I know that there are a lot of you out there who either hate running (and not just because it’s cardio, everyone hates cardio, you aren’t special) or physically can not run. This can be due to body composition or compromised knees, back, feet, what have you. I feel that.
Actual footage of my primary running motivation below.
My History With Running
Not that you asked, but I started running at the ripe old age of fourteen, which, as of this writing is exactly half my lifetime ago. Growing up in interior Alaska, there weren’t exactly gyms around. Taking to the dirt roads on foot was nearly the only option for fitness. (I had not been introduced to the horrors of burpees yet.)
From that time, I ran nearly every day for seven years, completing two marathons and countless shorter distance races. I have always enjoyed keeping a collection of bib numbers with a note on the back about the race. I still have them in a shoe box somewhere.
When I was twenty-one I took up other forms of training: weight lifting, plyometrics, HIIT, etc, and did not run so much. After the Marine Corps, my knees and hips started to take serious issue with long distance running. To this day I rarely exceed an eight mile go of it.
Running Is Not For Everyone
Running seems to be one of those things that you either love or hate, there really is no middle ground. Kind of like grapefruit. Personally, I love running (outdoor running that is). It allows me to analyze situations and think through solutions from a positive frame of mind. It is as much mental exercise as physical.
Now some people view running as I view swimming: universally recognized as a useful training and applicable to real life, but absolutely the bane of my existence and avoided at all costs. Why that is, I don’t know, and that’s not the point of this point. But I did want to throw out the disclaimer that swimming is one of the non-running options I will cover below.
If you want to get good at it, or find some example pool workouts though, you should consult another blog on swimming because I avoid it like the plague.
Whether you hate running, or you’re a runner facing an injury that needs alternative options to not lose their fitness, here are a plethora of alternatives and fun substitutions to add to your routine.
Why Cardio Is Important
Cardio improves endurance, blood flow and respiratory efficiency, as well as stimulates mental function and endorphin release both during and after a session. While lifting will make you strong, if does not represent the complete picture of fitness. This is especially true if you are emphasizing low volume lifts, such as power lifting, or implementing a bulking period.
It is also, you know, pretty applicable to real life in terms of getting to, or away from, places quickly.
The Two Types of Cardio
There are essentially two types of cardio: high intensity and steady state. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is best represented by the structure of cross-fit, utilizing AMRAPS (as many rounds as possible) or EMOMs (every minute on the minute) to stimulate intensity of action in a short period of time.
Such intervals can be applied to any types of exercise, however, not just Olympic lifts and the cross-fit classics. (Ie: muscle ups, kipping pull-ups, double-unders, etc). I will describe in detail how to set up your own effective high intensity workout below.
The second type of cardio is the one we are probably best familiar with: steady state. This includes long runs, and really any extended period of activity during which the heart rate stays elevated, but relatively steady. Steady state cardio sessions are typically thirty minutes or longer.
Cardio Workout Options
I’m going to address a bunch of different options to keep your heart, lungs and endurance in good shape. I would recommend trying out most of them and picking the ones you can really enjoy, and one or two that you tolerate, and rotate through them weekly or bi-weekly to keep your workouts fresh.
- Cardio Machine Recommendations
- Indoor Cardio Workout Structure Recommendations
- Outdoor Cardio Options
Alternative Cardio Machine Options
#1- The Cybex Arc Trainer
This nifty piece of equipment looks a lot like the dreaded elliptical machine, but is infinitely more functional. Its movement pattern mimics that which our bodies naturally make when we are running or sprinting, depending on how high you adjust the incline.
You can increase the resistance, but ultimately how fast you move is dependent on you, similar to running at a varying pace.
Sidebar: nothing in nature makes the motion that the elliptical machine produces, besides maybe elves. Also, in my experience, elliptifying (yes I made that up) makes my feet go numb.
#2- The Dreaded Stair Master
I know. I hated this thing too for a long time. That’s why I put “dreaded” in the title. Actually, before I hated it I was just plain scared of falling off of it. However, it is an excellent tool for non-impact cardio, and getting it done efficiently. Stepping up at a 90* angle recruits the large muscle system of primarily your glutes and hamstrings, which burns more calories in a shorter period of time.
If you have not used it before or are not comfortable on it, I recommend starting with only 5-10 minutes, and then continuing on with another cardio option to finish your workout. Gradually increasing your time on the stair master until it becomes something that you can reasonably do for 20-30 minutes.
What I love about the stair master is, again, that it is fast and effective at burning calories, so you do not have to stay on it as long, and there about a million ways to break up the monotony. Once you become confident on the machine, try side stepping to the right and the left at certain time intervals. For example, one minute walk straight, one minute side-step right, one minute side-step left, etc. Also try skipping a step, or alternating speeds (one minute level 8, one minute level 9, one minute level 10, and back to level 8, etc).
