ThreeSpeed Cardio

By Andrew Heffernan |

When it comes to cardio exercise, most gym-goers are either hares or tortoises: They like their workouts fast and furious or they like them slow and leisurely. Hares love the intensity of going full out; tortoises relish the relaxed groove of a meditative pace.

Both types of exercise have proven benefits. Problems can arise, however, when you stick too closely to one type of workout or the other. That’s because your body runs on three separate but interrelated metabolic engines: the , theand thesystems. (For more on these systems, see Each is built to power you through a different type of exercise.

  1. Quick-as-a-wink activities like sprinting and explosive athletic drills call on one of two anaerobic engines: the “glycolytic” system and the “ATP-CP” system.

These three systems work in tandem, so unless you incorporate some combination of all of them, you’re missing out on health-and-fitness benefits. Furthermore, sticking doggedly to one speed — fast, slow or somewhere in the middle — will eventually lead to boredom, staleness and injury, all of which can bring your progress to a screeching halt.

For the gym-goer seeking maximal, across-the-board health and fitness, then, the solution is simple: Diversify. “Unless you have a specific performance goal in mind, the best plan is to do a combination of faster- and slower-paced cardio work,” says Declan Connolly, PhD, professor of exercise science at the University of Vermont, and coauthor of Heart Rate Training (Human Kinetics, 2011).

To get you started, we’ve pulled together three fun, innovative cardio workouts, each one at a different speed and intensity, which you can sub in for any cardio work you’re currently doing. Perform as directed and in a few weeks you’ll be moving, feeling and looking like a whole different animal.

Your Mix-It-Up Cardio Plan

If you already exercise regularly, perform each workout once per week on nonconsecutive days, either directly after, or on a separate day from, your strength work. (For more ideas on scheduling your cardio around other activities, see our Web extra, below.) If you’re new to cardio exercise, workout designer Diane Vives, MS, NSCA-CSCS, suggests doing just one or two of the cardio workouts a week, performing a different one each time you work out.

Choose Your Intensity

All three workouts are safe for any injury-free gym-goer — provided you stick within the intensity parameters indicated in each workout.

For Workout 1, you can find the recommended intensity level by establishing the correct percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Estimate your MHR by subtracting your age from 220 and multiplying the result by the appropriate percentage. A 40-year-old, for example, wanting to do Workout 1 at 60 percent of his MHR, would subtract 40 from 220 to get 180, and then multiply the result by 0.6 to get 108.

Use a heart-rate monitor — or simply take your pulse intermittently to gauge and adjust your speed and intensity accordingly: If your heart rate is too slow, go harder or faster; if it’s too fast, slow down.

When doing Workouts 2 and 3, heart rate will be a less accurate measure of intensity. So for these workouts, estimate your intensity level using perceived-exertion clues like muscle fatigue, respiration rate and sweat rate. Keep your effort level in check for the first week or so, until you’re familiar with the exercises, pace and flow of each workout.

“Most people have a decent sense of how hard they’re capable of working,” Connolly says. “Over time, you’ll develop an increasingly accurate sense of what an 80 percent effort, a 90 percent effort, or a 100 percent effort feels like.”

And over time, of course, your performance at each intensity level will increase.


60 percent of max heart rate

30 minutes

Improves cardiovascular health, endurance and fat-burning capacity; can support recovery from higher-intensity types of exercise.

Pedal a bicycle (or an upright or recumbent stationary bike) for five minutes at approximately 60 percent of your MHR. Get off the bike and perform exercise (a), below, for one minute. Get back on the bike for five minutes, and then do exercise (b). Repeat this process as you move through all the exercises below, for a total of 30 minutes.

  1. Hold this position for 30 seconds, switch sides and repeat.
  1. Continue walking your hands forward and back for 60 seconds.
  1. Pause, lower the leg to the floor, and repeat on the other side, alternating sides for 60 seconds.
  1. Step off the box, switch sides and repeat.
  1. Alternate sides for 60 seconds.

Workout 2: 20-Minute Madness


80 to 85 percent of max effort

About 20 minutes

Maintains strength, muscle mass and range of motion in key joints; increases fat loss and improves body composition; increases human growth hormone; improves core strengthand stability.

Perform the following two drills, (a) and (b), alternately for a total of three rounds (six drills total). If space or equipment is limited, you can also opt to do just one of the drills a total of six times. Rest two minutes after each exercise.

  1. Run back and forth between the two cones four times for a total of 200 meters. (To the cone and back is one time.)


  1. Perform a one-minute interval on any one of these machines at a challenging speed or resistance level that you can maintain for the full 60 seconds.

Workout 3: Athlete’s Grab Bag


90 to 95 percent of max effort

10 to 15 minutes

Improves sports performance; increases coordination, athleticism and ability to move quickly when necessary.

Set up two cones 15 meters apart. Perform the following three 10- to 20-second exercises as a circuit, moving as fast and explosively as you can throughout each drill, and resting for 30 to 60 seconds after each one. Perform three circuits.

  1. Perform a total of two skaters on each side, then sprint in a figure-eight pattern around the two cones.
  1. Sprint to the other cone as fast as you can.
  1. Drop the handles and side-shuffle as fast as possible 10 steps to your left, then 10 steps to your right.

Tally up all the strength training, car dio, and athletic activities health and fitness professionals say we should do on a regular basis and it may not seem like there’s time for much else. But don’t worry: The workouts we recommend here, while challenging, are also surprisingly brief. That means you can squeeze them in without too much difficulty on top of a regular program of strength training. The key is to know when to do them. Below are some guidelines on how to schedule these three cardio workouts around a typical strength-training schedule, courtesy of workout designer Diane Vives, MS, NSCA-CSCS, owner of Fit4Austin andin Austin, Texas: Strength train (full body)Any cardio workout (1 to 3). Cycle through the workouts, week to week, so you never repeat the same cardio workout twice in a row and never go more than two weeks without doing any single one of the three workouts.Rest Cardio workout 3, Strength train (full body). Rest Strength train (upper body and light lower body), Cardio workout 2 Rest Strength train (full body) Cardio workout 1 Rest

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