I have a confession: I have not ran on a treadmill for more than 5 minutes in over 6 years.
That sums up a conversation that I have with clients on a weekly basis. Simply put, running is a bad option for many exercises. Especially beginners. Personally, I simply don’t enjoy it and it’s not supportive of my fitness goals. If you’re like me, or if running hurts, this is the article for you. And at the end, I’ll provide one of my favorite progressive protocols for conditioning.
As a fitness coach, education is a major part of my job. Many of my clients believe in many fitness myths and misconceptions.
Chief among these is the belief that endless amounts of ‘fat-burning’ aerobic cardio is crucial for fat loss. (Truth: it is nutrition).The majority of exercisers are encouraged to run or ride the elliptical for long durations. Even if it hurts or they don’t like it. Sounds like punishment to me. Remember, exercise should NEVER cause pain.
I was inspired to write this by two events:
One – every client I’ve ever had that was encouraged to “suck it up” through joint pain while running or walking by other ‘professionals’.
Two – this image from reddit. Running is not a healthy option for these types of individuals.
While it’s true that cardiovascular activity can create a caloric deficit, there are considerations to be taken into place:
#1 – Do you have a runner’s body?
Point one, do you have a runner’s build? Slender limbs, lightweight, generally thin. Do you have the frame of a cross-country runner or a marathoner? Remember, your genetics have a lot to do with your body type and athletic capabilities. This ranges from your bone structure but also to your muscle type. Type 1 fibers (slow oxidative) support aerobic activity – typically endurance activities such as running. Excellent distance runners have a higher proportion of type 1 fibers than others. If you’re built like a line backer or a sprinter, distance running may not be the best fit for your body type.
A perfect example:
#2 – Is it a good idea for you to run?
I don’t recommend running to any of my significantly overweight clients, or the person described in this post. I also advise my clients with poor balance,, flexibility, or stability (displayed by poor single leg stance or a FMS hurdle step score of 0 or 1) not to run. Simply put, they don’t have the physical capabilities. There is too high a risk of injury. If your lower body or back is injured, battling ropes are a fantastic alternative.
For overweight people, the high physical impacts of running (2-3x your bodyweight per foot strike) can lead to overuse or acute injuries. Obese people are better off performing low impact activities. And yes, that absolutely, positively means box jumps are out.
#3 – Does the activity fit your fitness goals?
If you are a midfielder, run like the wind. You’re going to need it. If your sport is a series of high-intensity bursts with brief recoveries, nix the distance running and adopt interval training. Make your intervals specific to your sport’s conditioning requirements.
#4 – Will the activity cause the desired changes in your physique?
If your goal is to look like a wrestler, a gymnast, or a sprinter – sprint. Work intervals. Perform high intensity activities. Work at a high intensity, using a high percentage of your muscle mass and maximum force.
Endurance athletes perform weight training much like they run – low intensity, high repetition, low power production – and have lower muscle mass. The adaptation creates a body primed for endurance activity. Anaerobic athletes use high amounts of muscle at a high intensity of force, much like they train.
#5 – Do you have enough time?
If you’re a busy parent, executive, or student – you may not have the time for 3-5 hours of cardio a week. Maybe you have an hour a week – total. That’s not uncommon. So 3 20-minute interval sessions of varying method and intensity would be preferential to 1 hour-long jog or treadmill slog.
#6 – Do you enjoy the activity?
I generally hate running. I hate machines even more. Bores me to tears. After 3 minutes, I’m looking around like a squirrel and obscuring the timer with my towel. But if you assign me bodyweight circuits, sled pushes, battling ropes, kettlebell swings, or sprints – I’ll arrive fired up and ready to rock.
Many of my clients are relieved when I write them ‘alternative’ cardio programs. They enjoy battling ropes and kettlebell swings. They’re not flipping channels or sweating into a paperback. Their backs, knees, and feet don’t hurt. They get to feel their muscles working, and they have fun when they’re doing it.
