Running is still the most commonly associated activity with cardio—but, for many, it’s not the optimal route. Running, especially on older treadmills and pavement outside, can be hard on the joints, especially the knees and hips. And while many find it quite enjoyable, for others running is a total bore, which means they are less likely to stick to their cardio routine. And a harsh truth is that the more in need of cardio you are—that is to say, the more overweight you may be—the tougher running is on your body.
I once ran for cardio. I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it. Then one day I tore the meniscus in my left knee running, which negatively impacted my training for months. Thankfully I recovered well, but I still vowed to get my cardio gains through other methods.
There are some benefits to running: it’s basically free, and can be done pretty much anywhere, anytime. But it doesn’t build strength or muscle, and it’s hard on joints. If cardio is about sustaining an elevated heart rate, can we not look elsewhere?
Five Superior Forms of Cardio
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. Cycling, especially uphill, will build your quadriceps and hamstrings more effectively than running, while out-of-saddle efforts will train the glutes and calves as well. And if you can’t afford a bike or don’t have any routes near you, go to war on the Wattbike or Assault Bike at your gym or try a nearby spinning class.
Bonus tip: find a riding buddy to double the fun.
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 can’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 softer surface—which, as an added bonus, makes the activity more challenging.
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.
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.
Boxing. Boxing is a full-body cardio workout that also improves many athletic components, including reaction time, agility, and hand-eye coordination. 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.
Circuit and HIIT 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. By utilizing all the muscles in your body, you can perform more overall reps and take shorter rests, thus keeping your heart rate elevated. That’s the idea behind The Gauntlet.
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 while rest times rarely exceed 30 seconds. HIIT workouts are often shorter overall than circuit-based workouts, too, because of the intensity of exercises, which are performed at near-maximal effort for the whole set. HIIT, which is also incorporated in The Gauntlet, offers an excellent way to improve cardio and muscular conditioning in a short amount of time.
This post is not to tell runners to stop running (although I encourage everyone to cross-train, including pure runners). 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: stay committed and stay consistent.