Love it or hate it, cardio workouts, such as kickboxing or bodyweight routines, are essential to overall health and critical to athletic performance. A typical cardio workout elevates the heart rate, helps improve lung efficiency, and burns a whole lot of calories and fat. And guess what? There are things you can do to get even more out of it. 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 better results.
1. Think outside the treadmill.
There are plenty of ways to up the intensity and hit your aerobic zone without running. Try this: Use light weights, like dumbbells or kettlebells, for a fast-paced strength-training session. That means minimal rest between sets (about 30 seconds) to boost your 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 / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2008, Aug.;22(3):1533-4287.
2. Stop and start.
You've probably heard the seemingly endless list of interval training pros, so we won't repeat them here. We'll simply say that there are lots of ways to incorporate HIIT—whether that's on a track, bike, or rowing machine. Whatever method or exact interval you pick, the idea remains the same: Give it your all, rest, and repeat. Effect of high-intensity interval training on cardiovascular function, VO2max, and muscular force. Astorino TA, Allen RP, Roberson DW. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2012, Apr.;26(1):1533-4287.
3. Take time for Tabata.
Tabata is a high-intensity workout that was originally designed to last just four minutes. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 1997, Feb.;28(10):0195-9131. So-called Tabata classes at your local gym might be longer, but the idea is the same: 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest, which is repeated for a total of four minutes.
4. Mix and match.
Intervals have applications that go beyond running or cycling. Combining strength training and cardio into one workout (hello, Barry's Bootcamp) will produce results in as little as eight minutes. (And while the subject has produced mixed results in studies, it probably doesn't matter too much which you do first. Concurrent resistance and aerobic exercise stimulates both myofibrillar and mitochondrial protein synthesis in sedentary middle-aged men. Donges CE, Burd NA, Duffield R. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 2012, Apr.;112(12):1522-1601. Aerobic exercise alters skeletal muscle molecular responses to resistance exercise. Lundberg TR, Fernandez-Gonzalo R, Gustafsson T. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2013, Jun.;44(9):1530-0315. ) Luckily, you don't have to hit up a boutique gym to make this happen. Instead of sprinting and stopping, do a bodyweight exercise during your rest period. Both aerobic endurance and strength training programmes improve cardiovascular health in obese adults. Schjerve IE, Tyldum GA, Tjønna AE. Clinical science (London, England : 1979), 2008, Dec.;115(9):1470-8736.
5. Carry it.
This one works especially well at the grocery store. Rather than heading straight for the cart, carry all of your items in a basket as you walk the store. Sounds minor, but carrying any additional weight while walking or running has been shown to improve intensity, recovery, and recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Metabolic response of endurance athletes to training with added load. Rusko H, Bosco CC. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 1987, Oct.;56(4):0301-5548. The effect of weighted vest walking on metabolic responses and ground reaction forces. Puthoff ML, Darter BJ, Nielsen DH. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2006, Jun.;38(4):0195-9131. Just be sure to keep an eye on mechanics—even a few extra pounds can change your form.
6. Add some speed.
Have a need for speed? Running on a treadmill may seem like a drag, but since the belt helps with leg turnover, there are few places you can go as fast. Plus it's is a great tool for promoting consistency and pace per mile. Hamstring muscle kinematics during treadmill sprinting. Thelen DG, Chumanov ES, Hoerth DM. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2005, Dec.;37(1):0195-9131. (And yeah, sometimes proving you can run a lot faster than you thought you could.)
7. Up the incline.
As you're cranking up the treadmill's speed, don’t forget to adjust the incline. As the belt gets steeper, so will your heart rate, sending your calorie burn through the roof. Elite long sprint running: a comparison between incline and level training sessions. Slawinski J, Dorel S, Hug F. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2008, Oct.;40(6):0195-9131. 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 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. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2007, Nov.;21(3):1064-8011.
8. Let it go.
Of the handrail, that is. Holding onto the side or top 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. Journal of cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, 2007, Mar.;26(6):0883-9212. It's a surefire way to sabotage a workout, decreasing energy output and oxygen consumption and 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. Research in nursing & health, 2000, Mar.;23(1):0160-6891. Go hands free then pump arms from waist to chest, not across the body (which can slow you down).
