How do you get your cardio workout if you can't go outside? Our fitness team explores the options in our latest podcast episode.

Episode #40 | 7/28/2020


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There are no shortcuts to a successful fitness regimen, only hard work and consistency. And to navigate through the mountain of fitness advice available, candidates must learn to separate fad from function. I’m Daniel Fletcher, welcome to The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, The Official Navy SEAL Podcast. In this extended series, we’ll speak with select special warfare performance experts to clarify common training misconceptions and provide insight into areas of focus specifically important to special warfare candidates.

Today we extend our fitness series with a discussion about training indoors vs outdoors with director of fitness for SEAL and SWCC training Mike Caviston. Let’s get started.


Daniel Fletcher [DF]: Mike, you’ve become a bit of a staple on the podcast. It may seem like sometimes you’re covering some elementary topics for people, I think that’s because of your lifelong exposure to professional fitness. Thank you for your time. I appreciate you stopping by to speak with us.


Mike Caviston [MC]: Glad to be here.


DF: Today, we’re going to talk about maybe a unique challenge for people in specific parts of the country that may not have the perfect 72 degree outdoor weather that we have in San Diego almost all year long, where they have the option to train both in- and outdoors, whether you’re in Minnesota or Arizona, there’s some extremes that people have to deal with. In those extreme temperature locations, how can people get the cardio that they need in a variety that you think is appropriate for training for BUD/S? I know that, obviously there’s things like the treadmill. Do you think there’s anything specific that people can do to kind of edge out that and try a little bit more variety for themselves, or do you think the treadmill is sufficient? Maybe you can expand on that.


MC: Well, to be clear to our audience, the single most important thing to do to prepare for BUD/S is develop your running ability, so they need to be working on becoming a better runner, following a progressive training program, and that’ll probably involve being outdoors a bit, but as you say, there are plenty of situations where that might not be possible because of environment or other reasons. So, coming indoors, where hopefully the environment’s a little bit more controlled would be a good idea, and one of the things they might do if they’re going to be a better runner is to get on the treadmill, and so a little bit of that is fine. I have no particular problem with running on a treadmill, I think it is a good analog for running outside. I wouldn’t only run on the treadmill, but as long as you’re in a gym, if you’ve got a good selection of equipment, I would also take the opportunity to try some other cardio activities to complement the running.


DF: Can you give us maybe some examples of pieces of apparatus or types of machines that you’re talking about. You’re talking about putting super light weight on something, doing high reps, or what do you mean?


MC: No, no, I wouldn’t think about weightlifting at all. I would think about any type of activity, I mean a good cardio activity is something that’s going to use a fairly large muscle mass. So, think of an activity that’s probably going to include the legs, like running would, and then hopefully maybe a little bit of the upper body and the trunk. And so, cycling would use the legs a bit, maybe not the upper body, rowing would be a pretty good whole-body workout because it uses the legs, also the trunk and the arms, stair climbing machines, elliptical, there’s a wide variety of things. And I would stick to those, and not that I wouldn’t do lifting, and there’s a time and a place for circuit training or low weight, high rep lifting, but I wouldn’t do that specifically to get a cardiovascular workout.


DF: For people that don’t have a full gym available to them, what movements or exercises would you push people to do outside of running on a treadmill to help develop that? Say you’re stuck in a dorm room, and you need to be able to put in the work to get your cardio level where it needs to be at. I know that maybe that’s an extreme example, but I’m sure there are people listening that are in some sort of constrained environment like that.


MC: Well, that would be a pretty extreme example. I would hope that somebody would be able to find at least a partially stocked gym where they might have, again, just a stationary bike if you can’t get out on the road or some form of cardio equipment. Yeah, you might have to be pretty creative and maybe just do step ups for an hour, but I would hope that most of the people listening wouldn’t be that restricted and that they’d have some option of finding some sort of cardiovascular equipment in a gym, even if they can’t get outside to run.


