The Ultimate Guide to Cardio Workouts

Updated: May 26

Cardio workouts, tips, and more.

What comes to mind you first think of cardio? Boring, mind-numbing, and not fun?


What if I told you cardio doesn't have to be those things? What if I said cardio can keep you interested, help you lose fat, and get you in fantastic shape.


Well it can. You've got to find the style and type that works for you


Background


Let me give you a bit of a background about my relationship and experience with cardiovascular training.


As a young kid, I played soccer and school sports, such as cross country running, basketball, and volleyball. Then as I got older I stuck to just soccer and cross country/track and field, before eventually shifting to triathlon.


For those of you who may have never heard of triathlon, it consists of a swim, bike, and run continuously over various distances.




This is me at the end of my first half ironman. A half ironman is composed of a 1.2 mile (1.9km) swim, 56-mile bike (90km), and 13.1-mile run (21km).


The training involved for a triathlon is heavily based on cardiovascular endurance and aerobic fitness.


My previous sports of soccer and cross country were also very cardio heavy and required intense training of the cardiovascular system.


As you can see I have a lot of experience with cardio training and have picked up many helpful tips on the way. As well as a multitude of workouts and programs.


What Is Cardio Exercise?


Cardio is short for "cardiovascular" and cardio exercises refers to any exercise that raises your heart rate.


Running, biking, walking, swimming, and hiking are all forms of cardiovascular exercises.


Another common way to refer to cardio exercise is the term "aerobic" exercise.

Benefits of Cardio


The list of benefits associated with doing cardio workouts is extensive.


First and foremost it improves cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association suggests that adults should be doing 150 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity a week.


The benefits of doing so include, reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. If you can get 300 minutes per week, you can gain even more benefits.


Cardio can act as a great weight regulator tool. If you want to lose weight the right types of cardio and be very efficient and if you're at the weight you want to be frequent cardio workouts can help you stay there.


Doing aerobic exercise can lower your blood pressure and lower bad cholesterol (LDL) while boosting good cholesterol (HDL).


Regular cardio can also boost your immune system and prevent you from getting colds.


The benefits of doing regular cardio exercises are endless. More benefits include getting better sleep, boost your mood, improve brain function, and help to regulate the release of insulin.



Benefits of Cardio


Aerobic vs Anaerobic


Cardio is often referred to as aerobic exercise. Anything that is considered aerobic exercise is considered a cardio exercise because you can't have one without the other.


What does aerobic mean? Aerobic means to have oxygen. Any time you're doing a low to mid-intensity exercise, like walking, jogging, low-intensity swimming, or cycling, you're using your aerobic system.


The main goal of aerobic exercise is to strengthen your lungs and heart and make your body more efficient at oxygen exchange. As you get stronger you will be able to go faster at a lower heart rate.


When you perform these low-intensity exercises you're doing it in the presence of oxygen.


Your muscles have the oxygen they need to carry out their functions.


Aerobic exercises are done at a low intensity for more than 3 minutes, usually for a lot longer.


All forms of steady-state cardio fall under aerobic fitness.

Aerbic vs Anaerobic fitness

Your heart rate will fall between 60-80% of your maximum during aerobic activity, which lets you maintain it for a much longer period.


When we talk about cardio and aerobic fitness, we often take them to mean the same thing, and for the most part that's accurate.



A slight technicality that in the end doesn't mean to much is, cardio relates to the processes of the heart, while aerobic focuses on the breathing aspect.


So, while they are slightly different, they occur at the same time which means they can be used to mean the same thing.


Anaerobic, on the other hand, means without oxygen.


The level of intensity is much higher than with aerobic fitness. So much so that the oxygen supply in your body can't keep up with the oxygen demands of the exercise.


Any exercise that requires a short burst of energy such as sprinting or jumping, is anaerobic.


Two energy systems contribute to anaerobic exercise.


One of them is known as the ATP-CP system and this provides immediate energy when exercise is performed very intensely for 0-10 seconds. You would use this system during a very brief exercise such as a jump, throw, or 30-meter sprint.


The other energy system is the lactic acid system. This is used for high-intensity exercise lasting between 10-180 seconds roughly. If you've ever felt that burning sensation in your legs near the end of a workout or set, then you're familiar with the lactic acid system.


However, we can't just look at each energy system in a scope, as during exercise all three will contribute to energy production.


Due to the high-intensity nature, anaerobic training will typically range between 80-95% of your maximum heart rate.


Both of these forms of exercise are fantastic ways to get in shape, the one you choose depends on your goals.


It's best to start with more low-intensity steady-state aerobic workouts, before mixing in high-intensity training. This is to give yourself a good base of aerobic fitness


Cardio Before or After Weights?


The question that gets asked over and over again is, should I lift weights before or after cardio? The answer is usually to lift after.


In most cases you want to do your cardio session before lifting weights. This is mainly for injury prevention.


If you've just finished a big leg workout, filled with squats, lunges, deadlifts, etc and your legs are toast, it probably isn't a good idea to go for a run.


