The Truth About Cardio for Golf
If golf is slow walking with lots of breaks, decision making, and golf shots, then why do some individuals put such an emphasis on cardio for golf?
Is Cardio for Golf Important?
Physical conditioning has minimal effect on short game and putting potential as the motion used when playing these shots does not require significant levels of mobility, power, or balance compared to the long game. These physical qualities, especially power, which is necessary to generate desirable levels of club head speed play a very important role in a golfer’s potential in the long game. Contrary to what you might think or hear, “ball striking” is the biggest separator of golf playing level, and speed is a big separator in “ball striking” potential.
Depending on the level of golf you strive to play there are certain ranges of club head speed that are important prerequisites. Club head speed guarantees nothing in golf, but can make playing at the level you desire much less likely or more likely.
The goal of this article is not to argue the value of club head speed as most serious golfers understand the relationship between club head speed, distance, and golf potential so I will move on.
Some club head speed approximate guidelines (no radar data on any tour except PGA):
LPGA Tour Average 94mph
PGA Tour Average 115mph
Senior Tour Average 103mph Average 40-60 year old male club golfer 88-90 approx (doesn’t apply to very low or very high handicaps)
Every mph increase in club head speed is worth approx 2.5 yards of distance increase provided the strike location and impact conditions remain the same. A simple way to think of this is that each 4mph of club head speed is worth approximately 10 yards of distance.
Getting back to the demands of golf.
Walking the Golf Course
Many people automatically assume that because golf is 4-5 hours in duration (& multiple rounds for competition golf) and they sometimes suffer from fatigue that their issue is cardiovascular conditioning. While a reasonable level of cardio for golf is required the level needed is not very high. As golf is slow walking with lots of breaks, the heart and lungs should not be under a lot of pressure to sustain the demands of a round. If someone is experiencing significant cardiovascular stress during a round of golf i.e shortness of breath, huffing and puffing, struggling to get their heart rate down after walking to their ball (not the same as from nerves) the person is most likely very out of shape, and most likely carrying significant levels of body fat. In short, it may be more of a general health issue, than a “sport specific cardio issue”.
Because golf is a low intensity cardio activity (unless you are very “out of shape”) it’s unlikely that players will struggle to take in and utilise oxygen to fuel the demands of walking the course. This is especially true for serious players who walk golf courses multiple times per week and have years of adaptation to this demand.
This is one of the reasons the cardio trend in professional golf puzzles me. We have all this data about the value of club head speed. We have players who are very cardiovascularly prepared for golf developed from years of walking golf courses multiple times per week, yet many seem to use their finite time, energy, and recovery ability to try and further develop cardio rather than the power needed for increased club head speed. High volume and intensity and cardio can also have a negative impact on speed. It is not uncommon to lose power and speed as frequency and volume of cardio training rises. It’s a sign of “golf fitness” still being a relatively new concept that even at the highest level of the game players either don’t value it, or work on things that don’t really have the ability to shift their scoring potential. in my opnion it will be clear to see a shift in the training of golfers as it becomes more culturallty accepted that professional golfers play in a sport where off the tee performance is extrmely important, and physical power levels hugely underpin the performance potential in this element of the game.
If you play multiple rounds on consecutive days which is common for tournament golfers or on golf trips, your cardiovascular system will not have trouble recovering between rounds. That will be fully recovered almost immediately. Your skeletal muscle on the other hand may struggle unless you have appropriate levels of muscular conditioning, refuelling with food and water, and sleep!
In the long game, especially driving, golfers are trying to create huge amounts of power in the one second duration of the golf swing. If you want to increase club head speed you need to develop the ability to produce more force in this one second period. The energy system (ATP-CP), muscle fibers (fast twitch – type 2x), and connective tissue that are predominantly responsible for power output in short duration high speed and power activities like the golf swing are not developed with cardio training, and cardio training can in fact have a negative effect on them. When trying to increase club head speed, our training must target the same energy systems, muscle fiber types, and connective tissue as relied on to create power and speed in the swing. To provide the stimulus needed for physiological improvement (aka “speed gains”) they must be progressively challenged or “overloaded” in terms of force and velocity. This is best done with very short duration i.e low or single rep, high power activities like swinging as fast possible, jumping, throwing, and lifting. These need to be done with 100% maximum effort in each rep to move the implement you are using as resistance as fast as possible, with low enough reps or set duration so that the stress is kept on the ATP-CP system and it’s not turned into an endurance workout, and with enough rest between sets or reps so that full power or close to full power has returned for the next bout. In my experience these criteria are very rarely met and it’s a huge limitation in the results of what is often labelled speed and power training, but is in reality speed / power endurance training.
