5 ways to spice up your cardio

By now, we all know a combination of cardio and strength training is the best way to achieve and maintain a lean, healthy weight. However, a majority of recreational exercisers hate doing cardio. Many of us find it too boring and monotonous and just doesn’t yield the same high as a strength training session. Although gyms and health clubs are packed with tons of treadmills, only a select few, particularly avid runners, use them regularly. Elliptical machines, stair climber and bicycles are also utilized frequently by fitness enthusiasts but their usage pale in comparison to that of the treadmill. It’s important to point out the dislike associated with cardio is steady-state cardio, i.e. being on a cardio machine for a long time. Most people just don’t like the idea of being stuck on a treadmill or elliptical for 30 minutes.

So what exactly is cardio?

Simply put, cardio is any activity that is rhythmic in nature. The idea is to have the activity rhythmic enough to challenge the heart. Based on that theory, jumping jacks, walking up a flight of stairs, double dutch, and even gardening would be considered as cardio activities. All of the above will raise the heart rate up and require a moderate amount of effort and exertion. The heart rate and its beats per minute (bpm) is perhaps the most common way to measure how challenging a cardio activity is or any activity for that matter. This usually requires several formulas in which certain numbers are plugged in, with the most popular being the ‘220-age method‘ multiplied by a percentage. However, I believe the RPE scale is a better assessment since it takes into account the feel of the individual. You know when you’re working too hard, moderately or with little to no effort.

For those “I hate cardio” folks, there are a plethora of non-traditional cardio options you can consider. Here are 5 good ones:

Circuit Training: This is actually one of the most popular ways of training amongst fitness enthusiasts and has been around for quite some time. Not only is it a good way to save time and get more bang for your buck, it provides both aerobic and anaerobic benefits. You alternate between a minimum of 2 exercises without resting (also known as ‘super-setting’) , before resting briefly and repeating cycle for at least 2 more sets. It’s important that exercises selected for a circuit don’t require maximum effort and should allow for 8-15 reps at an RPE of between 11 and 15.  Below is an example of a sample circuit training program: Perform the exercises marked ‘a’ and ‘b’ consecutively without resting. Rest for 90 seconds after exercise ‘b’ then repeat for 2 more sets before moving on to the second circuit.

1a. Barbell Squat

1b. Push Ups

2a. Jumping Jacks

2b. Burpees

3a. Plank

3b. Side Bridge

HIIT: For those who want a quick cardio session rather than the usual steady-state stuff, High Intensity Interval Training is just that. HIIT gained mainstream several years ago and is a staple in many people’s cardio programs today. It is defined as alternating between bouts of high intensity and low intensity. The heart rate stays high enough during the ‘work’ portion so much that it doesn’t drop too low during the ‘recovery’ portion to yield sufficient fat burning. According to an ACSM study, HIIT has a number of benefits including increasing metabolism, burning more fat than steady state cardio, lowering blood pressure and shrinking abdominal/trunk fat at a faster rate.

There’s no ideal HIIT protocol but a sample HIIT workout I often use and recommend to my clients is running 1 minute hard followed by 1 minute easy/recovery, and repeating for 8 – 10 rounds. If you’re a beginner or your cardio conditioning isn’t as high, you can try 1 minute hard followed my 90 seconds easy/recovery.

TABATA:  An adapted version of HIIT is the Tabata protocol, popularized by exercise science professor, Izumi Tabata in the mid 90’s. Unlike HIIT, which is mostly running and in some cases cycling, Tabata uses whole body movements and exercises done at moderate to high intensity for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest. This process is performed for a total of 8 rounds or 4 minutes. More than one exercise can be used for Tabata training or simply just one. For example you can set up 8 different stations for each round of Tabata, go through all 8 stations, rest 90 seconds and repeat for 2 more rounds. A single movement can also be used for Tabata providing that movement engages and challenges the whole body.

Some effective exercises for Tabata training are kettle bell swings, kettle bell snatch,  jump squats, high knees, burpees, push press, medicine ball slams, battle rope slams/waves, mountain climbers, sandbag cleans, to name a few.

Bootcamp: This is one of the premier methods of training, dating back to the 80’s. The early days of bootcamp utilized mostly your bodyweight. Exercises like jumping jacks, mountain climbers and burpees were birthed by bootcamp training. Perhaps the greatest perk about boot camp is it can be done just about anywhere, even in your living room. Nowadays, props like medicine balls, battle ropes, stairs and kettle bells are being incorporated for a more effective, fat-burning workout. There isn’t a preferred routine or format when it comes to bootcamp. It has been tried and tested over time and will continue to be effective.

There are thousands of bootcamp workouts to select from and even more bootcamp studios you can attend for a class. It doesn’t matter what you opt for because bootcamp isn’t fading anytime soon.

Jumping Rope: Just like bootcamp, jumping rope has been around for years and also demands a great deal from the body. Forget about the fact that you have to swing this light piece of string over your head and under your feet, simply jumping off the ground repeatedly is a surefire way to get your heart rate up. Everything from your arms, legs, core and trunk stabilizers are used while jumping rope. Most fitness enthusiasts use jump rope as a warm up before a big workout. But it can be utilized solely for a cardio workout. Other folks who jump rope don’t do it long enough or fail to do it well enough to yield benefits. Keep in mind that although the forward jump is the most basic and common jump, there are other jumps that can also be done. Examples are side-to-side jump, backward jump, single-leg jump-left, single-leg jump-right, double jump and  alternating jump to name a few.