DF: Yeah, I think finding a gym that has, or maybe just scouting out the gym is maybe something important to do if you know that you’re in an area that you have limited availability to the outdoors for a certain percentage of the year, and I’d imagine most of those places, they’re aware of the fact that in three feet of snow, you’re not going to be able to ride your bike down the sidewalk. So, those gyms are probably pretty well stocked, so when you’re out searching for a gym, make sure that’s checked off the list for yourself, or if you have the opportunity, invest in maybe a used bike or whatever’s available to get in your house if you don’t have something close by.


MC: Well, true. So, anybody that’s trying to plan ahead for their training and preparation for coming into one of the NSW programs, scouting out gyms that would include a wide variety of not only strength training but cardiovascular equipment, and you also make a good point about looking at some of the home options people might have. And so, there are different pieces of exercise equipment that may be affordable to people to have in the home, they can keep in the garage or the basement to use when they need to.


DF: And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a brand new with the pulse monitor and the screen and the video player or the iPod doc or whatever it is.


MC: Correct, it could be functional without having all those whistles and bells.


DF: I know it seems very elementary, and kind of have to peel back those layers and think to yourself, you know, whether it’s like you said, step ups, burpees. Obviously, you’re not going to be able to mimic a complete representation of like the running experience.


MC: Well, you know, I could say, yeah, that’s all better than nothing but not a lot.


DF: Yeah, and maybe that’s worth mentioning, that if…


MC: It’s coming down to one of those things where everybody wants like the magic solution. It’s like, “Oh, I have no time, but I want to lose a lot of weight,”…


DF: So, yeah, I think that’s kind of worth noting is what I was going to say, if you’re so limited in your capacity to expose yourself to the types of stimulus that’s required to get yourself into the condition that’s needed, some self-assessment may be needed in your lifestyle, your occupation choice or where you are and how important it is for you to try to get to this pipeline and that sacrifices do need to be made, whether it’s small things or big things, to be able to put yourself in the position you need to. There are certain parts I think of cardio training that specifically lend themselves to working better indoors or outdoors, whether it’s being on a treadmill or a stair machine and being able to monitor your heart rate or specific interval training. What types of things do you think would maybe be better to do outdoors versus indoors? I know that if you’re doing some things you want to kind of keep track of, the times a little bit more specifically, or you want to get your heart rate and you don’t have a heart rate monitor, is it best to do the sprint training outside or the long, slow distance outdoors versus indoors?


MC: Yeah, I would say the long, slow distance would probably translate well to either environment, doing a steady run outdoors versus doing a steady run on a treadmill or, you know, a steady 40-minutes on a stair climber. That’s all steady, heartbeat’s steady, so I think that translates a little bit better. In terms of choosing the mode to do an interval workout, you need to choose something that you’re able to perform at a high intensity. In other words, most people should be able to run, and so if you can find, I always recommend a good outdoor track, if you can find a high school or a community college that’s got a good quarter mile track, and you can accurately measure your distances and keep track of your times, that’s probably a great way to do it. If you can’t do that, you can improvise and come up with some measured courses, but I always encourage people to find a good, firm, fast, safe surface so that you can run fast and have a high intensity output. Now, if you’re in a gym, and you can’t run, you might do that on the treadmill, but you might also use another piece of equipment. Again, my background in rowing, I always think a very tough rowing workout, but I know how to row, and so I can get the most out of a rowing machine, whereas a lot of beginners might not get the benefit out of trying to do high intensity with a format that they’re not familiar with. So, you know, if you’re talking about the difference between indoors and outdoors, for many people, it might be better to try to do their high intensity if they can do it outdoors where they can really run hard.


DF: For people that maybe do all of their training on a certain piece of equipment, whether they feel really comfortable getting in, getting on the Elliptical and putting in an hour or whatever it may be, I would imagine that there’s some benefit to getting outdoors in terms of developing your kind of self-feel, not that that’s an official word or a thing, but instead of having a screen in front of you telling you your distance and your time and your calories and all of this stuff, you think there’s anything to that?


MC: Well, I think it is good to get outside and just experience nature and just sort of run in that environment and get in tune with your body. I think there are pros and cons with any piece of equipment or machine that gives you certain information, certain feedback. Feedback is generally a good thing if you know how to interpret it. Sometimes, you have to learn how to operate without that feedback. And so, if you’re running outdoors without any sort of electronic aid, that might be beneficial.


