Customize Your Cardio

Cardio workouts are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Here’s how to make your program work better for you.

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Look around the gym and you’ll see some fairly typical patterns of how people work the cardio machines. Some folks chug along at a moderate pace for what seems like forever, while others speed through a fast-paced workout in less than 15 minutes. Still others take it pretty easy and hop off the elliptical looking practically as fresh as when they started.

Your approach to cardio fitness should be based on your unique health goals and priorities, says Len Kravitz, PhD, coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. There are, however, certain components that virtually every cardio program should include.

In each of the typical cardio routines that follow, we point out what’s working well (especially in the context of specific preferences and fitness priorities), and what types of customization or variety-promoting tweaks would be likely to produce even better results.

Routine No. 1

Light cardio on the elliptical three times a week.
You do 20 to 45 minutes and don’t often break more than a slight sweat.

What’s working: “If you were sedentary a month to six weeks ago, you’re doing exactly what you should be doing,” says Melinda Sothern, PhD, a professor and researcher at Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health in New Orleans. “You’re on your way to becoming more metabolically fit [burning more calories and more fat], a process that will take at least six to 12 weeks. You’re building a base that will allow you to go longer or harder.”

Kravitz concurs. “The benefits of this kind of program include management of blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and overall prevention of coronary disease,” he says. “People following this routine will begin achieving some of those benefits, which is to say, they’re on the road to better health.”

If your fitness goal is just to get moving, this routine is great. A steady-state workout like this can help you build a foundation on which you can become even more active. (For more on fitness progressions, see “Small Victories” in the April 2008 archives.

What might work better: If you’ve been following this routine for more than 12 weeks, your body will become accustomed to your exercise output, and your fitness gains will begin to stall. You can continue to make strides by increasing the frequency, intensity or duration of your workouts. That is, you can add another workout session to your routine (or two, ideally), push your pace with interval training (start by simply interspersing several short bursts of speed lasting 10 to 30 seconds) or add time to your existing sessions (no more than 10 percent per week).

“We know from training research that to improve at all levels of fitness you must change the stimulus,” says Kravitz. “Mix it up with slow days, fast days, interval-training days, and training on different pieces of cardio equipment, such as the elliptical, treadmill, stairclimber and bike.”

Gary Miller, an exercise science professor at Wake Forest University, suggests also adding weight training to your regimen. “Even one day a week can be sufficient for a beginner to experience a lot of improvement,” he says. Why? Because strength training, like interval training, improves the function of mitochondria (“power plants”) in cells, meaning you’ll burn fat and calories at higher rates.

Routine No. 2

Daily, hourlong treadmill workouts.
You work at a moderately high intensity the whole time.

What’s working: “One major benefit of this program is endurance,” says Paul Robbins, the metabolic specialist for Athlete’s Performance, a training facility in Tempe, Ariz. “If you want to run a race at the speed you run on the treadmill, you’ll be able to.”

Some other positives: This level of challenge and impact helps ward off muscle and bone loss, and keeps your fitness level high enough for pickup basketball games and 10Ks.

What might work better: You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect the same results. Your muscles become more efficient at handling the work output, which means your heart rate stays lower and you burn fewer calories and less fat.

Plus, the burnout potential — both physical and mental — associated with this routine is high. “Try different types of training that don’t work your muscles in the same way,” suggests Kravitz. “That might include rec sports, rock climbing, lifting weights or swimming laps. Cross-training solves the overuse injury problem.” As with the first routine, adding a couple of interval-training sessions a week can help vary your heart rate. And working very hard for short bursts will help you build a higher tolerance for lactic acid and train the body to reuse it for energy, thus improving your cardio endurance. (For more on heart-rate training, see “A Better Way to Burn Fat” in the January/February 2007 archives.) Finally, taking at least one day a week off for recovery might net you better fitness gains.

Routine No. 3

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) or Tabata workouts three times a week.
You rarely spend more than 20 minutes on a treadmill or stationary bike. After warming up, you alternate between going at max or near-max pace and grabbing brief recoveries.

What’s working: This type of workout has a lot going for it. First, it’s incredibly time efficient. Second, it can produce dramatic fitness gains, triggering mitochondria development and metabolism-boosting effects: For hours or even days after your workout, you’ll burn more calories and fat than usual. What’s more, you’re training your body to perform better and longer, at both aerobic and anaerobic capacity. You’ll feel less tired and winded during any activity.

What might work better: Three words: Less is more. Overdoing it with any sort of high-intensity routine is a sure path to overuse injuries and overtraining. For the Tabata Protocol, once or twice a week is ideal; more can produce diminishing returns or even set you back because your body may not fully recover between workouts. (For more about Tabata, check out “The Tabata Tune-Up” in the March 2008 archives, and for more about HIIT, see “HIIT It!”)

Robbins recommends balancing this sort of super-high-intensity work with moderate- and low-intensity days, as well as weight training. He says an optimal cardio week includes two low-intensity days, two moderate-intensity days and two interval days, with slower-paced sessions lasting about 40 minutes, and faster sessions no more than 20. If you also lift weights, the slower cardio sessions can last closer to 20 minutes.

For his part, Kravitz says he can make good arguments for any of the previously mentioned routines — just not in isolation from each other. That’s why he does workouts mimicking all three of them (easy, moderate and intense) each week.

“Don’t narrow your options,” he advises. “Varying your stimulus and intensity will offer the greatest benefits — whatever your fitness goals.”

Bob Condor is a Seattle-based health and fitness writer.

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