When it comes to getting fit and feeling good in your skinny jeans, it seems simple: move more, eat better and you’ll be kicking goals in no time, right? But if you’re wondering why your routine isn’t getting you ripped, it could be because it’s too, well, routine.
Whether it’s running in the mornings, smashing some k’s on the stationary bike at lunch or getting your downward dog on at bikram, it turns out most of us are a little too same-same with our cardio sessions.
Research shows that logging the same workouts over and over isn’t what gets us past fitness hurdles – that’s actually down to three varieties of cardio done on the regular. The good news? One barely breaks a sweat. Here’s the trifecta that will get you fit, for real.
The Long And Slow of It
What is it? You know those walks you do with a friend, when you spend more time catching up than worrying about how far you’ve gone? Yep, that’s long, slow distance (LSD) exercise, the technical term for a steady, no-sweat pace. You’ll know if you’re hitting the mark if you can continue venting about what the office nightmare did this week while you’re moving. On a level of one to 10, when one is sitting on the couch and 10 is running for the bus, it should feel like a three or four.
Why it matters: It might not feel like you’re working hard, but your body is actually building a strong foundation for your peak fitness level. That’s because sessions longer than 45 minutes increase your endurance by training muscles to keep going. A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that runners who increased their LSD workouts improved their 10K run times by 30 per cent, compared to those who added higher-impact sessions. Bonus: they’re a way to give your muscles a much-needed break from more intense training (more on that in a minute) while still keeping you active.
How often: Three times a week, for 45 to 60 minutes.
Juice it Up
What is it? The technical term for those workouts where sweat becomes your new BFF and you’re breathing hard is a tempo session. Think Spin classes, high-impact aerobics and runs where you’re red-faced by the end but not on the verge of collapse: you should be aiming for a steady effort level of five to seven.
Why it matters: Simply put, your calorie burn goes bananas and you push your fitness to the next level. "Tempos are the little black dress of fitness," says Jenny Hadfield, author of Running for Mortals. "They're classic and they benefit everyone. They teach your body to use oxygen more efficiently and run faster before fatiguing." That’s because tempo workouts train your body to go longer and harder outside its comfort zone.
How often: One to two a week, with at least a day in between for your body to bounce back.
What is it? High intensity interval training (HIIT) means killing it for short bursts, typically on a cardio machine or a run, before backing off for a quick break. Think one minute of sprinting as fast as you can, and 30 seconds of slow jogging. Rinse and repeat for 10 to 20 minutes and you’re done – and you’ll probably feel like collapsing or vomiting or both. This is the exercise personal trainers love, and the rest of us hate every short second of. On a scale of one to ten, this is a nine to ten.
Why it matters: Yes, it’s hard, but HIIT is the closest the fitness world has come to a magic bullet. The most compelling in a bunch of studies showed that a group of women who followed a 20-minute HIIT program on a stationary bike, consisting of eight-second sprints followed by 12 seconds of rest, lost a whopping six times more body fat than a group that followed a 40-minute steady cardio program over a 15-week period. Another study found that after eight weeks of doing HIIT workouts, subjects could cycle for twice as long as they could before the study. Time to make “six times more fat, gone” your mantra when you’re smashing out those speed spells.
How often: Twice a week, for between 10 and 20 minutes, will do the trick. Don’t overdo it – HIIT does micro-damage to muscles, so make sure you give them time off for good behaviour.
Wear your heart on your wrist
There’s no need to guess how hard you’re going (or exactly how many calories you’re smashing) when you have a heart-rate monitor. We love the insta-motivation it gives in just a glance. Want to make sure your monitor is matching to the cardio trifecta’s magic numbers? First, calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR): 206 – (0.88 x your age). For a 30 year old, that would be 180 beats per minute. Then multiply that number by these percentages:
(ie 117-135 BPM for a 30 year old)
(132 to 162 BPM for a 30 year old)
(162-171 BPM for a 30 year old)
65-75% for recovery
(117-135 BPM for a 30 year old)