How to Improve Your Cardio Without Running—Ever

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

Me, though? I don’t like it very much.

Indeed, I’ve never been a fan of running. I did not enjoy it in my early teens when I was overweight (surprise!), 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. There was lifting and cardio machines. 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 a few kilometres at an aggressive pace. I felt more or less fine 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. However, one thing can 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)

HIGH IMPACT

Studies show that proper running routines can reduce knee and hip arthritis and help the health of our heart. However, running on hard surfaces in bad shoes with poor form is a quick path to injury. Many overweight people start with running because it feels like the obvious choice; we recommend against running long or hard unless you are in a normal BMI range.

If you do run, wear quality shoes which feet your feet properly, and have an expert analyze your gait for possible form corrections. Moreover, avoid pavement whenever possible, opting for more absorbing surfaces such a track loops and off-road trails. Strength training of the core and leg muscles can also fortify areas around joints.

woman runner hold her sports injured knee

BORING

Many will disagree here, but there’s no doubt 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?

If running bores you, the odds of you running hard, long, and consistent enough to see signifiant long-term improvements is low.

INEFFECTIVE

Here’s the big one: running isn’t that great of an exercise. No, really. If you’re trying to lose weight, we can burn more calories in the same time doing other stuff. Running demands time. And the transfer to other movements and area of performance are limited; cardio is up, but often at an expense of strength, power, and dynamic mobility.

(Of course, if you only care about being a better runner, run.)

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.

cycling

Any bike can get you started, but those looking to push the limits of their physical ability will want to invest in a road or cross bike, the 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, though many ride for hours on end. If your route is mostly flat, make sure you do some out-of-saddle sprints; avoid being stuck in the same position for extended periods of time.

Cycling may build leg muscles more effectively than running, especially if incline or artificial resistance is incorporated. 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. (If you enjoy what you see on your 10-kilometre run, just wait until you ride for first Century).

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

Stuck indoors during winter? Spin classes, rowing machines, and assault bikes can torture you similarly.

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, including your back and shoulders. There are pools in every city, typically at recreation centres, most of which are affordable to access. 

Don’t expect swimming to develop much lean mass in the process; it’s too low-impact and endurance-based for hypertrophy. However, it remains a full-body conditioning exercise that can increase stamina, enhance lung capacity and efficiency, 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 under $15 and if cared for will last eons. Second, it can blast the elusive calf muscle 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 springier than pavement.

READ MORE: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT JUMPING ROPE

There is of course 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 revolutions, though it’s usually wiser to perform this activity for time. Aim for a consistent cadence and light, fluid movement.

Eventually you can utilize advanced techniques, such as high-knees and double-unders, to create incredibly challenging workouts that will leave you exhausted and drenched in sweat within minutes.

CIRCUIT TRAINING

Cardio is ultimately based on your heart rate. If your heart is pounding and you’re breathing hard, you’re in a cardiovascular zone. One good way to reach—and, more importantly, sustain—this zone is by incorporating muscle actions across your entire body.

Circuit training consists of performing 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 (and then taking a full rest between. rounds). Circuit training can also be structured by time, such as exercising for 45 seconds and resting for 15 seconds for a number of stations.

The key of circuit training 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. In the example noted above, Squats fatigue your legs, but your chest and triceps can still bang out pushups. Then it’s on to back and biceps from the rows, etc.

Muscles may rest during a circuit, but the heart doesn’t get a chance.

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

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.

We recommend having a bucket nearby for those performing advanced sessions. HIIT provides s a lot of benefit in a short time but will bring your entire system to its knees.

BOXING

An ancient sport, boxing provides a full-body cardio workout that also improves many athletic components, including reaction time, agility, and hand-eye coordination. Combat sports are also known for establishing discipline, as well as other mindset-related improvements, in practitioners.

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. This spares lower body joints that could be hit hard by running. Boxing is also typically performed on softer surfaces such as mats or the bouncy canvas inside a ring. Shadowboxing at home is viable too; just sure you wear hand wraps and gloves whenever punching actual surfaces, including pads and bags.

Bonus: 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.

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