Golf swings are done one at a time, and players are often trying to create as much speed and power as possible, or close to it. Each swing is separated by a long break during which players walk slowly, and stand around waiting. Recovery between swings should not be a problem, and is easily covered as a by product of a decent training program, the voume of balls players hit in practice sessions in a much more concentrated period, and by being in reasonable physical condition. It should not require any specialised focus.
The key to speed and power training is that you are moving at close to maxiumum speed and power in each rep. This is not the same as trying to move with high power when you are gassed or fatigued. People often claim to be doing power work during 20-30 second sprints during Orange Theory, biking workouts, or circuit classes. This is not the same thing as actual speed and power training. To accomplish what we’re looking for set duration must be short (ideally under 10 seconds or 5 reps), and recovery between sets must be long enough so you can repeat the same power output or very close to it in your next set. This usually means about 60 seonds of recovery for every 10 second maximal burst or a work to rest ratio of 1:5 or 1:6 approx.
What is not demanded in golf and does not require specific training? High intensity cardio.
If Cardio Isn’t My Problem Why Do I Get Tired On The Back 9?
When walking up the 18th fairway you might be “more tired” than walking up the 1st fairway. I bet the type of tiredness you feel isn’t “being gassed”, struggling for oxygen, and feeling your heartbeat out through your chest like it would be if you were running or biking hard, or playing a court or field sport however. In those activities, which are high intensity cardio we cannot get oxygen in fast enough to maintain the intensity we want. This is not the case in golf because we are walking slowly, and taking lots of breaks. If your breathing rate, heart rate, and ability to hold a conversation without shortness of breath is the same throughout the duration of a round, cardiovascular conditioning is likely not the main factor in your tiredness. The heart and lungs can keep going at a low intensity pretty much non stop.
(I understand on some courses that have extreme undulation there may be periods where you do get the heart and lungs pumping hard, but this is usually not a major factor on most courses.)
During a round of golf, fatigue is the combination of a few different reasons:
Nutrition and Hydration
Many people eat nothing during a 4-5 hour round of golf, and may not have eaten anything substantial before the round. This can add up to 6-7 hours without any fuel while walking 4-5 miles and trying to concentrate on your game. It’s important to drink plenty of water too. Try eating a decent meal within a couple of hours of your tee off and bringing snacks to the course like fruit, nuts, trail mix, or even a protein filled wrap or sandwich. It makes a massive difference. If you’re getting hungry on the course, you’re not giving yourself the best chance of playing to your potential. Take a drink of water on each tee box. Refill your 1 liter / 32 oz thermo bottle at the turn.
Mentally Checking Out
Compare your best rounds to your worst rounds. How are your energy levels on the last few holes? When you’re in with the chance of a good score or you’re having a lot of fun, it’s unlikely you will feel tired at the end of a round. On days when things aren’t going well we often throw in the towel, mentally check out, and the round becomes a drag. Our “fitness” may be the same in both of these rounds, but I bet you only notice fatigue in one scenario.
Lack of General Conditioning
Cardiovascular conditioning does play a role in this, but there’s other really important elements too. The simplest way for many golfers to improve their energy levels while playing golf is to shed extra fat they are carrying. If you are carrying 10, 20, 30lbs of fat you shouldn’t be, this is your starting point. Imagine wearing a suit that weighed 10-30lbs while playing a round of golf and how much extra energy it would require. That’s what you’re doing by carrying excess body fat.
While the majority of people jump to conclusions their cardiovascular conditioning is the main culprit for fatigue on the golf course, it’s rare you hear someone talk about muscular conditioning. During a round of golf we hit approximately 30-40 “full shots” depending on your scores. There may also be 1-2 (hopefully not anymore!!!) practice swings to go with each shot. This adds up to a considerable amount of swings per round. We’re also trying to produce a large amount of power in many of these swings. If your muscular conditioning is not up to par you might find yourself finding it more difficult to “make a full turn”, “stay in the shot”, or create as much power as you could earlier in the round.
Things like squats, deadlifts, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, and rotation work with cables, bands, or medicine balls do a fantastic job of training the skeletal muscles of the body for the power and endurance they need to maximise golf potential. These exercises can also be done in a way that targets the cardiovascular system and burn a huge amount of calories. These exercises are just some examples. Any exercises that challenge the main muscle groups of the body in roughly the 3-12 rep range will be useful for this.
