in your progress. There are 3 main adaptations in the body that occur in the development of this system. We need to :-

  1. Improve the ability of the heart to do it’s job by increasing the size of the left ventricle, increase how hard it can contract etc.
  2. Build a bigger vascular network – more blood vessels.
  3. Increase the number of mitochondria, the cell’s “power plants”, and how well they function.

Pretty much the only way to do this is extended periods of time at low to medium heart rates.

The anaerobic-lactic system

To develop this system effectively requires moderate length intervals with extended rest periods to allow for proper recovery. If you don’t allow for the recovery to occur then the session becomes much more aerobic in nature and you aren’t able to achieve the intensities required to properly develop it.

Interval times of no more than 30-60sec with very long rest periods of up to 4 minutes and more.

If you start using more than 45 sec it ceases to be a truly lactic interval but it doesn’t mean you are wasting your time. After 45-60 seconds the interval is more about learning to tolerate conditions that occur within the cells under these conditions. Past the 45sec point changes in the likes of pH, Ca ion concentration, muscle temperature all alter for the worse. So beyond the 60 sec mark, you are learning to tolerate these changes and still work hard and after 90 sec there is little or no latic system involvement.

Very few sports require this energy system to be developed to the maximum. It is not that it isn’t used but that the alactic and aerobic systems are used more.

The anaerobic-alactic system

To improve your fitness in this range we are primarily looking at developing the size and contractile ability of the powerful high threshold type IIb fibres. We can use 3 methods to drive these adaptations.

Classic weight training activities – increase the size of the fibres

Plyometric drills- improve the contractility

Short “sprints”- both

In conditioning terms, the development of the anaerobic-alactic system requires very short bursts of very high intensity. How short? 5-10 seconds is what you are looking at with a recovery period of 1-3 minutes between reps when done for maximum power development. For the development of the contractility element, the work periods are the same but the rest periods can be as low as 30 sec.

What makes up the parts

High intensity interval work may be fashionable but it shouldn’t form the base for your conditioning work. The 80/20 rule holds true here. The vast majority of the work in any conditioning program should be of a low-intensity nature where the heart rate is in the 120-150 zone. If you spend too much time above this you are working too hard too often.

We don’t always need to use high intensity intervals. Using a lower intensity during the work period is a great way to help with recovery in a general sense and also teach beginners how to recover between bouts of exertion.

Let’s keep it simple and split things into two; continuous work and interval work.

Continuous training

There are two main types of continuous work you can do;

Cardiac Output

Cardiac output work is your classic long duration effort at low to medium intensity. This doesn’t mean it should be boring. Even within steady state sessions where the goal is simply to run at an easy to moderate pace for 30-90 minutes, you can vary your pace through the run you can play around with things.

Varying your pace over the course of a run breaks up the monotony of steady state work and teaches you how to control your heart rate and thus energy expenditure. You will also develop the feel for how different paces relate to perceived effort and how this relates to your heart rate. A run that is on paper supposed to be 60 minutes @ 5:30/km may actually be done at paces between 5:20-5:40/km. These would be spaced out at varying lengths throughout the run. The goal might be to work between 120-140 or 130-150 and the heart rate is allowed to climb then brought back down by adjusting the pace. This teaches you how to control your effort without pushing your limits.

High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT)

HICT isn’t a commonly talked about the method and is one I found out about from the work of Joel Jamieson of 8 weeks out. HICT is the equivalent of a slow hill climb on a bike. In fact one of the best ways is to do it is on a spin bike. Set the gear high so the rpm of about 25-30 but keep the heart rate in the 120-140 range. One of the great things about this method is that it really helps with the recovery of the big type II muscles in the legs that don’t get a lot of blood flow to them. Start with about 5 minutes and build up to 20 this is really useful at the end of gym sessions involving squats and deadlifts.

Interval work

There is a large range of different ways to play around with interval work and this is a very simplified list.

Tempo Intervals

Tempo intervals at the best place to start with interval work. They are short “sprints” or strides done at about 70% effort or 10k pace for 10-15 sec. The recovery period is 60 sec and can be done walking or running depending on the level of fitness. The work time period is short enough that the heart rate can’t climb that high so remains aerobic in nature. The goal here is learning to recover from harder work, to get your heart rate down as fast as possible in the recovery period.

High Resistance Intervals

These are hill sprints when running or hill climbs on a bike. The work periods are shorter than for tempo intervals, 5-6 sec or so, but the recovery is the same. To gauge improvement monitor the number of reps in a given time period. You are good to go once your HR is back under 130. The more reps done is the same time indicates improved recovery and hence fitness.