As our muscles fatigue, it gets harder and harder to hold a good form, which increases the risk of injury.


Your stabilizing muscles, tendons, and ligaments could be very worn out by the time you're ready to do cardio and that could lead you to a bad situation.


If your muscles are unstable, your form will be unstable and that can put your ligaments in a vulnerable position to be stretched or strained.


Doing cardio at the beginning of the session means your muscles will be fresh and decreases the risk of injury greatly.


Types of Cardio


You can improve your cardio in so many different ways, you’re not just stuck to steady-state running.


Some of you may find steady-state running to be absolutely mind-numbing and completely avoid any form of cardio for this reason. Keep in mind there are many different options for you out there and you’re not just limited to running.


To figure out all our options, we need to understand what cardiovascular endurance means and how to improve it. As was mentioned briefly when talking about aerobic fitness, Cardiovascular endurance is how efficiently the heart, lungs, and blood vessels can deliver oxygen to the tissues in your body.


The best way to improve your cardio is through aerobic exercise (like we talked about) which is typically done between 60-85% of your maximum heart rate. (A quick way to estimate your maximum heart rate is by subtracting your age from 220). 


So, if you stay in the 60-85% guidelines then you can do the aerobic exercise of your choice. Let’s go through some popular options and examples of what you can do for each:


Running


Probably the most common option for cardio, running should not just be limited to steady-state jogging, however, it is still a good option to keep in your rotation.


Other common options include but are limited to, tempo running, interval training, and fartlek running. 


Tempo running is when you pick a pace and run that pace for a specific distance or time. The pace you choose should be fast enough that you are pushing yourself for the duration of the workout but not hard enough that you find it too difficult to maintain.


You should feel like you’re running hard but not sprinting.


These runs are usually done in 10-30 minutes and range from 3-6km (2-4 miles), but they can be done for longer if you so choose. Make sure to keep a consistent pace for the whole run.


Most of you may be familiar with interval running. It involves running at a fast pace, followed by a period of rest or low-intensity jogging. The intense interval can be for time or a specific distance.


If you’re new to interval training, you will want to choose a rest time that is equal to or slightly greater than the running time. This is because interval training is harder on the body then slow consistent running so you will want to ease into it.


It is better to start slightly more relaxed and then slowly ramp up the intensity in future workouts. 


Fartlek running is a form of interval training that you may be unfamiliar with. With fartlek training you are running at a constant pace throughout, but with bursts of intensity mixed in.


So unlike typical interval running where you can have complete rest periods of no activity, fartlek requires you to be running the whole time.


A fartlek pace should be above your slow-steady state cardio pace, but below your tempo pace. The intervals you mix in are up to you, but I recommend you choose a time between 30 seconds - 5 minutes. 


Choose a pace you can keep for the whole interval, your 30-second pace will be different than your 5-minute pace. Remember you have to keep running at the end of it.


For new runners, long-endurance or steady-state cardio runs are easiest to do because they don’t involve changes in speed or looking at a watch. All you have to do is a slow long-distance run.


These runs aren’t just beneficial for new runners, they’re beneficial for all runners and should be fit into your workout routine when you can.


If you’re just starting, going for a run between 30-45 minutes will give you a chance to get used to running for longer.


As you progress you can increase your long run to 60 minutes. However, this should be done slowly to avoid overtraining.


An increase of 5 minutes every three weeks will allow you to build up the strength and fitness to handle the longer distance.



Types of Running Workouts


Cycling


Cycling is a low impact cardio workout that doubles as an amazing leg workout.


All the force you need to produce comes from your legs, there is no help from your arms, so it forces your legs to do all of the work.


Simply put, the stronger your legs, the more power you'll be able to push, and the faster you will go.


Often, cycling can be a great recovery exercise if you have an injury somewhere on your body that prevents you from doing a more high impact exercise such as running.


For example, in the past, I've suffered from IT Band Syndrome and could not run at all. Yet, I was still able to bike, so I hopped on a stationary bike and was able to keep my fitness up that way.


There are a few different forms of cycling workouts that you can do to switch it up and prevent boredom from setting in. These include interval training, threshold workouts, and long-rides.


Interval training is universal and you can make your bike workouts based on periods of high-intensity and periods of low-intensity.


On the bike, the intense periods can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 or even 5 minutes. The rest time will be a bit different because if you're on a bike ride outside you can't necessarily just stop your bike wherever you are. Or if you're on a trainer inside, stopping pedaling will cause a large build-up of lactic acid in the legs that may be uncomfortable.


So to offset this, during the rest intervals you will keep pedaling but keep it to a low intensity. This will promote blood flow to the legs and give you time to rest before the next intense set.


Another type of workout for cycling is threshold training. On the bike, your threshold is usually called, functional threshold power, or (FTP). In short, FTP is the amount of power you can produce as you reach your lactate threshold (The point at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the blood).


Training your FTP requires longer intervals, these intervals will vary depending on your level of fitness and experience.


A good place to start is doing 20-minute intervals (if that feels like too much you can start with 10), with 5-10 minutes of slow pedaling rest in between.