“Okay, great. I hate running and it hurts my knees. Now what?”
Here are some options off the top of my head:
- Battling Ropes
Battling ropes are my favorite option for many of my clients. Low-impact, difficult, fun, and very joint-friendly for overweight or injured populations.
- Kettlebell Swings
- Bodyweight circuits and other metabolic conditioning methods
- Sprints – hills, fartleks, 100m at the track, etc.
- Stairs or bleachers (if it’s safe for your body type)
- Sled pushes, pulls, etc.
- Farmer carry variations
- Jump rope (if it’s safe for your body type, as it’s high impact)
“Even better. But what are the benefits?”
- High intensity cardiovascular activity does lead to improvements in overall aerobic fitness (VO2 max, or maximal oxygen intake) and vital signs
- High intensity activity causes a subsequent energy deficit (EPOC – Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) that raises your metabolism for hours following activity. Sprinting may not burn as many calories during the session, but it does provide an ‘afterburn’ effect – like weight lifting.
- This style of training works various muscle groups at a higher intensity and can cause muscular adaptations as well (did you know that running with poor form lends itself to overactive hamstrings and hip flexors, weakening the glutes, which often contributes to back pain?)
- Example – kettlebell swings strengthen / develop the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, grip, and upper back, develop explosive hip strength, burns a high amount of calories, and are 400% more fun than running (made-up figure, but true enough in my eyes)
“Great! But… how?”
Here’s a program that I recommend for many of my clients, and myself. It involves a 20:00 block of activity. The catch is that it’s not 20 consecutive minutes – it’s divided into intervals. The intervals start with a high work to rest ratio, meaning you rest much longer than you work. As your fitness and muscle endurance increases, the ratio decreases and it progressively becomes more challenging. This is a method of improving the density of your workout.
- It may be repeated over the course of a week 2-3 times, or kept as an option (ie – day 1 – density block, day 2 – bodyweight circuits, day 3 – hill sprints).
- It may be performed with different implements. I prefer battling ropes, but it works with kettlebells, bodyweight squats, or jump rope as well. It may be started at a 10:00 block and advanced, if you are deconditioned aerobically or muscularly.
- It doesn’t always add up to 20:00, and that’s fine. Let’s not get too specific.
- Progress slower, progress faster – listen to your body. Don’t make massive jumps, but if it’s easy – make it harder. Only progress one variable a week, typically 10%, such as weight, duration, work, or rest.
- Stop the workout if you encounter excessive fatigue, compensation, or actual pain (as opposed to lungs-on-fire pain). This especially applies to kettlebell swings – when the glutes fatigue and the back takes over, the day is done.
20:00 Density Block for Conditioning
Perfect for: Battling Ropes, kettlebell swings, bodyweight squats.
Week 1 – 10 cycles of 20s work, 40s rest.
Week 2 – 14 cycles of 20s work, 40s rest.
Week 3 – 20 cycles of 20s work, 40s rest.
Week 4 – 20 minutes of 20s work, 35s rest.
Week 4 – 20 minutes of 25s work, 35s rest.
Week 5 – 20 minutes of 25s work, 35s rest.
Week 6 – 20 minutes of 30s work, 35s rest.
Week 7 – 20 minutes of 30s work, 30s rest.
Week 8 – 20 minutes of 25s work, 25s rest.
Week 9 – 20 minutes of 20s work, 20s rest.
Week 10 – 20 minutes of 15s work, 15s rest. Repeat from here.
There you have it! It was a long read, but thank you for sticking with it. Or if you skimmed for the good stuff, that works too. Give it a shot, and let me know how it goes. Or if you have a favorite routine, post it in the comments section below! For more reading, I recommend Precision Nutrition’s article on minimalist training, Eric Cressey’s excellent guide – “So you want to start sprinting?” and my articles on progressive overload and metabolic conditioning.