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Golf Fitness: What to Do About Cardio?

Who are currently the ten best golfers in the world? 1. Rory McIlroy, 2. Jordan Spieth, 3. Bubba Watson, 4. Dustin Johnson, 5. Ricky Fowler, 6. Jim Furyk, 7. Henrik Stenson, 8. Justin Rose, 9. Jason Day, and 10. Sergio Garcia. What do they have in common? Strong physical condition. While none are regulars in the ESPN Magazine Body Issue, it’s also clear that they are staying in shape. A few months ago we discussed some good exercises to improve one’s golf game. However, the question remains: what to do about cardio?

Many amateur golfers attest that losing weight, adding muscle, and engaging in cardio exercises of many varieties has improved their game, if for no other reason than increasing stamina at the turn and improving mental sharpness through each shot. These anecdotes cannot be ignored. Yet, when you ask golfers who play this game for a living what they do about cardio, their response may surprise you.

Take for instance a discussion posted by Golf Digest that includes comments from Kai Fusser, longtime fitness trainer of the very successful LPGA member, Annika Sorenstam. When asked about cardio, Fusser said, “It’s not a big part of what we do… Spending 30 minutes on a treadmill is a waste of time.” Instead of the typical cardio workouts commonplace in most gyms, Fusser is a student of the high intensity interval training (HIIT) system. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, “HIIT workouts provide similar fitness benefits as continuous endurance workouts, but in shorter periods of time. This is because HIIT workouts tend to burn more calories than traditional workouts, especially after the workout.” In further support of HIIT training for golfers, the Golf Digest article concluded by reminding that “golf is a ‘burst sport,’ meaning you’re asked to alternate between generating a lot of energy in a short period of time and then resting for longer periods. You need to prepare your body to be on alert at all times, and steady-state cardio simply won’t do that.”

Thoughtful reflection on one’s golf round seems to prove this final point: lots of walking mixed with quick outbursts of energy. Perhaps a certain level of traditional cardio is still necessary to ensure one’s stamina in walking all eighteen holes. However, beyond that, the foregoing research would say that cardio exercise focused on high intensity intervals interspersed with resting intervals might be a better solution for improving stamina specifically related to the golf swing itself. For an example of an HIIT workout for golfers, see this recommended workout by Fitness For Golf.  

Traditional cardio is not totally friendless however. Even Fusser has said that if you feel like long steady cardio has helped you, you should keep it up: “I’m not saying that doing slow and long cardio is all bad and that you should never do it. I know many people feel they get a great deal of mental stress relief [from it], and I can’t argue with that.” However, he does end with this caveat: “[F]rom a purely physical standpoint, it is not at all efficient and might harm you more than it will do you good.” A study by Micah Zuhl and Len Kravitz entitled, “HIIT v. Continuous Endurance Training: Battle of the Aerobic Titans,” likewise declined to conclude that there was no longer any place for common endurance exercises: “[B]oth HIIT and continuous aerobic exercise programs improve all of these meaningful physiological and metabolic functions of the human body, [therefore] incorporating a balance of both programs .. is clearly the ‘win-win’ approach for successful cardiovascular exercise improvement and performance.”

In conclusion, hopefully the picture painted here has been insightful as you plan your workout routine to improve your golf game. There are pros and cons to traditional cardio and the HIIT system. Of course, insight from a professional golf instructor on the best way to play better golf through appropriate exercise would be invaluable. The knowledge and experience possessed by Bird Golf’s PGA and LPGA golf instructors would greatly benefit every golfer looking not only for a swing fix, but also for holistic approach to golf instruction. Feel free to reach out and get their take on the HIIT v. traditional cardio debate.