Cardio Burns Muscle — Here’s How to Save It

Running is one of the oldest, most-beloved, low-fuss sports there is. All you need is you and your shoes and you’re off. Runners love many aspects of this sport: the scenery if you’re taking to a trail, the serenity if you do a distance run by yourself, and, of course, the physical benefits.

Running — in fact, any kind of long-distance cardio like cycling or even competitive swimming — is a great way to burn body fat, and while cardio may never have the same kind of after-burn effect on calories that weight-lifting does, research has shown that body fat gets eaten alive by cardio while it’s happening.

Unfortunately, so does muscle.

Because muscle tissue takes more energy to preserve and build than does fat, the body will try to break down muscle that is not used or needed in an effort to build up readily available supplies of glycogen. Sure, fat will burn too. But since muscle tissue is so precious to a fat-burning metabolism — remember, the act of simply maintaining it burns calories¬†as you rest — those concerned with losing muscle mass can ill afford catabolism. This obviously presents a problem for athletes who enjoy prolonged periods of aerobic exercise but who don’t want to see their iron gains go to waste, either.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are one of our favorite products, and their best, most practical use could very well be in preventing muscle wasting and aiding fat loss. Your muscles are built of proteins, proteins which your body is itching to break back down into energy if you give it the chance. It will target proteins before it targets body fat! When proteins are broken down back into amino acids (the process is called proteolysis), the muscle loses size, your metabolism gets slower and fat becomes harder to lose.
Where BCAAs come in is during that exact moment. Research has basically come to a consensus that the big three amino acids – Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine – are muscle-savers and fat-burners (via increased metabolism). The International Journal of Sports Medicine performed a double-blind, placebo-controlled study that tested two control groups performing moderate-intensity endurance exercise: one taking BCAAs, and the other taking the placebo. The study found, of course, that running, cycling and swimming (and other aerobic activity) does indeed increase muscle breakdown. But there’s more:
Endurance exercise at moderate intensity enhances proteolysis in working muscles … [But] a single oral intake of 2 g of BCAA … at onset of exercise effectively suppresses exercise-induced skeletal muscle proteolysis. (Source)
In other words, the amino acids you give your body when you take BCAAs provides a buffer your body can use without affecting the muscle you’ve worked to build. The upshot, then, is that you build or maintain muscle mass while still continuing to burn body fat. And that is a trade-off just about every athlete wants to make.

Workout Wednesday: HIIT It

People tend to associate aerobic exercise (or the misnomer “cardio”) with “boring.” Well, when you plod away on the treadmill at an unchallenging rate for 30 minutes, yes, it certainly can be.

Mix it up instead, and get the after-burn effect that keeps fat burning for up to eight hours after your workout. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) gets you a better workout in a fraction of the time. By busting your butt in short intervals and using “active rest,” ie., jogging, you save your time and get a more effective workout without sacrificing muscle tissue, an inevitable casualty of prolonged aerobic exercise.

Go with this plan for today:

90 second jog (warmup)

60 second run at 60 percent effort

60 second sprint at 90 percent effort (this is the High-Intensity part)

30 second brisk walk

30 second run at 60 percent effort

30 second sprint at 90 percent effort

Repeat that 5-minute interval set at least twice, but aim for three total interval sets for a total of 15 minutes.