Surviving Indoor Aerobic Training

So I know I promised a video to wrap up my reposting/rewriting of the Training the Obese Beginner series but, honestly, it was just going to be pointless ranting and I seem to have lost the fire in my belly to do it right now (to be honest I think I just didn’t want to deal with the shooting, editing and transcribing part of it).   So here’s some actual new content instead.  Today I want to talk about surviving indoor aerobic training.

While we can probably argue until the end of time what the “worst” part of training is, I imagine that most would be willing to put indoor cardio (especially of the steady state/aerobic type) right up there near the top.  And while certainly one way to avoid the issue is to either take the no-cardio or intervals only approach, I don’t think either are ideal.  The simple reality is that whether it’s for fat loss, general fitness, or for endurance athletes who live somewhere where it’s cold, doing longer duration indoor cardio of some sort is usually a necessary evil.

So today I want to talk about some strategies that can be helpful to help folks get through it or, at the very least, maybe enjoy it more.   And I’m not going to bore you with the obvious strategies, listening to music, reading a magazine or book to kill the time or whatever.  You know that already.  If you’re lucky maybe your gym has a cardio theater where you can watch movies; in my experience all that ends up happening is that you end up watching the same middle of the same crappy movie (when I was in Utah, I must have seen the middle hour of the horrible Queen Latifah/LL Cool J movie “Last Holiday” a solid dozen times).

Instead I’m going to suggest a way of modifying/thinking about your indoor aerobic sessions both to make them less psychologically gruelling (read: “boring as hell”) as well as physiologically more beneficial.

The Inevitable Driving Analogy

For reasons I’ve never quite figured out, when people write about weight training they have a tendency to use car analogies.   Probably just because cars are something most people understand.  Or because they go “Vroom” or something.  Regardless, that’s how it is and I’m going to continue with that tradition here.

I imagine that most reading this have had the experience (or misfortune, depending on how you want to look at it) of driving long distances.  When I was in college, for example, I did the drive from Tennessee to Los Angeles (2214 miles, a value forever burned into my head) a number of times.  Once without sleep jacked up on caffeine and sugar but that’s a different story.  And you know that it’s just awful to contemplate especially if you look at the distance all at once; when you’re faced with 24 or 36 hours of total driving, each minute or even hour just doesn’t seem to be having an impact.

Invariably what people do in this situation, certainly what I did, is to break the drive up into more manageable “chunks”.   So the first mental break you make is at the half-way point (or whatever distance you might cover in a day’s worth of driving).  So it might be 12 hours.  Ok, 12 hours is a lot easier to deal with than 36 hours even if you have to do it three times.  Or maybe you break it up into an even smaller increment.  Now you’re at 6 hours (how far you get between fuel ups if you have a really efficient car).  Well everybody can drive for 6 hours, right?  I think you see where this is going.

I vividly remember that, leaving Nashville en route to LA, there was a major city about every three hours.  That synched up rather nicely with both my need to stop for gas and my need to go to the bathroom and refuel with caffeine.  So mentally I wasn’t thinking in terms of having to drive 36 hours.  I only had to make it the next three hours.  And the next three.  And the next three.  By chunking it in this way, you’re never facing down the entire distance and your brain can sort of “reset” once you hit each intermediate time point.  You hit three hours, reset, now you have three more hours to drive.

Of course, as anyone knows, this can be taken too far.  Certainly it’s easy to think of “I only have to drive an hour” or even “Only a minute” but at that point you’ve reached the other extreme.  Because 36 by 1 hour isn’t really much better than 1 by 36 hours (or whatever this works out to in minutes or half-hours).  Somewhere in the middle is a happy medium where each chunk is a reasonable length and you can divide the entire distance into a reasonable number of chunks.

Here’s a graphic to break up the dense text and attempt to make this a bit clearer.  The arrow is the full distance start to finish, the lines are then subdivided at different time points: 1/2, into thirds, into fourths, sixths, twelfths.  You could keep going but, again, you reach a point of diminishing returns where you know have an immense number of small increments rather than one large increment.  Somewhere in the middle where you get a reasonable number of reasonable length increments is invariably the mental (and physical) sweet spot.

