HIIT training (high-intensity interval training) is all the rage for weight loss, but whatever happened to slow and steady wins the race? We’re talking about steady-state cardio. These types of workouts (a long run or a cycling or rowing session) involve physical activity that raises your heart rate at the same intensity for a certain amount of time. This is different from intervals that may push you to the next level. Here are four benefits of steady state cardio, such as increased endurance, better recovery, and a more consistent workout routine, and why it might be the perfect addition to your week of workouts.
It may not feel “hard”—and that’s a good thing.
Some of us are prone to thinking cardio counts only if we’re covered in sweat, completely out of breath, and super sore the next day. But, scaling down your effort is actually a fine approach to exercise, especially if you’re more of a beginner or need a bit more moderation in between tough workouts.
“Steady state cardio really is an endurance-focused cardio session, meaning staying within one training zone for an extended period of time,” explains Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham. “Depending on your conditioning, it can either feel very easy or very challenging. The more you do it, the easier it becomes—because your cardiovascular conditioning becomes stronger.”
Cunningham says to think of steady state as functioning at your base level of exertion. In other words, you’re working hard, but nowhere near hitting your max, and your heart rate stays in one zone. A more conditioned individual might be able to move at a faster pace and maintain a higher zone for an extended period of time. However, once your heart rate begins to fluctuate, you’re no longer doing steady state cardio.
“Your heart rate is elevated to about the same rate for the length of time you are exercising,” adds personal trainer and nutrition expert Kyra Williams. “For it to be cardiovascular exercise, your heart rate will usually be at or above 60 percent of its max. When doing steady state, this is going to be sustained the entire time. If your heart rate is increasing and decreasing in intervals, this is high-intensity interval training.”
You can build up strength and endurance for longer workouts.
According to Aaptiv Trainer Benjamin Green, steady state cardio is particularly beneficial to anyone new to exercise. This applies to those getting back to their first workout in a while. It can also be helpful for those who just want to have more energy in their daily life. For athletes, steady state cardio teaches how to endure, both mentally and physically, any type or length of the workout.
“It tests mental toughness,” says Cunningham. “Most sessions are longer, so [that] you can build up your strength to push through and keep focus. If you’re able to maintain for a longer time, you can focus on your breathing and work on mechanics.”
You can skip high-intensity interval training if that’s not your thing.
HIIT workouts are popular—but consider this your permission slip to opt out of intervals as your main form of cardio. A 2015 Journal of Sports Science and Medicine study compared HIIT-style exercise with steady state aerobic training. It found that the former didn’t necessarily give participants a fitness advantage.
Green says, “If you can talk, walk or run and have a conversation with someone, then you’re doing steady state. If you cannot hold a conversation, then you’re working a lot harder.” It’s all relative, though. If being social while walking or running is the thing that gets you moving in the first place, then forcing yourself to complete workouts without that component might actually derail your progress and your motivation.
Instead, pick a method you will want to stick with. Keep in mind that your preferences might change over the years. Interval training might be ideal for fat loss, but if you dread every HIIT running workout, then steady state might be a better choice for you.
You’ll recover faster.
Steady state cardio might not help you burn calories at a rapid pace. However, you’ll still get your body moving, and that is better than nothing. You can also do low- to moderate-intensity cardio on a rest day, in order to amp up your recovery after a series of difficult HIIT or strength workouts. Steady state cardio gives your body a break while keeping you active, instead of forcing it to run on empty.
In addition to some fat loss and improved endurance, Williams says steady state cardio can have multiple benefits. It can increase your lung capacity for easier breathing, boost your bone density to ward off osteoporosis, decrease depression and stress, and promote heart health—a win-win all around.