9. Run to the beat.
Pick something with a quick beat—we're talking 120 to 140 beats per minute—to get the most out of your cardio workout. Matching your cadence to a beat has been shown to alleviate perceived physiological effort. In other words, the right music can make a tough workout feel easier. The Power of Auditory-Motor Synchronization in Sports: Enhancing Running Performance by Coupling Cadence with the Right Beats. Blood R, Nijssen M, van der Kamp J, Roerdink M. PLoS One. 2013; 8(8): e70758. It's also been shown to improve performance, increase motivation, and put distractions (like negative thoughts and fatigue) on pause. Effects of types and intensities of background music on treadmill endurance. Copeland BL, Franks BD. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 1991, Sep.;31(1):0022-4707.
10. 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 and immediately up the intensity. Plus there's a growing body of research that indicates working out in nature can have serious mental health benefits. And if that's not enough, navigating uneven ground, like sand or rocks, can up your athleticism and improve stabilization muscles. Kinematics of running on 'off-road' terrain. Creagh U, Reilly T, Lees A. Ergonomics, 1998, Aug.;41(7):0014-0139.
11. Add some kettlebell work.
When it comes to cardio training, kettlebells are a better bet than traditional dumbbells. The all-mighty kettlebell swing has been shown to improve oxygen uptake, max heart rate, and functional performance. Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings. Farrar RE, Mayhew JL, Koch AJ. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2010, Jul.;24(4):1533-4287.
12. Get around.
Create a circuit training workout that stacks up a fast-paced combination of bodyweight cardio 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. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2012, Apr.;26(1):1533-4287.
13. Go high tech.
The trick to running a faster 5K or finding motivation to crush your next workout could be in an app. We love Motion Traxx, along with the 38 other fitness apps here. Had enough of your smartphone? Pick up a heart rate monitor or consider a GPS watch that will help track distance, pace, and the number of calories you burn while running. The use of heart rates to monitor exercise intensity in relation to metabolic variables. Gilman MB, Wells CL. International journal of sports medicine, 1993, Nov.;14(6):0172-4622.
14. Enjoy some coffee.
Fact: A pre-workout dose of caffeine can provide that needed pick-me-up, improve endurance, and even increase athletic power in the short-term. Effect Of Coffee And Caffeine Ingestion On Resistance Exercise Performance. Richardson DL, Clarke ND. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2016, Feb.;():1533-4287. Caffeine improves muscular performance in elite Brazilian Jiu-jitsu athletes. Diaz-Lara FJ, Del Coso J, García JM. European journal of sport science, 2016, Feb.;():1536-7290. Caffeine attenuates decreases in leg power without increased muscle damage Caffeine, Leg Power and Muscle Damage. Ribeiro BG, Morales AP, Sampaio-Jorge F. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2016, Jan.;():1533-4287. Just be careful not to overdo it: In most studies, subjects were given relatively low doses of caffeine (3-5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight). Depending on your size and the potency of your coffee, this translates to one cup or less.
15. Get social.
Building a workout routine around team sports, group activities, or fitness classes can boost performance during aerobic exercise. Even if you can't get to a class, a workout partner can 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. Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 2013, Feb.;44(2):1532-4796. Not sure what to do? Check out our 29 kick-ass partner exercise ideas.
16. Play the right mind games.
Mental fatigue can be the downfall of any workout. Studies have shown that if the brain is tired, performance also suffers. Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. Marcora SM, Staiano W, Manning V. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 2009, Jan.;106(3):8750-7587. Reenergize yourself with a new running route, fitness class, or workout routine. Or try one of these other options for breaking through a fitness plateau.
17. Time it right.
Research suggests that working out first thing in the morning is best for creating and sticking to an exercise habit. Circadian specificity in exercise training. Hill DW, Cureton KJ, Collins MA. Ergonomics, 1989, Apr.;32(1):0014-0139. However, not everyone is a morning person (though there are ways to become one). The good news is that when it comes to killing a cardio workout, any time is better than never (in fact, there are even surprising benefits of working out at night).
Originally published October 2012. Updated April 2016.