A combination of calorie intake reduction and more activity is the only way to shed fat. I am a huge advocate of performing strength type training while trying to shed fat as this will allow you to get your heart rate up and work on your cardio, burn a lot of calories, and also improve your power, strength, and mobility which is very important for increasing your club head speed potential. Many people ONLY do traditional cardio style training while trying to shed fat and this is a mistake if golf performance and muscle strength are some of your primary goals.
If I Don’t Need Cardio for Golf, How Should I Train?
Golfers need to be able to walk the golf course which is low intensity cardio and it is very desirable to be able to create a very high level of power when swinging.
In regards to golf performance potential, improvements in cardio lead to a point of diminishing returns reasonably quickly. A certain amount is needed so that you’re not getting gassed on the course and are in good general condition, but after this further improvements don’t really have scope for moving the needle on your scoring potential.
The same is not true for power. At all levels of golf improvements in power and speed has significant scope for improving your playing potential (Read “Every Shot Counts” By Mark Broadie”). We also lose speed, power, muscle, and strength faster as we age than cardio so it’s even more important for seniors.
Now here’s the fun part. We can train for improved strength and power, and simultaneously improve our cardio. While it won’t provide the same cardiovascular improvements as high intensity cardio training, it will provide all the cardio we need for golf, plus more.
If your training time is limited, you want to get as much return on your training time as possible for golf performance, body composition, and general conditioning. We need to look past biking, running, rowing, swimming, etc taking up the majority of your training time. While all of these activities are great for cardio and general health they do not provide the same multifactorial benefits as the type of workouts I’m going to outline below.
If you have 30-45 minutes to workout 3 times a week here is how I suggest you structure those sessions:
5-10 mins: Dynamic Mobility & Basic Body Weight Exercises – Covers both warm-up and mobility
5-10 mins: Power – Lower, Core, Upper mix
20-25 mins: Strength & General conditioning mix: Lower, Core, Upper mix
Wear a HR monitor and let me know how your cardio responds! If you don’t have a HR monitor, just let me know how you feel after. If you put in enough effort in each set, it is highly challenging, but provides huge benefits for:
- Power & Speed
- Muscle Strength & Muscle Mass
- Injury Prevention
- Calorie Burning
- Mobility: 2 set of 10 reps on each exercise
2. Dynamic Warm-up: (2 sets of 10 reps on each exercise)
3. Power: 5 reps of each exercise, max power on every rep, 30 seconds rest between exercises, 3-5 sets
4. Strength Pairing #1: 3-8 reps of each exercise with a challenging resistance, 30-60 seconds between sets, 3-4 sets
5. Strength Pairing #2: 3-8 reps each exercise with a challenging resistance, 30-60 seconds rest between exercises, 3-4 sets
Adjust weights as necessary so that each set is challenging and modify as best you can if there is any equipment you don’t have. This is an intro in the type of thing you can expect from the workouts in the programs on the Fit For Golf App.
Am I Saying Cardio Is Bad & To Stop Doing It?
Absolutely 100% NO. That is not what I am saying. I am 100% for anything that improves health and makes people feel better. Just realise that as your goals get very specific, so too must your training. We cannot be at our fastest and our most cardiovascuarly fit at the same time, as there is a trade off between the too. We can do a very good job of balancing both, but the extra few % available from becoming more of a power specialist may be worth it for certain golfers. Especially competitive amateurs and professionals.
The goal of this article was to try and provide some clarity on what is necesary from a physical conditioning perspective to reach your golf potential.
If you like doing cardio and want to keep it in your program but also want to increase your club head speed here is the best advice I can give. Start tracking your club head speed. If it is at the level you want or rising, great. If it you are “working hard” in your training and your club head speed is not increasing assess how much of your training time is being spent doing things that do not contribute to improving power, and may actually be having a negative effect. Also assess how much your cardio training eats into your recovery. You may be doing your power training or swing speed practice in a fatigued state and limiting your progress.
You may be surpised how much cardio you can get from the type of training I outlined above, and regular walking or low intesnity cardio. This is cardio that doesn’t take a long time to recover from and will not eat into the benefits of your speed and power training.
Again, I am not saying don’t do cardio. Feel free to do it, it is good for us. Just realise that the more you do and the higher intensity it is the more it is likely to have a negative impact on your speed, and the less time and recovery ability you have for the things that can increase your speed. Depending on your own personal goals, you can decide where you want to spend your time and energy.
Hope this helps and please let me know if you have any questions.