Sidebar: When you hang onto the sides you lose over 30% of the effectiveness, so you might as well just slow down and learn balance. I do keep a hand on when switching from side to side, or skipping steps, however.
I am not kidding, I have seen people crank that thing all the way to top speed and hold themselves up with locked out arms, and merely touch their toes to the steps as they go by. That will not get you shredded- that just makes you a safety hazard.
#3- The Incline Treadmill
This is probably one of my favorites. Find a treadmill that goes above 15% incline; usually they have handles at the top of them for people who hang on (not you). If none of the treadmills at your gym go above 15%, consider increasing the speed, or adding a weight vest, depending on your conditioning.
My go to is to power walk at between 15-20% incline, at a speed of between 2.5-3mph, depending on how long I am going for. This directly targets your glutes and hamstrings the whole time, similar to the stair master, but is even less impact on your knees.
You have a number of options with cycling. For the best workout, I recommend not using the recumbent bike, but if you need the back support definitely utilize that option. There are unlimited options for indoor cycling. You can pick a program that will adjust the resistance at certain intervals for you. If you just want to go at steady pace for a period of time you can do that. Or, lastly, you can create your own intervals.
Taking a spin class is a great way to learn something new and to get a workout that challenges your system in a completely different way. I enjoy that the studios are usually darkened, so I can use my pain face at will, and the music is generally on point.
(I do recommend bringing your own bicycle seat though, most spin bikes have notoriously uncomfortable seats, especially if you are not used to them.) You may also want to pick up spin shoes, although most spin classes are equipped to ride without them.
Alternative Cardio Workout Options
Also be sure to check out the five HIIT training workouts you can do with no equipment I posted in another blog. Here is a quick overview of how to set up a simple, effective workout, regardless of the exercises you want to cover.
Pick 3-5 exercises. For example: Box jumps, kettle bell swings, push-ups, wall balls and mountain climbers (I picked these because they hit every main body part.)
Pick a number of reps for each exercise; let’s say ten.
Pick a time constraint. Here are three examples: ten rounds of all five until you’re done (for time). As many rounds as possible in X number of minutes (say twenty minutes). Or, three rounds of ten reps at the top of every minute, resting the remainder of the minute, and completing all rounds of one exercise before moving on to the next (for a total of a fifteen minute workout.)
Alternative Outdoor Cardio Options
Finally, we have outdoor cardio options:
- Hiking- What goes up must come down, so if your knees are a consideration, best to tread lightly here. (See what I did there?)
- Cycling- Road or mountain cycling, remember to wear reflectors, and if you are traversing a heavily pedestrian populated area, it’s best to also have a warning bell
- Rock Climbing- Take a class before attempting, but super fun!
- Tennis- For you coordinated folks.
- Beach Volleyball- For you coordinated folks with beaches.
- Canoeing/Kayaking- Definitely situation dependent.
- Stand Up Paddleboarding- One of my favorites! Great core/upper body workout.
- Running Stairs- Technically still running, but arguably its own beast
- Swimming- Again, if you’re new to this, find an expert. And a lifeguard.
Supplementation for Cardio
Coffee is not the optimal pre-workout for doing any sort of physical training. Repeat that. Not only does it dehydrate you, it leads to a crash and burnout, and does nothing to preserve the lean muscle mass that you have worked so hard for.
SO! And I’ve said this in other posts, but I will say it again- your pre and post workout supplementation is so important to actually seeing results from all of your hard work. The saying that “abs are made in the kitchen” actually applies to everything.
The pre-workout that I use for all forms of cardio and HIIT is a blend of the 9 essential amino acids (EAAs) that your body can not make itself, but that are essential for building and not burning off lean muscle mass.
The more lean mass you have, the faster your metabolism runs, and the more calories you will burn at rest. It’s also packed with electrolytes for hydration and contains a moderate amount of caffeine for energy.
The post workout stack that I use has quick digesting protein and carbs, to flood your muscles with replacement glycogen and to build and repair the micro tears that are created during exercise. This is the #1 game changer that massively improved my recovery and progress, and it is the only product on the market with the bio-availability of nutrients on this level.
I will do a whole other blog on post workout nutrition, but if you have any questions on what you should be using for now you can message me here.
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That’s All Folks
I hope you got some fresh ideas to spice up the cardio grind! Check out the workouts section of this blog for more specific routines on all kinds of topics. If you’ve discovered that you don’t just hate running, you hate cardio in general, here’s a tank for you. Because there’s nothing that can’t be made better with a little shopping!