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 Physical performance and cardiovascular responses to an acute bout of heavy resistance circuit training versus traditional strength training.Alcaraz PE, Sánchez-Lorente J, Blazevich AJ. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2008 May;22(3):667-71..
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 Effect of high-intensity interval training on cardiovascular function, VO2max, and muscular force. Astorino TA, Allen RP, Roberson DW, et al. Department of Kinesiology, California State University, San Marcos, California, USA. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012 Jan;26(1):138-45..
3. Tabata time. These high-intensity workouts only last four minutes but provide better results than some hour long cardio sessions Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, et al. Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Medical Science in Sports and Exercise, 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.. 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 Effect of high-intensity interval training on cardiovascular function, VO2max, and muscular force.Astorino TA, Allen RP, Roberson DW, et al. Department of Kinesiology, California State University, San Marcos, California. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012 Jan;26(1):138-45..
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 Hamstring muscle kinematics during treadmill sprinting. Thelen DG, Chumanov ES, Hoerth DM, et al. Medical Science in Sports and Exercise, 2005 Jan;37(1):108-14..
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 Elite long sprint running: a comparison between incline and level training sessions. Slawinski J, Dorel S, Hug F, et al. Laboratory of Biomechanics and Physiology, French National Institute of Sports, Paris, France. Medical Science in Sports and Exercise, 2008 Jun;40(6):1155-62.. 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) Predictors of sprint start speed: the effects of resistive ground-based vs. inclined treadmill training. Myer GD, Ford KR, Brent JL, Divine JG, et al Cincinnati Children's Hospital, Medical Center Sports Medicine Biodynamics Center and Human Performance Laboratory, Cincinnati, OH. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2007 Aug;21(3):831-6..
7. Just let go. Of the handrail that is. Holding onto the side of the treadmill does more harm than good The effect of handrail support on oxygen uptake during steady-state treadmill exercise. Berling J, Foster C, Gibson M, Doberstein S, et al. Department of Exercise and Sport Science, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, WI. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitaion, 2006 Nov-Dec;26(6):391-4.. A surefire way to sabotage a workout, gripping the rails decreases energy output and oxygen consumption, significantly reducing the effectiveness of a workout Continuous handrail support, oxygen uptake, and heart rate in women during submaximal step treadmill exercise. Christman SK, Fish AF, Bernhard L, et al. Cedarville College Department of Nursing, Box 601, Cedarville, OH. Research in Nursing Health, 2000 Feb;23(1):35-42.. 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 Kinematics of running on 'off-road' terrain. Creagh U, Reilly T, Lees A. Ergonomics, 1998 Jul;41(7):1029-33.. 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 Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings. Farrar RE, Mayhew JL, Koch AJ. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010 Apr;24(4):1034-6..
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 Effect of high-intensity interval training on cardiovascular function, VO2max, and muscular force. Astorino TA, Allen RP, Roberson DW, et al. Department of Kinesiology, California State University, San Marcos, California. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012 Jan;26(1):138-45..
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) Metabolic response of endurance athletes to training with added load. Rusko H, Bosco CC. European Journal of Applied Physiological and Occupational Physiology, 1987;56(4):412-8. The effect of weighted vest walking on metabolic responses and ground reaction forces. Puthoff ML, Darter BJ, Nielsen DH, et al. Medical Science in Sports and Exercise, 2006 Apr;38(4):746-52.. 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 The use of heart rates to monitor exercise intensity in relation to metabolic variables. Gilman MB, Wells CL. International Journal of Sports and Medicine, 1993 Aug;14(6):339-44..
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 Effects of types and intensities of background music on treadmill endurance. Copeland BL, Franks BD. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 1991 Mar;31(1):100-3..
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 Aerobic exercise is promoted when individual performance affects the group: a test of the kohler motivation gain effect. Irwin BC, Scorniaenchi J, Kerr NL, Eisenmann JC, et al. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2012 Oct;44(2):151-9..
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 Caffeine and endurance performance. Tarnopolsky MA. Sports Medicine, 1994 Aug;18(2):109-25.. 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 Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. Marcora SM, Staiano W, Manning V. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2009 Mar;106(3):857-64. Epub 2009 Jan 8.. 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 Circadian specificity in exercise training. Hill DW, Cureton KJ, Collins MA. Ergonomics, 1989 Jan;32(1):79-92.. 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.