DF: Yeah, I guess a lot of the development that goes along with the physical, measurable fitness that we see that’s required at BUD/S, is that grit or ability to either tune in or tune out during an exercise and put in the work. And to me, I’ve always felt like outdoors enables me at least, particularly, to kind of shut off my brain to those numbers that are going by, like, “Oh, I’m going to go for two minutes,” “Oh, here, only thirty more seconds left,” and creates a little bit of circular thinking or can sometimes inhibit a workout intensity or length because you’re not going anywhere, you know. So, I feel like a big part of training for BUD/S is developing that kind of self-awareness and putting yourself in uncomfortable positions and being okay with being four miles away from your house and tired but needing to get back home, you know. And I think people maybe want to put in the mileage and do the numbers and not necessarily equate to the same, as like you’re saying, going out to nature and putting yourself on an incline or the uneven terrain and stuff like that, developing that part of your kind of intuition a little bit I think is to some benefit. Can you talk a little bit about how you would recommend people incorporate indoor sessions into existing, really well programmed outdoor training?


MC: Sure, no, I think that one of the challenges many people will face if they’re trying to become better runners is to build up their mileage in a safe way, and so I’m always telling people you got to run well, and to do that, you got to spend some time running. I also try to caution them at the same time, don’t do too much, too soon. So, don’t go out and try to do 40 miles a week if you haven’t been running at all, or you’ve only been running 10 miles a week. So, the way that a person can utilize a gym, if it’s a good gym with a wide variety of equipment, is to gradually build up their running mileage by complementing it and supplementing it with other types of activities. So, if your goal is to run 40 miles a week, and you’re currently running 10 or 15 miles a week, go to the gym and get on a piece of equipment and choose it based on what you like to do. I mean there’s no particular one that I think is inherently way better than any other to prepare you. Get your heart pumping. Your heart doesn’t really care what activity you do as long as you get your heart pumping. So, it might be a bike, it might be a treadmill, it might be an Elliptical, but spend some time on that equipment, and get your heart stronger, and then as your legs get stronger from outdoor running, you can gradually increase your running mileage to say 20 miles a week, 25 miles a week, and you can continue to do additional cardio on other equipment cause that will still make your heart strong, and that will benefit you overall. Or if you’re pressed for time, you can start to reduce some of the time that you spend on the indoor alternate equipment, so a little bit less time on the Elliptical and a little bit more time outdoor on the road. But you can make the transition in that way, so you can safely build up your running mileage, keep the wear and tear on your legs to a minimum or progress the mileage in such a way that your body’s able to adapt but still get cardiovascular benefit by doing other low impact exercises that you actually enjoy doing.


DF: For people that have spent most of their life training indoors, whether it’s treadmill, on the Erg or any other type of indoor machine, going outdoors to do run training, let’s say specifically, may be intimidating, just because of the aspect of danger involved, being on a busy street. You run a lot in your life on the street. Talk us through some of the preventative measures for safety that you recommend people just cover as a basis, you know, whether it’s avoiding running at nighttime, certain sides of the street or clothing, anything like that that you recommend.


MC: Yeah, well, certainly if you’re going to run outdoors, you want to pay attention to safety, and one of the things would certainly be if you are running say early in the morning before the sun comes up, which I think is probably a situation a lot of listeners might be in. So, you know, they got to get to work early, and so they’ve got to train even earlier, and it’s dark out. Well, try to find a place where traffic is minimal, make sure that you’re lit properly, wear light colored clothing, wear lights on your head, on your waist, on your shoes, whatever it takes to make sure that any motorist can see you clearly. And then when you’re running, don’t dart into areas where a motorist might be. [DF: Don’t throw yourself into traffic.] Well, exactly right, you know, exactly right. So, that’s one thing, or even if you’re running outside in daylight, one of the things, you know, I’ve done over my life is try to find a nice back road somewhere, maybe a country road somewhere, good scenery, whatever, not a lot of traffic, but once in a while, traffic does come. So, you got to be alert. Run against traffic so that I can step off onto the shoulder if a car’s coming…Traffic is on the right-hand side, so I’ll run on the left-hand side. So, I’m running directly into traffic. If a car’s coming, the car can see me, I can see the car, and then if there’s not enough room on the road, I can step off the road until the car goes by [DF: So you can see it coming, basically.] …So, see it coming. If you’re running in the same direction the traffic is coming, the car is behind you, you might hear it, you might not. You don’t know what the car is going to do. You might assume the car sees you, but if it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. So, I always like to face oncoming traffic so that I can make adjustments accordingly.