Travel Time Graphic

This is a nice graphic is it not?


Let’s Apply This to Training

And, as you can imagine, I’m going to suggest applying the same concept to indoor aerobic training (I’d note only in passing that you could very easily apply this equally to high repetition weight training.  So rather than think of a 20 rep squat session as 20 reps, break into into 4 sets of 5.) as a way to mentally break up the time into more manageable chunks.    So a 60 minute workout becomes 4 blocks of 15 minutes, or 3 blocks of 20 minutes or even 6 blocks of 10 minutes.  A 30 minute workout could be divided into two blocks of 15 minutes, three blocks of 10 minutes or even 6 blocks of 5 minutes.

I’d note that there’s no reason you have to make each block an equal time.  For example, a 60 minute workout might have a 5 minute warm-up and cool-down leaving 50 minutes in-between to be divided up into varying lengths (you might divide that 50 minutes into 5 ten minute blocks or 10 five minute blocks).  There are endless options.

I’d also mention that in every example, it’s not just a function of chunking but of changing something at the time break.  This is where it differs from the driving example; every time you reach the end of a block, you’re going to do something different as that sort of signals the “end” of that block.

This tends to get you thinking only of the duration of the time block you’re actually in rather than focusing on the length of the entire session.  Not only is this psychologically more manageable, by choosing what you do during the workout, you can impact on the physiological adaptations and training effect.  So it’s a double win.

This should make more sense with some specific examples and I’ll be moving from shorter to longer in terms of what happens at each block.


“Structured” Fartlek Training

Fartlek is an old Swedish (or is it Scandinavian?) training concept that translates roughly as speedplay.  It was developed in the mid-20th century by Swedish/Scandinavian running coaches as a way to break up long runs (invariably done outdoors) along with introducing some unstructured speed work and speed changes into the workout (since this was more reflective of competition demands).   It would typically be done during an easier part of training when the goal was on distance and volume but the coach wanted to keep a bit of speed work in the program (and to keep the athlete from going nuts).

The key here was that it was unstructured, an athlete might be running in the woods and come up on a short uphill.  They would then pick up the pace up that hill.  Or they’d introduce a short “sprint” to some tree they saw in the distance.  This would be done before returning to the easy pace of the run.

I’d mention that cyclists on long road rides have often done a similar thing, folks may decide to sprint for the light pole, or for the signpost up ahead.  Everybody throws down and then you go back to gradual riding before the next sprint.  Years ago I recall some book or another suggesting a 15 second “Sprint” every 15 minutes during long-duration base training on the bike.

Indoors, mind you, it’s probably better to use something I call, somewhat contradictorily, Structured Fartlek.  Since you don’t have the same types of natural targets that would occur outdoors (I suppose you could use a commercial break in a TV program or a particularly upbeat song on your MP3 player), it’s often better to structure out your speed bursts within the workout itself based on time.   As above, what block length you pick depends on your own preference and the length of your workout.

As an example, a buddy of mine has been grinding 30 minutes on the Versaclimber and was getting bored with it.  I suggested that he introduce a 15 second “pick-up” (an increase in intensity that isn’t all out but takes him out of his normal steady state zone) every 5 minutes before returning to his normal steady state pace.  Now his workout has gone from “30 minutes of boring grinding” to 6X5 minutes with 15 seconds faster.  Mentally he’s only having to do 5 minutes (ok, 4:45) before doing something else.

This approach really has no downsides, although hardheads have a tendency to turn the speed bits into all-out sprints which really isn’t the goal.  It’s just a way to introduce some speed, work a little bit harder, and break things up but don’t go nuts on the hard part of the Fartlek.Moving on.


Aerobic Interval Training

I’ve mentioned the concept of aerobic interval training previously, usually in the context of taking untrained beginners but it also has use for people who are already trained.  I want to make it clear from the get go that this is absolutely NOT HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and shouldn’t be confused with such.  The goal is still working in the aerobic training zone but in a more interval way.