Alactic Intervals

Alactic intervals are about developing the explosive power of the alactic system. Very similar to HRI above but the resistance level is lower so sprints on the flat rather than a gradient. using 5-10 sec work periods and 1-2 min recovery. The best way to do these is on a piece of kit that you can measure power output, calories burned or distance as you want to work at a consistent effort throughout, +/- 2%. Once you fail to hit it twice in a row the session is over.

Lactic Intervals

These are the longest intervals and are between 30-60sec in length to ensure that things remain predominately lactic in nature. The rest period needs to be between 3-4 minutes depending on level of conditioning and the reps between 2-5. You want the heart rate back down to 120-130 within a minute and then allow a minimum of another minute before performing another rep. As with all interval work, the reps should be consistent across the session so as to be able to properly gauge performance.

The rest

This is not a definitive list of how to do things but does serve as a basis for putting a sensible training block together.

Endurance athletes will also use many different types of long intervals to train specific aspects of their events. These are really beyond the scope of this article, which is more about putting how to put together a program for general health and fitness, but the longer variations that are used are more about developing the ability to work at high intensity but still remain aerobic.

Putting it all together

When it comes to looking at what to do with your conditioning work it’s really very simple.

Lots of easy work.

To give some perspective why the aerobic system is so important here are the splits between the contribution of the aerobic and anaerobic system in elite 100m-1500m races.

100m 95% Anaerobic 5% Aerobic for 10 sec event

200m 70% Anaerobic 30% Aerobic for a 20sec event

400m 60% Anaerobic 40% aerobic for a 45 sec event

800m 40% Anaerobic 60% Aerobic for a 110 sec event

1500m 10% Anaerobic 90% Aerobic for a 220sec event

As you can see for all the events except the 100m there is a significant contribution from the aerobic system. For 99% of sports, the contribution from the aerobic system is going to vastly outweigh that of the anaerobic.

It might be boring but it works and builds a base for the hard effort work to run on. If your general conditioning is poor you lack the ability to recover from any type of high intensity efforts. This is both in the session and between sessions as it is your aerobic system that drives this. It is for this reason that we need to place a big emphasis on aerobic work. A well developed aerobic system enhances recovery ability and hence your fitness.

To begin with, you may only be doing steady paced cardiac output work. Once you’ve got a handle on this we can add in pace variations within each session. Then progress onto adding in tempo intervals for 5-10 minutes each session. This can then progress to other more demanding sessions but not before a serious amount of time has been spent actually getting fit enough to benefit from it.

Only once sufficient time has been spent developing the ability to work aerobically for long periods is it actually beneficial to start incorporating any of the high intensity techniques.

Training week example

A training week may contain 4 hours of conditioning work in it split over 5 or 6 sessions. If we stick to the 80/20 rule 4 hours gives you a maximum of 50 minutes of hard work. I say maximum as just because you can do 50 minutes of hard effort work doesn’t mean you should.

The 50 minutes can be peppered through the training week or split over a couple of sessions.

4 hours of conditioning work may be split up with 3×60 min sessions and 3 x20min sessions. The 60 min sessions could contain 12 minutes each of high intensity work and the 20 min ones 4 mins. A better way to do this would be to have 2 days where there is a big chunk of hard work, up to 20 minutes. On a couple of the 20 min sessions, you might do a small amount hard work but the volume will be low. Following this format you are still unlikely to hit the full 50 minutes.

As a real world example my own current training looks like this;

Current goal – a 5k run time of sub 24 minutes.

After lifting; 30 minute session of a mix of HICT and tempo intervals on 2 days.

3 days of running-  45-60 min mostly easy but with a couple of tempo blocks on two of the days.

A 20-25 min recovery session using a mix of different modalities (continuous work, tempo intervals, med ball throws) but never letting the HR climb beyond 140. This is then followed by a short lifting session.

The total time spent doing anything resembling hard work is about 30-35 minutes max out of about 4 hours of training.

4 days/week

If you were training  4 times per week your week might look like.

Hard conditioning 2x/week after lifting 30 min.

Easy conditioning 2x/week 60 min.

Whilst the hard conditioning day may last 30 minutes only about half of it will actual hard effort. The rest of the session will be easy paced warm up, recovery and cool down giving you about 30 minutes out of a total of 180 minutes, or a bit less than 20%.

If you play a sport the best thing you can do is think about what is required for it and work your plan out from there.


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