Start with three of these and slowly work your way up to longer intervals of 30-minutes and beyond.


A long bike ride is great for building cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance.


Following the same principles of steady-state running, a long bike ride is exactly what it seems. A longer low-intensity bike ride.


The length of the bike ride will once again depend on your strength and experience with biking. If it's your first time doing a bike workout, a 4 hour bike road may not be the best move.


Instead, start with 60 minutes and every three weeks increase this number by 5-10 minutes as you see fit.


A long ride can be very time consuming so fitting one in when you have more time, maybe on a weekend, would be the ideal situation.


No more than once a week is necessary to start.


Types of Cycling Workouts


Swimming


Swimming is a great form of cardiovascular exercise that also has muscular benefits because of the resistance caused by the water. Swimming is also very low impact, so for anybody who suffers from joint pain it can be a perfect way to introduce cardio into your routine.


Just like running there is multiple ways to get in a swim workout to keep you from getting bored.


Different strokes, interval training, and steady-state swims, are a few different swim sessions you can fit into your workout plan.


If you’re familiar with swimming you know there are four different swim strokes, front stroke, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Right there are four different ways to vary your swim workouts. To note, butterfly is a more advanced stroke, the other three are more common and easier to learn. 


Try to add in multiple strokes per workout if you want some more variety.


The same concept of interval training applies to swimming, with a period of intensity followed by a set amount of rest.


The most common form of intervals in the pool is to make the intense interval a specific distance, such as 100m or 200m, and again the rest period will be for time. 


Low-intensity swimming is a great way to improve your aerobic fitness while also recovering from your more intense workouts.


Due to the low impact of swimming, a steady-state swim doesn’t put a lot of strain on your body which allows your muscles to recover from previous workouts.


If you had a really hard workout on a Tuesday and you wake up sore the next day, a low-intensity swim can get your muscles moving and improve recovery.


Another way you can challenge yourself in any swim workout is by using swim paddles or a pull buoy. The paddles I use while swimming are the TYR catalyst 2 paddles, with 5 different sizes to suit your needs. My personal favourite and pull buoy of choice is the speedo team pull buoy.


Types of Swimming Workouts

HIIT Cardio


HIIT or high-intensity interval training is a great way to increase your cardiovascular fitness.


If you want the full run-down on everything you need to know about HIIT, take a look at the complete guide to high-intensity interval training.


We already talked about interval training when it comes to typical cardio exercises like running, biking, and swimming. Now let's talk about how to take strength exercises and turn them into a HIIT cardio workout.


Doing 3 sets of 10 push-ups probably isn't going to give your cardiovascular endurance much of a jumpstart.


What we can do is create a cardio HIIT workout out of exercises like push-ups and squats to get your heart beating.


To do this you'll need a list of about 6-8 exercises (could be bodyweight or with weight). Then pick either a number of reps or seconds to complete the exercise, followed by a short period of rest.


A good rest period is between 15-45 seconds.


Note: if you're doing it with weights, you may want to choose a lighter weight then you are typically used to.


Cardio Workouts


Let's go through some simple beginner cardio workouts that can help get you in shape


Running


Warm-Up


Main Set:

60 seconds on/30 seconds off

Repeat 8-10x


Cool Down


Cycling


Warm-Up


Main Set:

5 minutes on/ 2 minutes off

Repeat 5x


Cool Down


Swimming


Warm-Up


Main Set:

100m on/30 seconds rest

Repeat 8-10x


Cool Down


HIIT


Warm-Up


Main Set: Do each exercise for 30 seconds with a 30-second rest before the next

Squats

Push-Ups

Burpees

Bicycle Crunch

Lunges

Repeat 5x


Cool Down


Cardio Workout Plan


When making a cardio workout plan the amount of workouts you have in a week greatly depends on your experience.


If you are a beginner you will want to give yourself two rest days in a week. This prevents you from getting too tired or worn out too quickly.


It also gives your body extra time to recover from a stress that it may not be used to.


As you progress and get more and more comfortable with five workouts a week, you may want to move up to six days a week with only one rest day. You can do this after about 3 months of steady work at five days a week.


This ensures your body is fully adapted to the workload it is already under.


When adding an extra workout into a week, make sure that it is low-intensity and not high-intensity. A low-intensity workout will give your body the chance to adapt to the extra day of training, without putting a lot of extra work right away.


To start the best format for planning your weekly workouts is to have three days of low-intensity workouts, and two days of higher intensity workouts, such as interval training.


Weekly Cardio Schedule

The low-intensity days allow your body to recover but you still get to train your cardiovascular system.


The workout plan above does not specify which type of cardio you need to do because it is your choice.


If you want to do swimming one day and running the next or cycling for every workout then you can.


The only way you're going to be motivated to keep training is if you enjoy it. If you're forced to run when you hate running then you probably won't go through with it.


So it is completely up to you, just follow the outline of high-intensity and low-intensity workouts.


Cardio Workout Program


If you want more information on a cardio workout program or want your own personalized workout program, email at info@raiseyourfitness.com for more information.


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