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.
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.
3. Take time for Tabata.
Tabata is a high-intensity workout that was originally designed to last just four minutes. 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. ) 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.
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. 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. (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. 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).
8. Let it go.
Of the handrail, that is. Holding onto the side or top of the treadmill does more harm than good. It’s a surefire way to sabotage a workout, decreasing energy output and oxygen consumption and significantly reducing the effectiveness of a workout. 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. It’s also been shown to improve performance, increase motivation, and put distractions (like negative thoughts and fatigue) on pause.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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).