Consider this basic jump rope routine: forward jump for 30 – 60 seconds; rest 60 seconds and repeat for a total of 10 rounds. More advanced people can jump for 60 seconds and rest for 30 – 60 seconds.

How & why I became a runner.

Through the years, I was never too fond of traditional cardio. Science and theory has shown that resistance training complimented with cardio and a healthy diet must be performed routinely to reap the maximal perks of exercise. I hated cardio days early on in my fitness career. In fact, I dreaded them so much I would find excuses not to go. It just doesn’t have the same thrill as bench pressing, deadlifting, shoulder pressing and doing  biceps curl. There’s something more mentally challenging and exhausting about running on a treadmill, cycling on a bike and pedaling on the elliptical than doing strength training exercises. I could spend over an hour lifting weights but 20 minutes of cardio and I’m ready to kill myself! Despite my dislike for traditional cardio, I never stopped doing them.

Then something happened one Sunday morning in the summer of 2014.

The weather was picture perfect. Warm and breezy but not too humid. It was too nice of a day to stay in so I decided to go running at a nearby park that had an outdoor track. I ran 3 miles that day and I remember feeling like I just conquered something big. My endurance wasn’t very good, my lungs got really heavy after mile 1 and I panted heavily. But I still enjoyed the process of finishing. I didn’t think I would do it again but the following Sunday morning, there I was at the same park running again. After a couple of weeks, I increased my mileage to 4. I started to enjoy the feeling of having a goal in mind and going after it. Circling around the park track a number of times began to get boring so a couple of months later, I took my run to the FDR pathway along the East River.

Fastforward to 2015 and I recently competed and participated in the Airbnb Brooklyn half marathon, my first half marathon.

image1With my brother and sister at the finish of the Airbnb Brooklyn Half  Marathon.

Having participated in several races over the last calendar year and many more to come, I now consider myself an avid runner. Strength training will always be near and dear to my heart and my number one passion. But running has become a competitive source of joy for me and I plan to exploit it for as long as I can. There’s a unique challenge that running presents that isn’t quite like that of attempting a Deadlift 1RM or squatting for reps. The latter requires all-out, maximal exertion and power which last for about 90 seconds followed by an extended rest period. With running, there is no rest and there’s no use of force and power. The ability to get from the start to the finish without stopping is a mental challenge unlike no other. Being able to pace yourself so you can finish 4 miles without getting too tired after 2 miles is a unique challenge that many recreational activities don’t have. Basketball and football are our country’s two biggest sports and I happen to a be a big fan of both. The athletes who play those sports are highly conditioned and some of the best in the world. Yet I’d argue that many of them will struggle in a long-distance run.

Though I’ve only been a distance runner for a year, I’ve learned a whole lot. Here are a few of my takeaways:

  • You can muscle your way through a strength training working set but not through running. The ability to maintain a certain pace on a distance run without getting too tired requires mental, intestinal fortitude.
  • The beauty of running a long distance is knowing that there’s a short-term goal in mind : the finish line. This provides more of an incentive to embrace the challenge of the journey.
  • Many runners will stop periodically to catch their breath before going again. The urge not to stop at all is the key. This is the part of running that I personally find most enjoyable and a challenge I gladly embrace.
  • For first time runners, gradually increase your mileage ever week and month. For example, run 2 miles for 2 to 4 weeks before adding another 1 or 2 miles. I made the mistake of increasing my mileage too quickly early on and ended up with some minor aches and pain. As a general rule of thumb for beginners, add no more than a mile or 2 every month but always listen to your body and know when to take a step back if need be.
  • Good, running shoes are a big deal! Sneakers with high, durable heel cushion support are generally the best, though some seasoned runners run with flat sole sneakers. I battled with shin splints and other ankle aches and pain early on and still do today. In some cases you may need insoles or orthotics especially if you pronate. Again, pay attention to your body and see how your running shoes make you feel. As a rule of thumb, replace running shoes every 300 to 500 miles.
  • Stretching and strengthening the muscles of the glutes, calves, hamstrings and quads are very important for efficient running. Those are the muscles that are chiefly responsible for moving the lower limbs during a run. Soft tissue work like foam rolling and using a massage stick on the aforementioned muscles is recommended also.
  • Rest, diet and recovery are just as important as stretching and strengthening. The body must be feed with sufficient complex carbs and energy drinks to supply stored fuel during a run. Longer distance runs (above 6 miles) require more disciplined attention to detail because of the amount of stress the body will have to endure. Sufficient sleep and food the night before, pre-race meal and during-race energy gels/fluids will impact a runner’s performance. The days I’ve had my bad runs were usually preeeded by nights and days when I didn’t get enough sleep or eat enough of the right nutrients.
  • Aches, pain and injuries inevitably comes with the territory. Every runner has had their share of them. The repetitive stress the ankle, knee and hip joints have to endure will eventually cause some discomfort. As far as muscles, the hamstring is the most common site of injury. However the body adapts over time and becomes better equipped to handle the stress going forward. In the event of a running-related injury, take your time to heal fully and don’t risk returning too quickly.
  • Schedule days for cross-training (swimming, elliptical, soul cycle, rowing, etc). This allows the joints and muscles of your legs to recover while still being used at a low-to-moderate intensity.

Some people will never fully embrace running and I can’t say that I blame them. But then again, I used to be one of those people who hated running. Meanwhile I’m planning on running the 2016 NYC marathon.

A year ago, no way would I have ever imagined myself running a half marathon.

Once you control your mind, you can conquer your body.

Anything is possible.

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