Personally I have found that what I’m about to describe is most useful for folks using cardio machines that have distinct “levels” (think the Elliptical, Stairmaster, Stepmill) on them. This is in contrast to something like a treadmill where you can increase the speed in tiny increments.  On many of those machines you often find yourself in a place where the current level you’re at is too easy but the next level up is just too big of a jump (or moves you out of the training range you want to be in) for some reason or another.

So let’s say you’re on one of the aforementioned machines at level, whatever, say it’s level 13.  You can comfortable grind away an hour without working too hard.  But you find that moving it to Level 14 is just too big of a jump in intensity or workload for whatever reason (or moving it up won’t let you complete the hour).  In this case you can use the same chunking concept to gradually increase the duration at the higher level while still completing the entire workout.   Generally, 5-10 minutes at the higher level alternated with similar amounts (or longer) at the lower intensity seems to work well.

So at the first workout you might break up the 60 minutes into 4X15 minute blocks where the first 10 minutes is at level 13 and the final 5 minute is at level 14.  After a few of those workouts, you could go to alternating blocks of 10 minutes at level 13 and 10 minutes of level 14.  Just switching back and forth.  The final step might be back to 4 blocks of 15 minutes divided into 5 minutes at level 13 and 10 minutes at level 14.  Then finally an hour at level 14.  Spend a couple of weeks there and when you’re ready, do the same between levels 14 and 15.

Alternately you could do 3 blocks of 20 minutes divided into 15 minutes at 13 and 5 minutes at 14.  Then do 10′ at 13 and 10′ at 14.  Then 5′ at 13 and 15′ at 14.  Then the entire time at 14.  You might stay there a week or two to stabilize and then, assuming you wanted or needed to, start building to the next level up by alternating between levels 14 and 15.

Again, there are lots of options and what you choose depends on your personal preference along with how big the jump is.  I’ve presented these options in table form below (the number in parentheses after the workout is the total time spent at the higher workload), assuming three workouts per week.  I’d mention that this works best when you’re well within the aerobic zone (i.e. roughly a heart rate in the 130-160 range) although it can work when you’re closer to threshold.


Option 1
Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3
Week 1 4X10’@13/5’@14 (20′) 4X10’@13/5’@14 (20′) 4X10’@13/5’@14 (20′)
Week 2 3X10’@13/10’@14 (30′) 3X10’@13/10’@14 (30′) 3X10’@13/10’@14 (30′)
Week 3 4X5’@13/10’@14 (40′) 4X5’@13/10’@14 (40′) 4X5’@13/10’@14 (40′)
Week4 60’@14 60’@14 60’@14
Option 2
Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3
Week 1 3X15’@13/5’@14 (15′) 3X15’@13/5’@14 (15′) 3X15’@13/5’@14 (15′)
Week 2 3X10’@13/10’@14 (30′) 3X10’@13/10’@14 (30′) 3X10’@13/10’@14 (30′)
Week 3 3X5’@13/15’@14 (45′) 3X5’@13/15’@14 (45′) 3X5’@13/15’@14 (45′)
Week 4 60’@14 60’@14 60’@14


I think you get the idea.  And yes I realize that option 1 skips a workout with 50 total minutes at the higher workload.  The second option is also clearly more aggressive since the time at the higher workload goes up more quickly.

This approach can also be used when you’re nearer to threshold/sweet spot (see this article for details) but you usually have to use smaller time jumps.  As described, a typical workout might be warmups with 2 sets of 20 minutes with a 5-10′ break between sets.   It’s damn near all-out and adding a full 5 minutes at the next level up might just not be possible since you’re already pretty close to maximal.  It’s also a pretty mentally gruelling workout to begin with, 20 minutes of unremitting discomfort; here, breaking it up into smaller chunks has a huge psychological benefit.

In that case, I’d be more likely to break up the 20 minute work sets into 4X5 minute chunks and add 1 minute at the higher workload every 2-3 workouts.  So let’s say you’re currently pushing 200watts on the bike but want to start working towards 210w for this workout.  A progression over 12 workouts (which might take 4-6 weeks depending on your frequency of training) might be as follows (again, numbers in parentheses are the total time at the higher workload). After stabilizing at the new workload, you could start the next progression from 210w to 220w.


