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Aerobic Training - How hard should you train?

Aerobic training can be considered as any prolonged activity that gets you breathing more deeply. The most common examples being walking, jogging cycling etc.

If you are new to exercise the most fundamental key to aerobic activities is getting out of breath. If you are a regular exerciser then the key is ensure you are getting fitter. This is done by going harder, not longer.

For new exercisers it is fairly easy to be getting out of breath (e.g. breathing deeper, rather than not being able to breathe :) ). However, some exercises make it hard to achieve this. In my experience I have met many people who do hours of swimming but never get even slightly out of breath, or play hours of tennis but say to me they cannot lose weight. These two examples show how exercise can be misleading.

When swimming, your technique may limit you from being able to reach an intensity to achieve the real health benefits of exercise. Tennis, by nature of its design is stop start and very often does not challenge the aerobic system at all. I understand it takes 2 hours to play a match but more often than not the exerciser is spending considerably more time standing around than running.

For the regular exercise, the sessions are normally characterized by a steady state which may last up to 40 or 60 minutes in total. The goal of aerobic training is get fitter, it is not about burning calories (even if you want to lose weight). Therefore you need to go harder (or shorter periods of time) than longer.

To achieve this you must first take a measure of fitness, e.g. how far can you row or run in say 10 minutes. Then you can retest regularly to see if you are fitter, e.g. go further in those 10 minutes. To continually achieve this you will have to use interval training and also some basic concepts of periodization. That is, how you rotate /adjust your training plan month to month. Most people do not go down this route as you must use a harder effort, however, the sessions are much much shorter.

For new exercisers and people using interval training methods it is important you are able to gauge how hard you do your exercise. or this use the rate of perceived exertion scale (RPE). This is a subjective measure you ask yourself about how hard the exercise feels, from easy to very hard. Once you have learnt this you can set the intensity on the machines to equate to this exertion level.

RPE scale:


20 - About to collapse the exercise is so hard, gasping for breath,

15 - Hard effort, could do 3-5 minutes max, breathing deeply.

10 - Comfortable, could do 15 minutes at this level, breathing a more
       deeply than usual

 5 - Easy, could do 30 minutes at this level, very slightly out of breath

 0 - At home watching telly with the feet up.                                   


For new exercisers the aim is to build up to be able to do more exercise at the higher exercise intensities. You should aim to exercise at between 13-16 out of 20

For regular exercisers trying to get fitter you should use interval techniques that change the intensity from a comfortable 10-12 to a challenging 15-17 out of 20. I performed over a short duration, e.g. 10-15 minutes max (for the whole gym session on aerobic training) your fitness will start increasing greatly.

The key to aerobic training is limiting your maximum time to a short yet intense duration and ensuring you are getting fitter month to month. If you then eat right and add in the other areas of exercise you will drop body fat and feel good. See my article on hitting an exercise plateau for more on how to vary your training programme.

Aerobic training and fat loss

It seems in general there are three types of people when it comes to body fat losses and aerobic training. There are some who do well on longer sessions, but these are very much in the minority while others do best on short, e.g. 10-15 minute aerobic sessions focusing on intensity (how hard you go). There is also a significant % of people (including me) who do better body fat wise with no aerobic training at all within their exercise routine. The key is to see what your body wants (not your mind) and do that. Obviously losing body fat is about nutrition first over exercise (well, obvious to anyone who has worked in the field for a while).

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Ben Wilson


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