Traditional Cardio vs. Metabolic Conditioning

By Coach Nathan

Walk into any traditional gym and you are likely to find rows and columns of treadmills, ellipticals, and stairclimbing machines full of nice people plodding along trying to “get their cardio in.” Cardio must be really important right? I’ve been in several gyms one very large and popular chain in particular that didn’t have a single barbell but dozens of the machines I just mentioned complete with individual flat screens and cup holders. Now picture your local box. You’ll find all manner of barbells, boxes, wall balls, ropes, and our old friend the rig. What you won’t find are treadmills or cup holders. How am I supposed to get that cardio in? Class is an hour long. It takes 10 minutes to warm up, 15 minutes to find my 1RM on the overhead squat, 5 minutes to go over the movements in the WOD which is a 12 minute AMRAP. Then the rest of class is spent on accessory work and my 5K isn’t getting any faster no matter how great I am at banded pull a parts.

I should just get used to the fact that I’m never going to improve my distance running right? Well here’s what really happened. I’m relatively new to Crossfit with about eight months of experience. Before that I wasn’t in terrible condition. I was active and enjoyed jogging at the park a couple of times each week when life would allow. For me a 10:00 mile was comfortable but an 8:30 mile pushed me to near death. Just assume that for my age, weight, body type, etc. I was not an accomplished distance runner. So I was Mr. 10:00 mile and that’s where I happily stayed for a very long time. Fast forward to about the end of my sixth month of Crossfit and my first timed mile since enrolling. Needless to say I wasn’t looking forward to this one in particular, like I said 8:30 mile…. Thought I would die. So I ran my mile, checked my time and I did it in 7:16. I was shocked, I hadn’t ran for time in months and had completely abandoned my runs at the park. What could possibly explain my drastic improvement? It should be noted that my legs did not get longer and stayed within five pounds of my weight when I started Crossfit.

What is cardio? Cardio generally refers to steady state cardio. This is when we perform low intensity work for an extended period of time. Examples of SSC include long runs, long bike rides, long stints on the rower, elliptical, etc. The key work here is long, it takes quite a while. Why do people devote so much time to cardio? SSC is essential for marathoners and triathletes but is also used by everyday people who are interested in general physical fitness to burn calories and stay healthy. Unfortunately SSC has a few draw backs. First, it takes a long time and it can be difficult to schedule a long run every week. Second, while it does burn calories those calories come mostly from the breakdown of skeletal muscle, and that’s not good. Lastly, SSC only conditions one of our three metabolic pathways. Surprised?
What’s a metabolic pathway you ask? A metabolic pathway is the process that our bodies turn what energy stored in the body into fuel and the transport of that fuel to our muscles. We use three metabolic pathways two of which are anaerobic meaning that the process does not require the use of oxygen and one is aerobic and, you guessed it, this one requires oxygen to progress.
The Phosphagen Pathway. The first anaerobic pathway is the fastest means of energy production available to us and used to perform tasks that have to be done right now! This is fight or flight fuel. For example let’s say you’re walking on a trail and encounter a bear you either need to escape or wrestle a bear, not exactly a scenario where running away slowly is an option. A scenario not including a bear would be going for a one rep max on the deadlift.
The Glycolytic Pathway Our second anaerobic pathway is used to perform tasks of moderate intensity for up to about four minutes. The glycolytic pathway facilitates activities like weightlifting for 8-10 reps.
The Oxidative Pathway This is our traditional steady state cardio training, long runs, rowing, etc. Our lone aerobic pathway can carry us through hours of low intensity activity without falling to exhaustion at the cost of skeletal muscle mass.
For the sake of fitness it makes sense to condition all of our metabolic pathways. While these systems can easily be separated and defined they only work in conjunction with one another. One single system cannot fuel any activity on its own. How are we able to effectively train these systems simultaneously?

Total metabolic conditioning (aka Metcon) is possible and is a key part of Crossift, with advantages over SSC. Metabolic conditioning resulted in the improvements of my mile time, improving my endurance by conditioning the oxidative pathway without sacrificing lean muscle mass. Instead, Metabolic conditioning builds muscle mass and the bulk of the calories burned come from fat stored in the body. By burning fat and building muscle at the same time metabolic conditioning workouts yield results much more quickly than cardio because it triggers your metabolism to work at higher levels – even after the workout has ended!

So, if you’re looking to run a marathon or compete in a triathlon, yes, you need SSC. However, if you’re looking to maximize changes to your body and PR your mile time – you need total metabolic conditioning. So hop off that treadmill and I’ll see you at the box!

*CF WOR Running Club incorporates total metabolic conditioning into our training for 5k’s, 10k’s, and even half marathons. We take away the super long runs (sparing your body’s muscle mass), and incorporate interval training and interval runs to help you reach your goals, prevent injury, have a limited time-commitment, and HAVE.FUN. Our next Running Club begins February 27th. Classes are on Tuesday nights at 6:00pm, and long (but not that long) runs on Saturday mornings. Sign up HERE and reach your goals AND build muscle AND have fun!


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