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Time Efficient Cardio: 3 Options

Not having enough time is and always has been the leading alibi for why individuals don’t engage in an exercise regimen.  And rightfully so.  We are all busy.  Amplifying our guilt, we live in a culture that bombards us with the message that more is better when it comes to exercise.  We seem to wear the length and frequency of our workouts on our sleeve as a badge of honor and commitment (me included).  All of this is probably a step in the wrong direction.  Prophetically, Arthur Jones, the founder of Nautilus Sports Medical Industries stated, “Instead of trying to determine just how much exercise we can tolerate, we should, instead, be trying to find out how little exercise we actually require.”  This is now referred to as the “dose-response relationship of exercise.”  Our pursuit should be of the proper dose of exercise that will elicit the desired physiological response.
The preponderance of scientific literature suggests that we can achieve health protective benefit, dramatically improve our aerobic fitness, and maximize our muscle strength, endurance, and body composition with a very small amount of exercise.  It appears that the intensity of the exercise is far more important than the frequency or duration.
But I digress…
The following three cardio workouts are a time-efficient means for improving your aerobic capacity (and therefore, stimulating a health-protective benefit).  There is nothing inherently “wrong” with longer cardio workouts.  However, many times, when an individual performs a longer bout of cardio, the intensity is not high enough to stimulate the desired cardio-respiratory adaptations.  The following workouts are great if you:
  • Are short on time.
  • Simply don’t like doing cardio (but still want to).
  • Love cardio but are stuck in a rut of longer, lower intensity cardio.
  • Want great fitness results in the least amount of time.
Workout 1: The GXP (Graded Exercise Protocol). Total workout time: 15 minutes.
This workout can be performed on a stationary bike, treadmill, elliptical machine or any other piece of stationary cardio-respiratory equipment.
  • Start with a 5-minute progressive warm-up.  Intensity should be low to start and should gradually build.
  • Perform a 5-minute work bout at 85-95% of maximum heart rate.
  • Perform a 5-minute cool-down gradually decreasing the intensity of your effort.
This workout is a favorite of the brilliant researcher, Richard Winett Ph.D.  To learn more, Google Graded Exercise Protocol or GXP.
Workout 2: 12 minute Progressive Run. Total workout time: 12-17 minutes.
This workout is best performed on a treadmill (but can be applied to other stationary “cardio” equipment).  Start at a moderate/comfortable pace.  Every 2 minutes, increase the speed by 0.5 mph.  There is no need to do a separate warm-up before this workout as the first 2 “stages” essentially serve as a warm-up.   The last 4 minutes of the workout should be uncomfortable to say the least.  It shouldn’t be possible to converse during the final 2 minutes.
For example:
 0-2 min. 5.0 mph
2-4 min. 5.5 mph
4-6 min. 6.0 mph
6-8 min. 6.5 mph
8-10 min. 7.0 mph
10-12 min. 7.5 mph
This workout is adaptable to any fitness level.  Don’t make the mistake that because you are very fit or that you are an athlete that this won’t challenge you or stimulate improvements to your fitness.  This workout can be brutally demanding for the fittest of athletes.
Workout 3: “Judgment Day”
The workout can be performed on a treadmill, outside on a run, on an elliptical machine, or any other stationary cardio machine.
  • Warm-up for 5 minutes
  • Perform 6, 30-second intervals.  Rest for 60 seconds between each.  These should be performed at a very high level of intensity; you should feel like 35 seconds would be virtually impossible.
  • Perform 3, 1-minute intervals.  Rest for 2 minutes between each.  These should still be performed at a high level of intensity, but not the speed or pace of the 30 second intervals.
  • Perform 1, 3-minute interval.  This should be slower yet due to the length of the interval and the accumulated fatigue from previous intervals.
  • Cool-down for 3-5 minutes.
One caveat: If one of the primary purposes of your training is “performance” (ie, you want to run a marathon faster) these aren’t the perfect workouts for you; at least not most of the time.  In order to become a great long distance runner, you need to do more than improve your aerobic capacity; you must also practice the skill of running.  Logging a lot of miles may not significantly improve our aerobic capacity, but it probably does improve our “running economy.”  If you are training for distance from the 5k through the marathon, integrate these workouts judiciously to focus on speed, increase intensity and provide variation to your training.

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