How to Improve Your Cardio Without Running—Ever

If you enjoy running, power to you. Keep on trucking.

Me, though? I hate it.

I’ve always disliked running. I did not enjoy it in my early teens when I was overweight, and to my dismay I still did not enjoy it after I lost most of my excess fat by the time I hit college.

Regardless, I was committed to my craft. So I finished every gym session with a run on the treadmill. I knew cardio was essential to athletic performance. But nobody had ever told me there were alternatives.

One day, I tore the meniscus in my left knee. It was not a glorious injury: I was on a treadmill, slogging through kilometres at an aggressive pace. I felt relatively normal after, but the next morning—and for several weeks following—I could barely walk.

That was years ago. My knee is fine now. I’ve hiked big mountains and played sports and pushed my physical boundaries in many ways. But one thing always resurrects that old soreness in my knee with unwavering consistency: running.

Running is a high-impact activity that places a lot of stress on the knee joint, especially if you’re overweight or don’t have a strength program to build up the leg muscles that surround it. And while some of us truly enjoy running—and know the proper training methods and techniques to stay reasonably safe doing it—many others run simply because…

Why You Run (Even Though You Hate It)

It’s obvious. We run because we know we can, and because everybody else seems to be doing it, and because it burns calories. Running is cardio, after all. Don’t we all want better cardio?

It’s free. A strong appeal to running is the low cost of it. Roads and sidewalks are everywhere, and you don’t necessarily need fancy shoes or shorts. You just go.

It’s all we know. Beginners don’t understand cardio beyond the basics—which is fine, but it can make us hesitant to try other things because we don’t know how to get started or how to measure progress. Everything else appears more complicated than running.

Why You Shouldn’t Run (But Still Do Cardio)

It’s high-impact. Study after study shows the long-term damage running can do. Again, this is particularly pronounced if you’re overweight, run in bad shoes or with improper form, or overdo it. An injury could put you off running—and possibly any intense physical activity—for a while.

woman runner hold her sports injured knee

It’s boring. Again, many will disagree here, but there’s a large chunk of folks who consider the act of running a chore and nothing more. Can a weight loss or cardio improvement program really be effective and sustainable if you consider your primary activity dull and monotonous?

It’s ineffective. Here’s the big one: running kind of sucks. No, really. It doesn’t burn a crazy amount of calories. It takes a long time (a 10-minute run is not going to help you). And it doesn’t offer any additional benefits beyond a slight cardio boost; you get better at running but improve little else with regards to your athletic performance.

The Better Cardio Alternatives to Running

Cycling. Riding a bike can be as simple as running, except that it’s not a weight-bearing exercise. Instead of contending with gravity, your main battle is with air resistance. This takes virtually all the stress off your joints, letting your muscles power you through space and time.

Any bike can get you started, but those looking to push the limits of their physical ability will want to invest in a true road bike, the aerodynamic efficiencies of which allow for higher speeds over longer periods. If you’re on hilly terrain or duelling strong winds, you can get a great workout inside of half an hour. If your route is mostly flat, I suggest cycling at a moderate-to-intense pace for an hour or more to reap serious benefits.

cycling

Cycling will build your quadriceps and hamstrings more effectively than running, especially if incline is incorporated (pedals with clips or straps will boost hamstring involvement). And if you can’t afford a bike or don’t have any routes near you, go to war on the stationary bike at your gym or try a nearby spinning class, which seem to be everywhere these days. I do believe that outdoor cycling offers the most benefits, but anything is better than nothing.

Bonus tip: find a riding buddy to double the fun.

Swimming. Like cycling, aqua sports have a primary resistance other than gravity (in this case, water). Again, this spares yours joints. And swimming taxes more muscles of the body than cycling, such as your back and shoulders. There are pools in every city, most of which are affordable. Or find a fitness centre whose membership includes pool access.

Don’t expect swimming to develop much lean mass in the process; it’s too low-impact and endurance-based for hypertrophy. But the activity is a full-body conditioning exercise that can increase stamina, enhance breathing technique, and improve shoulder mobility.

Jump rope. Jumping rope is one of my all-time favourite cardio exercises for many reasons. First, it’s incredibly cheap—a decent rope can be found for $10 and will last eons. Second, it blasts the calves in a way that cycling and swimming don’t. Third, there are tons of ways to mix it up so workouts are never the same. And while it is a gravity-based exercise, the stress on your knees is considerably lower than running, especially if done on a surface softer than pavement.

There is nothing wrong with the most basic act of jumping rope: hop up with both feet while whipping the rope in revolutions around your body. You can count revs, though it’s easier to perform this activity for time. Eventually you can utilize advanced techniques, such as high-knees and double-unders, to create some incredibly challenging workouts that will leave you exhausted in a matter of minutes.

Circuit training. The thing about cardio is that it’s based on your heart rate and your oxygen intake. If your heart is pounding and you’re breathing hard, you’re in a cardio zone. One good way to reach—and, more importantly, sustain—this zone is by incorporating muscle actions across your entire body.

Circuit training is a series of different exercises, typically four to eight, completed in rapid succession. For example, you might perform 20 squats, 10 pushups, 15 dumbbell deadlifts, and 10 bent-over rows, taking only a few seconds to catch your breath between exercises. Circuit training can also be structured by time, such as exercising for 45 seconds and resting for 15 seconds for a dozen or more rounds.

The key here is that, by utilizing all the muscles in your body, you can perform more overall reps and take shorter rests, thus keeping your heart rate elevated.

HIIT. High-intensity interval training is similar to circuit training but, as the name suggests, is generally performed at a higher intensity. Sets are often shorter—20 or even 10 seconds in duration—while rest times rarely exceed 30 seconds. HIIT workouts are often shorter than circuit-based workouts because of the intensity of exercises, which can include sprinting and burpees performed at near-maximal effort for the whole set.

HIIT offers an excellent way to improve cardio and muscular conditioning in a short amount of time. And, depending on the program (and your nutrition), this type of workout also holds higher potential to build muscle than other forms of cardio.

Boxing. I have been boxing for several years and cannot preach enough the benefits of this sport, particularly for those with or looking to avoid knee problems. Boxing is a full-body cardio workout that also improves many athletic components, including reaction time, agility, and hand-eye coordination.

boxing2

The higher impact components of the sport (read: punching) occur in the upper body, and while your feet are constantly moving, it’s through smaller and less dramatic movements than during running. Boxing is also typically performed on softer surfaces such as mats or the bouncy canvas inside a ring.

Boxing training at gyms often incorporates jump rope, circuit training, and HIIT workouts, making it a great option to bolster all-around athleticism.

In Conclusion

This post is not to tell runners to stop running (although I encourage everyone to cross-train). It’s to tell people who hate running that there are other ways to improve their cardio.

Here’s how I know you can improve your cardio—and even your running—without performing that boring, repetitive chore of an activity.

In 2016, I ran my first 10k. I did so by logging zero training miles. I clocked about 51 minutes—nothing impressive, but not terrible. Exactly a year later, I ran the same route. I had not ran since that first 10k, but I’d been doing almost everything mentioned above, including cycling and boxing and HIIT. My time? 43 minutes.

In just one year, my 10k time had improved a whopping 19%—without clocking a single kilometre.

Find the cardio exercise that suits your budget, that fits your schedule, and that you enjoy doing. And when you do: keep on trucking.

 

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