Cardio: Intervals, Tempo Work and Steady State

Discussing cardiovascular training is like discussing politics or religion these days. You have a large group of people on one side, a large group of people on the other side and a group of people in the middle. It is not my intention to hash out any of the common arguments surrounding the topic, as a simple google search will give you enough reading material to keep you busy for the next few years.Instead, I’d like to just present a few ideas on how to use different types of cardio – intervals, tempo work, steady state (gasp) – in your training program. Obviously with depending on your goals you will have to tweak the info so that it works for you. But, the general ideas will hopefully make sense and give you some ideas to bounce around.


These days everyone seems to be familiar with interval training, especially high-intensity interval training or HIIT for short. Generally, this is the type of cardio people favor when trying to lose weigh, as the intensity provides a high metabolic demand that is great for enhancing the caloric deficit you have created with your diet.

Obviously one big issue with this is the fact that people go totally over-board and do way too much HIIT, while in a caloric deficit, train themselves into the ground (over-train) and wonder why they are not seeing improvements or weight loss. This topic was covered in depth in our discussion with Lyle McDonald, so I encourage anyone who hasn’t listened to it to check it out.

There are some substantial benefits that can come from HIIT cardio, and I think if you understand how to set up your program properly you can get some good results with regard to fat loss while minimizing the risk of over-training. The key is doing enough to make improvements but not too much that you are beating yourself down. This is why I typically advise people to schedule an interval session following their resistance-training workout (it is important to note that if you train legs heavy, you may want to choose to perform your intervals on something like a bike that does not require you to stabilize your body in the same way that running sprints would). In doing this, you can group your intense workouts together, and then recover on the in between days. The in between days can be filled with some tempo work or steady state work done for recovery (more on those later).

Aside from the fat loss benefits, there are also benefits to overall cardiovascular health. Many studies have looked at improvements in Vo2Max comparing training programs of steady state aerobic training (think long slow jogging or biking) and interval training. A new research review conducted by Wisloff et al. in the recent Exercise And Sports Science Review (High-intensity interval training to maximize cardiac benefits of exercise training?) looked at the beneficial adaptations HIIT had on the heart when compared to low or moderate exercise. They state that, “The magnitude of improvement depends on exercise intensity. The effects after high intensity aerobic exercise training at 85-90% of Vo2Max are twice those of moderate exercise intensity at 65-70% of Vo2Max.”

In a previous article on the individuality of training, I reported on a study which looked at two groups of soccer players. One performing long steady cardio 3x’s a week and intervals 2x’s a week as a group (no individuality in training) and a second group performing an interval training program based on their own individual work rate (determined as heart rate at anaerobic threshold). Not only did the second group (the individualized interval training group) see significant improvements in cardiovascular efficiency, their weekly training volume was less than the first group. This has potentially huge implications with regard to keeping athletes healthy and injury free, IE better results in less time. “More is not better. BETTER IS BETTER!”

J.A. Houmard further argued this point in his paper Endurance Athletes: What is The Optimal Training Strategy? (Int J Sports Med 2009:30-313-314). In this paper, Houmard states “Manipulating the training practices of endurance athletes is sometimes difficult due to the perception that the greater the intensity and volume, the more pronounced the physiological and performance gains. A recent paper by Faude et al. compared a high-volume, low intensity vs. a low volume, high intensity program in competitive swimmers. A variety of outcomes linked with performance (lactate threshold, 100m and 400m times) indicated no significant differences between the two training protocols. These data lead to the conclusion that high training volumes have no advantage compared to high-intensity training comprised of a shorter volume.”

Again, more is not better. Better is better!

I should state that you don’t have to do just high intensity interval training. You can do intervals of a variety of lengths and intensities.

Intensive intervals are intense (as the name implies), which is why they cannot be carried out for a great length of time (maybe 20-30sec tops if you are just submaximal and probably less than 10-seconds if you are working at a maximum effort). While extensive intervals are intervals of duration (1-2 minutes) and typically the intensity is lower than that of intensive intervals. For any of these options, the rest interval can be manipulated, and obviously the shorter you rest the harder the workout will be as you are decreasing your recovery. So, if you have never done anything like this, or you need to focus on quality work (form, speed, sports specific stuff), it may be wise to have a longer rest interval to allow optimal recovery.

Tempo Work

Tempo work is defined in a number of different ways between coaches. Charlie Francis defines it one way in Training for Speed, Jack Daniels defines it a different way in Daniels Running Formula, and other coaches have their own ideas of what tempo work is.

To me, tempo work is really just an interval of low-moderate activity followed by some recovery, which could be active rest (mobility work, core work, medicine ball work, walking, etc.) or complete rest (IE, not doing anything) – I tend to favor some sort of active recovery.

If we had to give a “grade” to the level of intensity during tempo work, I would give it something like a 6 on a 10 point rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. If you are working with a heart rate monitor you would be somewhere around 60-70% of max heart rate (I believe Charlie Francis said something about not doing tempo work over 70% intensity?). Just for a comparison, I would put the intensive intervals around the 9-10/10 RPE and the extensive intervals around an 8/10 RPE.

Tempo work is work that I tend to favor on off lifting/intense interval days as it is low enough in intensity to not be to fatiguing, but it still helps to build work capacity. An example of a tempo day may look like:

4 sets x (100yrds + 200yrds + 200yrds)

So, in each set you will run 100yrds, rest/active recovery, 200yrds, rest/active recovery and then 200yrds and take a longer rest before the next set, repeating the sequence 4 times for a total of 2000yrds.

Of course, tempo work doesn’t have to be just running. You can do tempo work on a bike or even use body weight or low resistance training circuits.

Steady State

This is the one that seems to get the worst rap of them all, as people seem to think it will make them fat, or make them lose muscle or….whatever else people tend to think about it.

I use this sort of cardio more as recovery. This is my active rest and the intensity is very low. Some may feel that it is just a waste of time, but I feel like (a) helps me get my body moving and get blood flowing and (b) psychologically it gives me my activity for the day (while being low enough in intensity that it wont compromise my regular/more important training).

I tend to favor a walk around the block (about 4 miles) at a moderate pace or, sometimes I’ll just pedal on the spin bike at a moderate pace for 20-30min. My heart rate wont get above 130bpms and I keep the training very easy.

Another big benefit to steady state work is that, we just can’t train at high intensities every day! This is especially true when dieting. I talked about this in my book Take Charge: Everything You Need To Know To Write Your Own Training Program. As I stated above when talking about interval training, the goal is to do the high intensity stuff on one day (lifting/intervals) and then use the steady state stuff on in between days to recover and give our bodies a break. This allows us to perform some form of exercise/work, without beating ourselves into the ground with lots of intensive training.


Obviously there is a lot to think about with regard to program design and putting things together. Hopefully this little overview of some of the popular terms being thrown around these days has helped you to gain an idea of how to structure your workouts for optimal results.

Train smart!

Take Charge! Everything You Need to
Know to Write Your Own Training Programs

This is a 116-page, step-by-step guide to writing
your own training programs and workouts.
Click Here for More Info!

* This article is EXCLUSIVE to, reproduction in any form without prior consent is strictly PROHIBITED.

About the Author
Patrick Ward holds a Masters Degree in Exercise Science. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and a USA Weightlifting-Certified Club Coach. In addition, Patrick is a licensed massage therapist focusing on Neuromuscular therapy and Active Release Techniques (ART). He lives in Chandler, Arizona and is the owner of Optimum Sports Performance and the Co-founder of Reality Based Fitness. He can be reached at Visit website: