Running is nearly synonymous with cardio, for good reason. It’s inexpensive, easily accessible, and we learn it in childhood. But it’s not the only way to get a great cardio workout, and if you are tired of running, or in recovery from a running injury, you may want to consider these cardio alternatives to running.
What is a Cardio Workout?
A cardiovascular workout uses oxygen you breathe to increase your metabolism to support higher energy demands during exercise. Exercising at a low-to-moderate intensity for an extended time converts carbohydrates into energy, and is a cardio workout, unlike higher-intensity activities like sprinting or strength training.
How Much Cardio Should You Do?
Experts recommend up to 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity. To determine your target heart rate during a cardio workout, use this formula:
- Subtract your age from 220 to determine your maximum heart rate
- Determine your resting heart rate by taking your pulse when you first wake in the morning, and are relaxed and comfortable
- Subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate to determine your heart rate reserve (HRR)
- Take your HRR, multiply it by 0.5, and add it to your resting heart rate. This is your target heart rate for moderate exercise
- Take your HRR, multiply it by 0.7, and add it to your resting heart rate. This is your target heart rate for vigorous exercise.
(You can also skip all this math and use the heart rate calculator here).
Any activity that elevates your heart rate into the target zone and keeps it there for at least 10 continuous minutes counts as a cardio workout.
Great Cardio Alternatives to Running
Bicycling burns as many calories as running, and even more if you use intervals of increased intensity. It trains and strengthens your lower body muscles, including your calves, hips, and glutes, and can even help strengthen your core. It’s also a great workout during recovery from many common running injuries, because it is a lower impact cardio workout than running, and is gentle on your back, hips, and ankles. Bicycling is an incredibly common component of endurance events, so a cycling workout may also be part of your standard training regimen.
Like running, bicycling can be done indoors or outdoors, all year long. For all the heart-healthy benefits, you should bike for 30-60 minutes per session, 3-5 times a week.
Walking is an often under-rated fitness activity, with a surprising range of health benefits. Walking is a great cardio workout for injury recovery, provided that you monitor your heart rate and maintain the intensity in your target range. It burns fat, tones the lower body, and builds endurance, with less impact than running.
Walking can help you maintain your health while recovering from an injury, and you can get great cardio benefits from just 30 minutes of brisk walking, 5 days a week.
To make sure that your walk is actually a cardio booster, check out this link for fantastic walking workouts for all levels.
Swimming is an excellent cardio workout when recovering from injury, when you are bored with running, or simply as a way to maintain fitness during hot weather.
It’s a zero-impact, full body workout that is actually better for the heart than other forms of exercise. Because your body is horizontal in the pool, the heart doesn’t have to fight gravity to circulate blood throughout your body, giving you higher oxygen levels at the same intensity.
If you keep the intensity high, swimming burns about the same amount of calories as swimming, while using all your major muscle groups and protecting joints from impacts. It’s also a great way to stay cool in warm temperatures that may add stress to a cardio routine.
Swimming for fitness should be done for at least 20 minutes at a time, 3-5 times a week.
Check this link for some great cardio swimming workouts.
4. Elliptical Training
An elliptical machine is another great cardio alternative to running. An elliptical provides the same cardio intensity and blood oxygen volume as running, but with less impact to the joints, and reduced recovery time.
Using the handles on an elliptical also allows you to engage your upper body, for more muscle toning in the upper body than running, and it can be reversed for a deeper workout in your calves and hamstrings. Ellipticals not only allow you to recover from injury or strain without sacrificing endurance, but they can also break up the monotony of endurance running.
For the best workout, vary the intensity of your time on the elliptical, stay in your target heart rate, and avoid relaxing and leaning on the handles. Elliptical workouts should be done for 30 minutes at a time, 3 times a week.
5. Jumping Rope
A jump rope workout is a fantastic way to incorporate high intensity intervals that reduce the monotony of running and increase your cardiovascular fitness, but is not usually a good choice for injury recovery. It’s a high-impact workout, and you may need to look for softer surfaces for a jump rope session.
Jumping rope at the right intensity provides as much metabolic boost as jogging at 6-7 miles per hour, and it’s a portable, lightweight piece of equipment you can take anywhere. Jumping rope strengthens the muscles in your calves, hamstrings, and glutes, the muscles a runner needs for endurance.
Jumping rope can be done slowly, at lower intensity, for a great warmup, or used as a cardio blast interval when cross-training. Because it is high impact and high intensity, jumping rope is best done for short periods of time, just 10-20 minutes.
Rowing is an incredibly efficient, full-body workout that provides a cardio blast without any impact on the lower body. It’s a fantastic workout when recovering from injuries to the feet or Achilles tendon, building strength, speed, and functional flexibility. Rowing is a fantastic cross-training tool for runners, because it helps to improve posture and stability in the upper body and midline, which improves form and endurance when running, as well as preventing common running injuries.
Rowing can be done in a gym or, if you live near water, you may be able to find a local rowing team, which provides more enjoyment, support, and motivation for maintaining your endurance fitness.
It is important that you not start a rowing workout without instruction, because form is critical. High intensity cardio rowing is done in intervals, rowing either for time in 3-minute intervals, or rowing for distances of 4-10K.
7. Stair Climbing
Stair climbing combines cardio and strength training, and lets you feel like Rocky. It’s a fantastic way for runners to gain more power in their legs, building quads and glute muscles, and is more effective at strength training than running uphill. Stair climbing improves your maximum blood oxygen levels more effectively than running, which pays off in all your endurance activities.
It also helps to break up the monotony of endurance running, but may not be a good choice for injury recovery; running has less impact on the feet and ankles, but can be more taxing on the knees. It’s a strenuous workout that isn’t a good choice for beginners.
As a rule, using real-world staircases is a more effective cardio and strength workout than using a stair-climbing machine in a gym, and pounding up a flight of steps and then walking back down and doing it over again naturally creates high-intensity intervals in your training regimen.
For maximum cardio and strength benefits, find a staircase that takes 20-30 seconds to run up. After warming up, run up the stairs and walk back down, for a total of 20-30 minutes.
Here are some great stair climbing workouts for cardio and endurance, whether you are using a stair-climber or training at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In case you thought the only way to get a great cardio workout was to hit the road or the gym, it’s worth a reminder that you can also build fitness, heart health, and endurance on the dance floor. Whether you want a dance-inspired workout like Zumba, or simply want to hit the club with friends, dancing not only elevates your heart rate and improves your fitness, but it’s also been shown to have mind and mood benefits as well. Dancing is fun, and provides a social connection, enjoyment, and self-expression that are shown to improve mood and fight depression. Dance classes like salsa or tango lessons also have cognitive benefits as well; the concentration and memory required to master a new skill help to prevent cognitive decline and keep your brain young.
Dance is also an incredibly versatile workout, with something for everyone’s taste — you can visit a gym for cardio dance inspired by everything from tango to ballet, sign up for dance lessons in your community and learn anything from the foxtrot to hip-hop to tap dancing, or hit the club and just shake it all night.
However you choose to do it, dancing is a form of cross-training that engages the whole body, trains different muscle groups, improves heart health, burns calories, and is a fantastic way to destroy workout monotony. It’s friendly for all fitness and ability levels, all ages, and any taste in music.
However you choose to dance, monitor your heart rate to ensure that you are in your target zone for cardio health, and engage in aerobic exercise for 30 minutes at a time, 3 times a week.
For an overview of the many body-boosting benefits of various styles of dance, check this link.
Occasionally breaking up your running regimen with other cardio alternatives can actually improve your running performance. If your heart remains in the target range, you still get all the cardio you need, but you can engage different muscle groups and strengthen and tone the rest of the body, prevent stress and injury from repetition, keep your mind engaged and bust boredom by altering your workout, and even improve your form, posture, and speed when running.
Whether you are in recovery from an injury, looking for a way to keep your endurance training interesting, or seeking to improve your overall fitness, endurance, and performance, try some of these cardio alternatives to running. Your whole body will benefit.