4X4’@200w/1’@210w (4′) 4X4’@200w/1’@210w (4′)
4X3’@200w/2’@210w (8′) 4X3’@200w/2’@210w (8′)
4X2’@200w/3’@210w (12′) 4X2’@200w/3’@210w (12′)
4X1’@200w/4’@210w (16′) 4X1’@200w/4’@210w (16′)
20’@210w 20’@210w
20’@210w 20’@210w


Keep in mind that this workout would typically be done after a 10-15 minute warmup (one block), with a 5-10 minute break in-between each set (another block) and a 5-10 minute cool-down (the final block).  So the entire workout just ends up being a series of fairy short (5-15′) blocks all the way through.



This approach to a workout probably has a formal name but I have no idea what it is so I’m going to call it a progressive workout.  Now in the three previous workout examples you bumped up from a lower intensity to a higher intensity before moving back down.  In this workout you start easy and progressively increase the intensity all the way until the end.

So first you pick your training range, the low-end and high-end workloads (in terms of heart rate, pace or power output) that you want to use.  Then break the workout into perhaps 3 even blocks.  The first block is done at the low-end workload, the second block halfway in-between the low- and high-end workload and the third block is at the high-end workload.

So during a base aerobic phase, you might set a range of 130-150 heart rate and work at 130 for the first 20 minutes, 140 for the second 20 minutes and 150 for the third twenty minutes.  Or if you’re doing 30 minute workouts, you’d go 10 minutes at each pace.  If you’re doing 90 minute workouts, you’d go 30 minutes at each pace.

In a later aerobic phase (ideally before moving outdoors or starting racing), this could be taken closer to threshold work.  So you might set a workload range of 130-170 beats per minute (or the accompanying pace/power output).  The first 20 minutes would be at the low 130 (effectively a warm-up but still in the aerobic range).  The second 20 minutes goes to a moderate 150 heart rate and then the final 20 minutes is right at threshold/race pace (170 beats per minute).  This is apparently a popular approach to training with Kenyan runners where they start at an ambling pace to warm-up but may finish right at race pace by the end of the run.

You can even take this further and have the last block increase towards an all-out sprint at the very end (this is a workout to do occasionally, not all the time).  So in the final 20 minute block you might spend the first 10 minutes right at race pace, the next 5 minutes above race pace, and then ramp up each minute of the final five minutes to a full sprint until you’re done (either make it to 20 minutes or run out of gas).  This is about as close to mimicking a race situation as anything you can do indoors.  Again, not to be done all the time by any stretch.

This type of workout has as number of benefits.  Not only does it break up the total time period into manageable mental chunks but it also (especially with the second version) allows you to find that balance between volume and intensity.  This is especially crucial for endurance athletes trying to build some form of base during the winter; doing long workouts indoors is a grind but just cranking out threshold sets of 20 minutes may not provide the long-duration endurance needed.  In this type of workout you get a 60-90 minutes of endurance work along with the twenty to thirty minutes of threshold/race pace work all at once.

For competition athlete, this type of workout also has the benefit of teaching them how to push harder as the race goes on.  The reality of racing is that even at the same fixed pace, as athletes fatigue they have to push harder just to maintain that pace.  And most races get faster towards the end.  this workout mimics that.


Summing Up

So that’s that: a different way of approaching winter indoor aerobic training that may help make it more interesting, more manageable and more physiologically beneficial.  The above isn’t meant to be comprehensive, I’m sure creative individuals can come up with any number of variations on the above themes of what I’ve presented (some of which are just workouts I’ve personally used to get through the long winters).

Of course, the concepts can be combined.  If you want some real hell, try chunking structured Fartlek training with a threshold workout, so you’re working 20 minutes at race pace and every 5 minutes you have go above that (perhaps mimicking a breakaway or uphill) before returning to race pace (instead of a low-intensity).

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