Updated: Sep 14, 2020
This article isn’t about “should golfers do cardio?”. The answer to that is unequivocally yes.
Cardiovascular fitness is, to simplify, the way in which the body supplies oxygen to working muscles for the energy you need to move (for all you science folks out there, send me a message and we can get deeper into it). The more efficiently and easily this happens, the easier every active activity will be. Even golf. This article is more about how to get good cardio and why longer, slower, distance running is not what I’d choose for high performing golfers almost ever.
Firstly, there are two categories that activities/exercises fall into: anaerobic and aerobic. Anaerobic means that the oxygen supplied to the muscles isn’t sufficient enough to sustain the work for a long period of time (think sprinting, or a max speed driver swing; as much as you might want to you, the intensity will have to lower to perform longer). Aerobic means that the supply is plentiful enough for long sustained activity (think jogging or walking a round of golf).
Obviously golf has both, leading to the crux of this article. In my experience, golfers tend to focus on the 4+ hours that a round takes, decide that this requires significant stamina (they are absolutely correct), and then go run 3 miles in about 20-30 min.
Here’s my problem with this philosophy: the level of cardio necessary to play a competitive round of golf is low. In other words, no one shoots 90 because they can’t get enough air. The level needed to play a majority of professional golf is even less because of caddies or carts (mini-tours/senior tour). I liken golf to a mixture of shooting free-throws, kicking field goals, and pitching a baseball. All outrageously pressurized, all highly demanding in skill and the ability to control oneself, but not completely necessary to be in primo shape to do. Therefore, what is truly needed is to be cardiovascularly fit, but only so that the body recovers more quickly and operates more efficiently, to then be an explosive athlete for longer.
In a study conducted by Potteiger et al. (1992), (thanks Eric Cressey and Rob Rabena for finding this one), it was found during simulated baseball games that the Vo2 levels (measured in ml.kg.min) reached ⅓ the levels associated with endurance athletes. Meaning cardiovascular endurance isn’t really a factor in pitching late into a game. While a real game probably elevates the consumption and expenditure, it obviously doesn’t raise the levels to that of the Tour de France. And while I do not have any reliable data on VO2 for golfers during a round of golf, I have seen data indicating that VO2 max reaches about 35-46 ml.kg.min during a round of golf, indicating that cardio isn’t a major player in finishing a round of golf as strongly as started, or rather, that whatever your cardiovascular fitness level, that the endurance of it will have a major effect on your round.
So yes, cardio is important, because it will make your round easier, and because it will make everything easier. But far more important is your anaerobic system, and your strength and flexibility, for these are what are responsible for hitting the golf ball, and particularly hitting the golf ball far. There were correlations found in elite player’s ball speeds and even in their proximity to the hole on chip shots based on something as simple as their anterior core endurance. (Wells et al. (2009)). Chip proximity! Due to ab strength! Do your planks and chip it closer, easy right?
Everyone is probably nodding their head right now, “Yep, we get it, being stronger makes the ball go further, and will give me better stability, and help my golf game.” But the original point of the article was to train differently. Because golfers are anaerobic power athletes.
There’s a saying, “What you do is who you become.” Same thing with training, if you train slow, you’ll be slow, and I don’t care if you run 7 minute miles, it’s not that fast. Golf is explosive, and should be trained as such. So if you want to be fast, train fast. Train for strength, and explosion. (As a side note, I have seen most of my athlete’s heart rates peak in the 140-160 range or higher during an hour’s strength session, which is around the peak of a pretty solid run anyways.)
So, instead of distance running, I would prefer intervals and explosiveness. Run fast for 20 seconds. Rest for 20 seconds. Run a 50 yard sprint, rest, recover, and then do it again. Bike sprints. Assault Bike sprints. 10 seconds on, 20 seconds rest, etc. The more stuff we can do where we fire every muscle in our body quickly, or at least faster than we did before, the better off we’ll be. Explosively lift weights, perform low rep-high explosion box jumps. There is no limit to how we can get moving faster, and not have our muscles relax into an aerobic 30 minute “slow” workout.
You still will gain cardio, just by working out, and as we’ve seen it’s not like golfers need to have marathon levels of cardiovascular fitness anyways. But, if you prefer to be that sort of athlete, you can get there with shorter faster runs/bikes, learning to lift weights properly, and using a few circuits to gain some explosiveness with a high heart rate.
In summary, I argue against distance running and would have my golfers get their cardio from strength sessions, or faster interval type training. In-season sprints have been shown to increase lower body strength while long slow distance running has shown to lessen it in baseball players. (Rhea et al. (2008)) If we want to be fast, and I believe that all of us golfers want our swings to be fast, then we have to get serious about training the system that produces that, and spending most of our time in this way. So spend some time doing some box jumps, or sprints (if you have the form and capability to do so), and definitely some strength building if you actually want to hit the ball further, and even chip it closer.
Potteiger, J., Blessing, D., & Wilson, G. D. (1992). The Physiological Responses to a Single Game of Baseball Pitching. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research, 6, 11-18.
Wells GD, Elmi M., Thomas S. (2009) Physiological Correlates of Golf Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):741-50.
Rhea, M., Oliverson, J., Marshall, G., Peterson, M., Kenn, J., & Ayllon, F. (2008). Noncompatibilty of Power and Endurance Training Among College Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 230-234.
Michael Whitehead is a Houston-Based Movement Coach and former Professional Golfer.
Michael is best known for replacing Tiger Woods in the 2011 US Open and has certifications in Boditrak Ground Performance Golf Ground Mechanics, Functional Strength (CFSC), and TPI Level 1. He has played and coached NCAA Division 1 golf, and is a Serious Golf Talk contributing author.
This article first appeared on Michael's website here.