Cardiovascular training is a vital part of your exercise regime, as it strengthens your heart, lungs, and your whole circulatory system. As a personal trainer, I advise my London clients to do 20-30 minutes of cardio (also called aerobic training) three times a week. Anything that raises your heart rate for a sustained period will have the required aerobic training effect.
Here are 10 types of cardio exercise. Don’t just stick to one, do a wide range of cardio, and your body will benefit from the challenge of variety. Stick to just one, and you’re more likely to pick up injuries, repetitive strains, and muscle imbalances.
You don’t have to run marathons to get fit. A 5K run will count towards your cardio training just as well, and you’ll avoid all the stresses and strains on your body that marathon running can produce.
Learn good running technique: good posture, relaxed body, light on your feet. And breathe deeply and with good rhythm, you’ll find what works for you. There’s a great website called Parkrun which has maps of 5K routes in London, where you can run and time yourself.
2. Fast walking
This is lower-impact than running, so it’s ideal if you’re obese or suffer any joint problems which could be made worse by running. Again, learn good technique such as good posture, and look forwards not down. Wear a heart rate monitor and walk as fast as you can, to get your heart rate up. A leisurely stroll does not count as aerobic training!
This is also lower-impact than running. Ideally find a route away from traffic, and one with hills to challenge you more. Choose a good quality bike with gears so you can regulate the intensity of your workout. And make sure the saddle is set at a height that ensures good posture.
I had a personal trainer in north London who would put his mountain bike in the car, drive to an off-road cycling route outside London, and spend an hour cycling through countryside tracks.
Another great low-impact exercise, ideal for the obese and those with joint problems. If you swim hard enough, this can be a very effective form of cardio, but most people don’t push themselves sufficiently.
The front crawl (freestyle) is the best stroke for cardio fitness. Check the swimming page of this site for swimming instructors in London, so you learn good technique of breathing, arm stroke, kicking, and coordinating all three.
5. Rowing machine
Either in the gym or at home, the rowing machine is a great piece of fitness equipment for cardio training. The best make I’ve come across is the Concept 2 rowing machine, which is the brand of choice for most London gyms. Get a personal trainer or fitness instructor to show you the correct technique. Your whole body is working when you row, which makes it a very effective exercise.
If you don’t like running outside, or prefer a controlled environment where you can precisely measure speed and incline, the treadmill is very useful. Vary your treadmill workouts, with different times, distances, speeds and inclines, and variations of intervals.
For instance, you can set yourself a goal of 5K and time yourself, varying your speed according to your heart rate. Use your own heart rate monitor rather than relying on the machine monitors which are notoriously unreliable. Make a note of time taken and heart rate at the end.
Or you can do intervals of 1 minute slow, 1 minute fast. Or slowly increase the speed every minute up to 10 minutes, and slowly decrease it down again for the last 10 minutes. You can do the same interval but with changes of gradient rather than speed.
For a more advanced workout you can do various combinations of increasing incline and speed. The advantage of varied inclines is that your muscles and joints work at a variety of angles, so you don’t get in a rut which can cause over-use injuries, and muscle imbalances.
Another way to vary the intervals is to have do 2 minutes of each progression rather than 1 minute, then 3 minutes etc. Or do 2 minutes intense, 1 minute slow recovery, 2 minutes intense etc. For high intensity interval training (HIIT), do 1 minute as fast as you can, then 30 seconds recovery, then back to 1 minute as fast as you can. If you’re new to this, you may want to make the recovery phase a full minute!
With all these variations, build up the intensity gradually, and keep an eye on your heart rate and breathing. And make sure your leg muscles are strong and flexible enough before you attempt the more challenging interval training workouts.
7. Step machine
Also known as the StairMaster, this is more challenging than it looks, as it’s like climbing an escalator that never ends. You can vary the speed of the climb, but be warned, the slow speed is not as easy as you think, because your leg muscles are under tension for a longer period each step, and the resistance is higher.
Get a personal trainer to teach you good technique: keep an upright posture, don’t hold onto the handles, and keep looking ahead.
Just like the treadmill above, you can devise a wide variety of interval training workouts on the step machine. If you have knee problems this is not the best machine for you, as it puts pressure on the muscles round the knees, particularly the quads.
8. Cross trainer
Also known as the elliptical machine, this is a very popular gym machine, and great for warming up the whole body. It’s lower impact than running, but you can get an intense workout by raising the resistance levels. Unlike the treadmill, which runs at whatever speed you set it, you can go at whatever speed you like on the cross-trainer without having to constantly re-programme it.
Because of the elliptical movement, the cross-trainer works more leg muscles than any other cardio machine, particularly if you do intervals which include a ‘going backwards’ phase. If you raise yourself up onto your tiptoes on the backwards direction, rather than keep your feet flat, this works your calf muscles extra hard. Try it!
The main benefit of skipping is the simplicity of equipment: a skipping rope. You can skip at home, outdoors, in your hotel room, so it’s very versatile. Once you’ve mastered basic skipping, you can introduce hops, and change direction of the skipping rope, and also vary the speed. A favourite form of cardio training among boxers.
10. Cardio boxing
For this you need a partner or personal trainer. My personal training clients in London love cardio boxing as you get to punch something, which is a great way to rid yourself of pent-up aggression and stress.
You can get your heart rate up quite fast with this form of cardio training, and build in a variety of movements: upper cuts, jabs, hooks, all at various heights and angles, and even ‘knee boxing’ which is very intense.
(Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London with over 10 years experience.)