If you're a creature of habit when it comes to cardio, it may be time to mix things up. Why? Doing the same workout time after time is a surefire way to sabotage your fitness goals. "Your body will plateau if it becomes used to the same routine," says Daniel Steffancin, health and fitness coordinator for the West Park/Fairview Family YMCA, part of the YMCA of Greater Cleveland (www.clevelandymca.org). "And you won't see the results you're looking for."
Adding variety makes the body adapt by getting stronger and leaner and, just as important, keeps your workouts fun. Here are three effective techniques for indoor or outdoor cardio to boost your fitness and burn more calories (always warm up for five to 10 minutes):
Intervals are harder periods of exertion interspersed with easier recovery phases. For example, run two minutes at about 85 percent maximum heart rate (approximately 220 minus your age), followed by three minutes of very easy jogging, and then repeat that hard/easy sequence. Start with two or three intervals, and add more as your conditioning improves.
Tempo sessions involve picking up the pace continuously for about 15 to 25 minutes. The effort should feel medium hard — you'll increase your breathing rate but not be out of breath. "You should be able to finish feeling refreshed, or what I call pleasantly fatigued," says Greg McMillan, MS, a running coach and competitive endurance runner (www.mcmillanrunning.com). "It should feel like a really good workout, but that you could have gone five more minutes if you had to."
Running or biking up and down grades — called hill repeats — targets your leg muscles in ways flat-surface sessions can't, Steffancin says. This brings better overall muscle balance and strength. Vary the workout by adjusting the grade of the hill or treadmill, as well as how long each hill repeat and recovery period lasts.
It's best to add these more intense training sessions only one or two days a week — for example, do intervals or hill training once a week and tempo training once a week, McMillan advises. Get your doctor's approval before embarking. If you're new to exercise or just coming back, don't add intensity for at least the first few months.