Why Do We Hate Cardio? Check Out All the Options Available

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Peter Connelly runs on a treadmill in the cardio room at the Hanscom Fitness and Sports Center Jan. 10. (U.S.A.F. photo by Mark Herlihy/ 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs)

You may not like cardiovascular activity when you limit yourself to running long, slow distances, but running and walking are not the only ways to experience the many benefits of "doing cardio."

Face it: If you can bench press a truck but cannot walk up or down a flight of stairs without requiring oxygen, you need to add in cardiovascular activity. If you are military, police, a firefighter or EMT, you should train like your buddy's life depends on it. That may mean having some strength, as well as endurance.

Here are ways to get into better cardiovascular conditioning, with tips on some of the many benefits you should consider if you are in a tactical profession.

Mix It Up

You are not limited to spending an hour on a treadmill or other cardio machine to get the benefits of improving heart function or the added calorie burn for weight loss. Next time you are lifting weights, take a 3- to 5-minute break and add in some form of cardio (bike, elliptical, row, run or walk) in between sets of a circuit.

These 3-5 minutes can be intense with a Tabata-type interval (20-second sprint/10 seconds easy), or 30 seconds hard/30 seconds easy. Or you can just see what distance you can cover in that time.

You can also just do a nice and steady pace cardio, keeping the heart rate down to 100-130 beats per minute. You may find that, as you get into better cardio conditioning, you can place this easy set in between lift sets as an active recovery period for heavy lifting.

Don't Limit Yourself

Added cardio at the end of a resistance-training session can help you burn more calories and improve lung function. Cardio can also decrease your risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

Adding cardio after lifting weights will help you build more endurance in the weight room, as well helping you raise work volume by increasing set and repetition ranges. Your ability to recover your normal heart rate will also be faster especially if you vary the methods of cardio options.

For instance:

For three days of the week (or more), mix in ALL of the following options of cardio activity:

1. PT and Run Workout

Run or bike for a set time or distance that takes about 2 minutes, and immediately follow it up with your split routine (upper or lower body exercises). Mixing in pull-ups, push-ups, plank poses or knee-ups on upper-body days (along with weighted activities) with short, fast cardio events is a great upper-body day mix.

Do the same for lower body with short runs, stairs or hill sprints, or high-resistance biking for 2-minute sets mixed with squats, lunges or jumps. Carry weight in a weight vest or backpack on some of these days as well. This type of cardio can help improve bone density and burn more calories than just cardio alone,

2. Longer, Steady-Paced Workout

Go for a long period of time doing some form of cardio for 40-60 minutes. Every 10 minutes, stop and mix in some exercises of your choice.

You can take a day to focus on core activities or mix this with another upper body or lower body day of the week workout schedule. These types of workouts can help you reduce stress and sleep better at night. On stressful days, going for an easy cardio day is very beneficial for your mental health and stress mitigation.

3. Sprint and Agility Day

Build up to faster and shorter events such as running, biking, elliptical or rowing for 10- to 20-second sets of really fast effort. Make sure you warm up and build up over several sets before you push yourself at 100% effort, especially in running. Many pull muscles in their hips and hamstrings if they're not used to sprinting full speed.

4. Fun Challenges

See how quickly you can burn 100 calories on any cardio machine. You will find this is equivalent to sprinting a mile type effort. If you can burn 100 calories on the elliptical or bike in under 5 to 7 minutes, that is really good. That kind of high-level cardio is tough, but you will find a way to challenge yourself with this simple 100-calorie event. You can warm up and cool down with a 100-calorie cardio event as well.

When you mix more options and methods into your training week, you can actually work all the energy systems that will make you a better performer in daily living challenges and other events you enjoy doing (aka strength training). This will also contribute to general health and wellness.

For the tactical athlete -- member of the military, police, firefighter or EMT services -- there really is no option for you to NOT perform some kind of cardio activity. Depending on the physical demands of your job, you may or may not need to practice all of the cardio options, but doing some form will help you in many other ways that your workouts may be neglecting.

In tactical fitness, you have to get good at all the elements of fitness: strength/power, speed/agility, endurance/muscle stamina, flexibility/mobility and grip. You cannot afford to skip or eliminate any of the above in order to get great at any one element.

An added 15- to 20-minute cardio activity (run, walk, swim, bike, elliptical, row, ruck, stair step, etc.) is not going to hurt your performance in the gym if lifting is your thing. In other words, you won't "lose your gains." You might burn a few hundred calories that can be easily made up with a spoonful of peanut butter.

The same holds true for runners or triathletes. A 15- to 20-minute strength session in the gym is not going to ruin your pace.

Whether you are a gym rat, triathlete or non-exerciser, getting a good balance of resistance training (weights/calisthenics/bands/TRX) and short and sweet cardiovascular activity is helpful for you now with your job, as well as later as you age when life catches up with your bad habits.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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