Love it or hate it, cardio workouts are essential to overall health and critical for athletic performance. Fortunately, getting a killer cardio workout doesn’t have to mean suffering through mile after mile on the track or trail. Check out these scientifically-backed tips to hack your workout and start seeing results — fast.
Up and Running — Your Action Plan
A typical cardio workout elevates the heart rate, helps improve lung efficiency, and burns a whole lot of calories and fat. And the good news is there are ways to get even more out of that workout. In addition to the non-negotiables (read: proper workout nutrition and hydration, along with a solid warm-up and cool down), here are 17 ways to get to work — and see better results than ever.
1. Think outside the ‘mill. Cardio haters, rejoice! There are plenty of ways to up the intensity and hit the aerobic zone without running. One solution: using free weights like dumbbells for a fast-paced strength training session. That means minimizing the small talk (easier said than done!), and keeping rest between sets under 20 seconds to boost the heart rate and metabolism .
2. Stop and start. Interval training (or alternating periods of all-out effort with periods of low-to-medium effort) can up the intensity of a run workout, while building lean mucles and maximizing calorie burn. (Score.) But high intensity interval training (HIIT) can go beyond just running. Try mixing things up with an interval workout in the pool or on a stationary bike for equally awesome results .
3. Tabata time. These high-intensity workouts only last four minutes but provide better results than some hour long cardio sessions . Hop in the indoor rower and complete 20 seconds of work, followed by 10 seconds of rest for four minutes. Note: For less advanced gym-goers, avoid overexertion (or injury) with a modified tabata protocol (10 seconds on, followed by 20 seconds off), suggests Greatist Expert and trainer Rob Sulaver.
4. Mix and match. Intervals have applications that go beyond running or cycling. Combining strength training and cardio into one workout will produce results in as little as eight minutes. Instead of sprinting then stopping, try performing a bodyweight exercise during the rest period .
5. Belt it. Have a need for speed? Running on a treadmill might seem like a drag, but since the belt helps with leg turnover, there are few places you can go as fast. Plus, while it might be tempting to slow down outdoors, the threat of a face plant makes the treadmill a great tool for promoting consistency and pace per mile .
6. Up the incline. Hop on the treadmill and crank up the speed, but don’t forget to adjust the incline. As the incline increases so will the heart rate, sending the calorie burn through the roof . Bumping up the incline to a 5.5 percent grade or higher can also strengthen the legs and core, not to mention improve running form and sprint speed (by lengthening the stride and increasing the number of steps taken per second) .
7. Just let go. Of the handrail that is. Holding onto the side of the treadmill does more harm than good . A surefire way to sabotage a workout, gripping the rails decreases energy output and oxygen consumption, significantly reducing the effectiveness of a workout . Go hands free then pump the arms from waist to chest, not across the body (which can slow you down).
8. Go off-road. If the treadmill isn’t getting the job done, head for the great outdoors. Trail running, mountain biking, or even open water swimming can add variety to boring routine. Bonus: Uneven ground like sand or rocks require balance, athleticism, and agility to navigate the rugged terrain . Not up for all the impact? Mix things up (while giving those joints a break) with alternative machines like the StairMaster, elliptical, or rowing machine.
9. More kettlebell. Grab the bell by the horns, or handle. Kettlebell training has been shown to provide greater cardiovascular benefits than traditional weight training methods. With only one piece of equipment it’s possible to improve oxygen uptake (or VO2 max), max heart rate, and functional performance. Start with the two-hand kettlebell swings and progress to the single arm snatch for better results in less time .
10. Get around. Create a circuit training workout that stacks up a fast-paced combination of bodyweight and cardio-based exercises. By pairing resistance training with high-intensity aerobic moves back-to-back (think jump squats, burpees, and mountain climbers), the body will achieve results fast — including building muscle and burning fat .
11. Get loaded. Maybe it’s adding a weighted vest. Or carrying a case of beer (post-workout of course!) to the other side of campus. Either way, carrying additional weight while walking, running, or during daily activities has been shown to improve intensity, recovery, and recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibers (the ones that make us faster)  . Just be sure to keep an eye on mechanics — even a few extra lbs can make it difficult to maintain good form, Sulaver says.
12. Go high-tech. The trick to running a faster 5K or finding the motivation to HIIT the gym could be one mouse click away. There really is an app for everything, fitness included. No smart phone? No problem. Pick up a heart rate monitor, and consider a GPS feature that will track distance, pace, and the number of calories burned during a run .
13. Ride the beat. Music more your speed? Forgo the fancy fitness gadgets and crank up the tunes. Listening to music during exercise has been shown to improve performance, increase motivation, and put distractions (like negative thoughts and fatique) on pause .
14. Get social. Building a workout routine around team sports, group activities, or fitness classes can boost performance during aerobic exercise. Can’t find a group workout that meets your needs? Train with a partner to make the entire gym experience more enjoyable, with an extra boost of accountability .
15. Fill ‘er up. Need an excuse to grab another cup o’ Joe? A pre-workout dose of caffeinecan provide the pick me up needed to get moving, and improve endurance along the way . Just be careful not to overdo it: No one wants the shakes when it’s time to lift some weights.
16. Play (the right) mind games. Mental fatigue can be the downfall of a workout. Studies have shown that if the brain is tired, performance tends to suffer . Re-energize the mind and body with a new running route, fitness class, or workout routine. Or, create a mantra that can be recited for a boost of motivation when exercise seems like a chore or a workout is dragging along.
17. Timing is everything. Research suggests that working out first thing in the morning is best for creating and sticking to a habit of exercise. However, not everyone is a morning person. That’s alright. The good news is that the body will adapt to training at any point in the day, so long as it is done on a consistent basis . Turns out that, when it comes to killing a cardio workout, anytime is better than never.
With all these cardio workouts to choose from, it might be possible to overdo it. Don’t get carried away. Instead, take 24-48 hours off before training the same muscle groups. Make time to foam roll key areas like the hamstrings, quads, calves, groin, and back. The payoff: better recovery, increased muscle growth, and being better prepared for that next workout.
How do you push the limits of your cardio workouts? Tell us in the comment section below or tweet the author @joevennare.