How to Achieve Adventure-Ready Cardio Fitness

Aaron Flanagan — 17 April 2019
Outdoor's tips on how to boost your cardio fitness – while keeping things fun at the same time.

Fitness, a ‘good engine’, endurance or staying power – it doesn’t matter what you call it – a solid cardio regime should be a staple life consideration for a whole host of reasons. Primarily because consistent cardio conditioning, regardless of end goal, is where confidence – be it on track, trail, crag or body of water – comes from.

Having a regular cardio routine is perhaps one of life’s more difficult disciplines to consistently nail down. Like a good diet or adhering to healthy sleep patterns, maintaining a solid ‘base-layer’ of cardio conditioning typically ebbs and flows depending on individual circumstances. For most, it’s a medium or low priority that fits in and around things like study, exams, work and family commitments.

But it doesn’t have to be so difficult. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but with these few simple tips, perhaps the troughs and peaks won’t be too severe.


Running is perhaps the most popular way to maintain cardio fitness. After all, in terms of gear, facilities and technique, most of us have all bases covered. A good pair of shoes sympathetic to individual stride patterns, a semi-regular favourite route, and some sort of motivating raison d’être (a time goal or perhaps an event some time in the future).

I’m an earnest plodder, at best, and these days any time I commence a running program, it typically ends with some sort of impact ailment – shin splints, plantar fasciitis or a mystery foot problem. Once I endured about four days of pain that was eventually diagnosed as my laces being tied too tight.

Years back, while running, slowly, in a group with Australian middle-distance legend Craig Mottram (I can’t exactly remember how I came to be jogging in a group with such a distinguished runner), I sidled up and, as you would, asked a few questions. And as you’d expect to happen with tips proffered by a multi-Olympian national record holder, the advice still forms a mainstay in my own inner-coach alter ego. (For those interested, this alter ego wears a green and gold sweatband around the circumference of his balding pate, has a stopwatch around his neck and sports a doughty moustache).

Back to Mottram. He said to me, “Mate, the main thing is to just get miles into your legs. It doesn’t matter how slow or fast you go, the main thing is to get your legs moving and covering a bit of distance, consistently”.

I remember absorbing this simple piece of wisdom. Even fifteen years later, these two sentences remain clear as day. Consistency – slow and easy, but consistent. I’ve heard variations of this principle before and since, but hearing it coming from someone like Mottram, paraphrased neatly into four words, “miles into your legs”, gold-stamp ratifies the intel.

So, this should be the base goal of any cardio program: regular and consistent activity. It doesn’t have to be lung-busting, on-the-edge-of-capability performance every time. In fact quite the opposite. A mild elevation in heart rate over a sustained period of time – consistently. Long, slow, steady jogging. Cool, metronomical, almost effortless paddle or arm stroking, gentle but mildly interesting crank work. If you want to get technical, call it a heart rate set.


In fact, while we’re talking about the heart, let’s talk about using it as the basis for describing workout intensity. A ‘heart rate’ session involves being aware of effort via the beatings of the heart. A ‘heart rate set’ is where you hold a consistent rate of heart beats over a given time. A good locale to read your pulse is behind the jaw bone halfway between the edge of your mouth and your ear. Remember to check with your index and pointing fingers – the ones used when you shoot someone while playing imaginary cops and robbers. Pew! Pew! Pew!

Counting beats for 10 seconds and then multiplying this by six will give you a rough idea of per-minute heart rate. Twenty beats is 120 bpm, thirty is 180 and so on.

A good cardio and endurance-building heart rate set is about maintaining a consistent heart rate for a prolonged period. If you start out too pacy and intense and count more than thirty beats during a ten second check, ease back or you’ll blow up before the set concludes. Gradually, you should get an idea of where your particular sweet spot lies. Generally, if reasonably fit, you don’t want your heart to beat more than 24 times in 10 seconds in the middle of a endurance phase heart rate set.

(Before engaging in any exercise program, please consult with your GP for advice and feedback about your particular physical condition.)


Basically, fartlek involves opening up the carburettor and giving the engine – your improved conditioning – some throttle. For example, if running, after completing your staple slow and easy run, you may opt to do 400 metre loops of the track at your local park. A basic fartlek set would be: start the loop slow, build the first 100, then sprint a 100 down the straight, full bore, before easing right back to slower-than-slow amble for the remaining 200. Repeat this however many times you feel comfortable completing.

During a fartlek burst, your heart rate should shoot up beyond 30 beats during a ten second check.


A convenient way to organise your cardio-building program is to design a session that involves a series of ‘sets’. This refers to a series of distances that you repeat on a time interval; for example, 10 x 400m, each repeated on a one minute and forty-five seconds interval; or 6 x 2000m, each repeated on a twelve minute interval. By repeating a set of prescribed distances, you can gain an accurate idea of improvements and also scale of workout. It can be interesting and helpful to record details of set performances in a diary of some sort. Obviously you need some sort of stop watch or pace clock while interval training.


Another attribute of using a slow cardio run/cycle/paddle/swim as your basic program is that it enables concentration on developing sound technique.

If half-exhausted and struggling to maintain composure, all order and adherence to correct form flies out the window. Bad technique, if repeated often enough, becomes ingrained and the defect much harder to correct.

By slowing everything down, especially as you gain fitness, you are free to concentrate on developing excellent technique. This is where an occasional coach comes in handy. They can spot and advise on any form deficiencies.Whenever the opportunity presents itself, such as an opportunity to run with the likes of Craig Mottram, perhaps ask a simple pointer on whatever it is that vexes you.

Working on technique, however fiddly or frustrating it may seem, will ultimately prove immensely rewarding. Developing sound technique boosts efficiency, thereby conserving energy, like few other aspects of a well-rounded program.


Nothing kills motivation faster than absolutely hating your training program. If whatever you’re doing is too painful or just flat-out boring, stop immediately and re-tool your program. Above all else, you should, in some way, enjoy your workouts.


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