Breaking Through Aerobic Conditioning Plateaus


Is your aerobic workout at a standstill?  Check out these changes to start moving forward again!  

As I highlighted in Breaking Through Strength Training Plateaus, adequate recovery is critical to making progress.  If you lack energy, feel moody, have nagging aches and pains or trouble sleeping,  or if you find that your workouts are tougher although you haven’t changed anything, you may be over trained and need to take a break.

The Basics…

Check Your Consistency: Are you doing cardiovascular conditioning work 3-5 days per week?  If not, establishing that habit may be the only change you need.


Cross Train: Switch to a different type of cardiovascular exercise.  Try something you’re not used to doing to “trick” your body.

Increase Time: Adding time to the workout can be productive, but it can also become unmanageable.  If you go from 20 to 30 to 45 to 60 minutes, at some point it will be difficult to fit your workout in your schedule.  Adding time also increases the risk of overuse injury.  If piling on the minutes is impractical, try increasing intensity over the same amount of time instead.

Increase intensity…

Try Heart Rate Training: Gauging your exercise intensity with heart rate gives you personalized feedback to fine tune your program and work harder.  Use this equation to determine your max heart rate: 207 – 0.7 x age.  Once you have your max, you can take percentages of that to guide your workouts.  Here are some guidelines for intensity and exercise heart rate*:

Low to Moderate intensity ≈ 60-75% of Max

Moderate to High intensity ≈ 75-90% of Max

(Note that some medications will alter heart rate response to exercise, so check with your doctor if you’re currently taking medication)

*Heart rate can be cross referenced with Rate of Perceived Exertion for greater accuracy when finding a target exercise heart rate.

Use Rate of Perceived Exertion: The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale lets you to assign a number value to your exertion.  This rating can be applied to how your muscles feel (i.e. legs), your breathing or an overall feeling of effort throughout your body.  Taking an honest assessment of how hard you’re working may help you push yourself and get past a plateau.

Try Intervals: Interval training is essentially short bursts of intense exercise (work intervals) with longer periods of recover (rest intervals).  Work intervals (or sprints) can be as short as 10 seconds or as long as 1-4 minutes.  Shorter work intervals allow for greater exertion, between 5-9 on the RPE scale while longer work intervals require somewhat less intensity, around a 5 on the RPE scale.  Recovery intensity in interval training must be very low, around a 1 or 2 RPE.  In general, short, high intensity sprints require longer recovery whereas longer sprints require less recovery.

In addition to the RPE scale, you can use heart rate to perform intervals.  Set a sprint heart rate and recovery rate and then work between the two.  For example, sprint up to 85% of your max for 30 seconds and then take as much time as your system needs to recover to 60% of max.  For someone who’s 40 years old, that would be roughly 150 beats per minute for the sprint and 110 for the recovery.  With heart rate, you know you’re ready for your next sprint when you hit your recovery number, which is more individualized than adhering to a strict time method.

Interval training can be done on just about any type of cardiovascular training equipment (bike, stair climber, rowing machine, etc.) or outside on a grass field or running track.  Since it’s very intense, check with your doctor to make sure you’re a good candidate for interval training, and then incorporate it gradually into your exercise program, starting with once per week and adding one or two other sessions as you become more fit.

I hope those ideas are helpful additions to your workout bag-of-tricks and help you shift your direction towards ongoing progress!

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Michael Bento is an Advanced Trainer at the Clubs at Charles River Park. He holds a Masters degree in Human Movement and is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a Corrective Exercise Specialist and Performance Enhancement Specialist.

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