DF: You spend a lot of time on the bike. Every episode that we’ve recorded, I think I’ve seen your bike leaning against the building that we’re going to be recording in.


MC: Don’t own a car, only own a bike.


DF: There you go. And there’s a certain amount of responsibility that goes with that in terms of just maintenance and being safe. Obviously, if you’re on a stationary bike, it’s a lot more safe than driving down the street, and some of the similar kind of safety stuff comes into play there with visibility. What are some of the unique things that you do on the bike to keep yourself safe?


MC: Well, just always assume that motorists are not paying attention. Don’t assume because you’ve got the right of way that the motorist is going to give you the right of away. So, you know, if I’m at an intersection, and there’s a car to one side, I make sure I got eye contact before I proceed even though I got the green light because he might not see me or might not care that I’m there, or he might misjudge my speed, and I’ve had a number of close calls that way. So, you know, always be alert, and never assume that motorists are going to give you the right of way automatically. Verify by looking at them directly.


DF: And helmet…


MC: Always wear a helmet. I mean on base, it’s mandatory. You can’t get on base without a helmet, and different communities have different laws about helmets, but, you know, I wear one regardless, and I would recommend that everybody wear one. And I can say personally, you know, I’ve ridden thousands and thousands and thousands of miles on the road over the years, and I’ve only had a couple of like really close calls that were life threatening, but the helmet saved my life in those cases. So, even if it’s just a redundant for 364 days out of the year, that one day, it’s important. I’m glad I’m wearing it.


DF: So, in terms of the equipment that you use, let’s say a bike, can people get in the exercise that they need on any type of bike, or do they need something specific?


MC: I don’t think it has to be too high-tech. If you’re going to pursue racing as a sport, you’re going to need a pretty high-end bike. It’s going to cost you some money…


DF: But in terms of just developing cardiovascular fitness?


MC: No, I mean, no, it doesn’t. You might not go as fast as a true racer, but you can still get your heart working and get your legs working even though you’re not physically traveling at a high rate of speed, you can still get a good workout. So, no, you don’t have to get a fast bike necessarily just to be able to get a good workout, again, especially if it’s just a supplement to, [DF: Your running…] yeah, exactly.


DF: I think the big takeaway for me is that there are very specific benefits for getting outdoors and running on even terrain, up and down hills, even if they’re very minor, even just the crest of the road you’re running on is making an impact on your body, and it’s worth it to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation even if it’s a little too cold or warmer than you’re comfortable working out in, those have benefits as well, and being in the environments and conditions have enough benefit I think it’s worth it to pursue instead of just doing all your workouts indoors, if you can.


MC: I don’t disagree with that, but I would add that if you’re doing a lot of training outdoors in extreme conditions, like, being uncomfortable in a hot or cold environment is potentially a good thing, but I wouldn’t plan to do all my training in those conditions. And so, if it’s hot routinely, like if you’re in a long, hot Arizona summer, figure out when the coolest part of the day is, or try to make sure that you get some quality training in when it’s cool enough to run well. And same thing if it’s cold, it’s possible to do some pretty productive training in some pretty cold environments, but still make sure that you’re able to train well, train effectively, not just trying to make yourself cold.


DF: Right, right, right, you need to be able to put in the volume that’s needed.


MC: Yes, you’ve got to actually do the training in a productive manner.


DF: Yeah, so pay attention to the amount of volume you’re able to do if it is warm outside, but I think the benefits definitely outweigh the risks. If you put in the right time to do things correctly, you wear the right gear, you’re not out being reckless, get outside, put in the miles. I think that’s what we’re hearing from you. Well, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.


MC: My pleasure.