Keep Your Cardio on Track – Ways To Mix It Up

A recurring theme amongst this month’s series of articles has been goal setting. Firstly, we discussed the importance of goal setting, after which we demonstrated ways in which you can go about your training to remain focused on achieving your gym goals. With regard to the latter, we noted that it is prudent to mix up your workout routine to prevent boredom, remain motivated and keep that all important momentum flowing. However, there are many more benefits to avoiding exercise monotony than first meets the eye – one of the most important of which pertains to how adding variation to your regime positively affects the physiological training response.

Allow me to elaborate…

During the first couple of weeks of a new training programme the body adapts quickly. You are noticing training and/or technical gains left, right and centre and life is just dandy – you are a member of the ‘fast adaptation phase’. However, after this initial period (about 2-3 weeks), this membership expires and your body signs up to become a member of the ‘stabilisation phase’. While here, your body is much less responsive to the same training stimulus and subsequently training gains are less prominent. This effect occurs because the bodies adaptive response dulls, that is, your body gets bored and doesn’t feel the need to invest in you if you aren’t willing to change things up a bit – which is exactly what you need to do to ensure continued adaptation.

Switching up your workout also helps to:
• Prevent overtraining
• Re-invigorate your desire to workout
• Keep your mind fresh and brain healthy
• Build new muscles and discover ones you never knew you had
• Prevent a weight-loss plateau
• Add a social element to your routine/meet new people
• Prevent injury


How Can I Add Variation to My Cardio Routine?

Outlined below are seven great ways to mix up your cardio routine and stay motivated. Any sensible combination of these can really help to re-invigorate your workouts both mentally and physically.


Increase Training Intensity

This is a really easy variable to manipulate and is particularly applicable if you partake in speed and power based activities. It is also a great way to optimise energy expenditure during a workout. To put into action simply strike a balance between working hard and hardly working to ensure you are not over-doing or even under-doing it. You can measure your exercise intensity by subjectively assessing how hard you feel you are working or by objectively looking at your heart rate. As a general rule of thumb, the higher these measures are, the higher the exercise intensity.

For example, you may wish to challenge yourself on the treadmill by increasing the speed and/or gradient at pre-determined intervals i.e. 0.5 kmph and/or 1% every 2-3 minutes. Alternatively, you can keep the exercise intensity the same during your workout but increase it each time you work out. The general principles of increasing intensity can be applied to most exercises, including cycling which can be made more demanding by increasing the number of rotations per minute and/or power output, or rowing which can be made more difficult by increasing the number of repetitions per minute and/or power output per stroke.


Increase Training Difficulty

Challenge yourself by changing the environment you are exercising in, such as going from sea-level to altitude, structuring two workout sessions consecutively or training in a hot environment. There are plenty of different ways you can make this transition fun and exciting i.e. walk or jog up and down a mountain (Snowdon, Ben Nevis or Scafell Pike) with friends or family, perform a quick mini-circuit of exercises at the end of your workout, or contact your local University to see if there are any Sports Science related research studies you can participate in – researchers are always looking to recruit and often have very interesting exercise protocols in the heat, cold or at altitude which you may be able to partake in.


Consider ‘Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis’ (NEAT)

If you’re struggling to fit a cardio session into your weekly regime or if you simply don’t feel like exercising on a particular day then fear not, NEAT is at the rescue! NEAT refers to the energy we expend doing daily activities that doesn’t include exercise. This can be anything from taking the stairs instead of the lift, opening doors manually, brushing your teeth an extra minute or tapping your foot to a song. Although such activities do not appear to encompass the prowess of an all-out cardio session, there is mounting evidence to suggest that including NEAT into your daily routine is an effective means of staying fit and healthy. Take for instance an eloquent study by Levine et al.(1) who examined the effects of NEAT on sixteen non-obese individuals who were fed 1000 calories per day in excess of weight-maintenance requirements for eight weeks. The scientists revealed that the average increase in NEAT (336 kcal/day) accounted for two-thirds of the increase in daily energy expenditure and that those who tended to over-eat could counteract fat gain by incorporating more NEAT based activities into their daily routine. They concluded that NEAT dissipated excess energy to preserve leanness and that those who failed to incorporate NEAT into their daily regime were at a greater risk of ready fat gain. Bottom line, NEAT is awesome (and easy!).


Try Something New

If you find yourself repulsed at the thought of running down the same old road or counting down the seconds on the cross-trainer then it’s time to change exercises. This can be a relatively easy and motivating transition because there is absolutely no shortage of different types of exercise to try. If you tend to gravitate toward more traditional activities such as walking, running, cycling or swimming, why not try something new such as an aerobic dancing, hiking, stepping, or water aerobics. Indeed, you may wish to indulge your thirst for adventure with rock-climbing or fell running. If it’s the weight room which occupies your interest and you’re fed up of the sight of the Smith machine then leave it behind and work on improving your technique on Olympic lifts or alternatively, sign up for a kettlebell class. Signing up for a team sport such as football, rugby, or even doubles tennis or badminton can be an effective means of getting away from solitary pursuits and adding a social element to your regime.


What Variation Can Do For You

Light Exercise (~240 kcal/hour expenditure)
Walk (slow), cycling (light), golf, tennis (doubles), general housework, callisthenics (yoga), bowling, aqua-aerobics (light), skate boarding.

Moderate Exercise (~420 kcal/hour expenditure)
Walking (brisk), cycling (moderate), swimming (freestyle), weight training (light), tennis (singles), squash, badminton, football, basketball (training), volleyball, dancing.

Heavy Exercise (~600 kcal/hour expenditure)
Walking (power), jogging, cycling (vigorous), swimming (strenuous), weight training (heavy), wrestling, judo, boxing/sparring, kick boxing, Tae Bo, climbing stairs, dancing (strenuous).


Change Tracks

Music can significantly enhance your levels of motivation to workout. What’s more, listening to music while exercising has also been found to improve your mood and enable you to enjoy your workouts more. These favourable effects have even inspired top researchers at established Universities to conduct research on this topic area and they too appear to be in agreement – music is beneficial to exercise(2)! So, next time you reach for your gym shoes, reach for your headphones as well, and be sure to have a variety of playlists available to you so that you can alternate tracks between exercises to keep things fresh – after all, there’s only so many times the human body is capable of listening to Gangnam Style!


Add Weights

When many of us hear the words ‘cardio workout’ we immediately think of equipment such as the treadmill, cross-trainer, bike, or rowing machine. But why limit yourself to just these pieces of equipment? Keep the mind (and body) guessing by incorporating circuit training exercises into your training regime. These may include (but not limited to) seated dips, pull ups, inverted rows, dumbbell lateral raises, high knee sprints, jumping jacks, kick-backs, lunges, squat thrusts, burpees and star jumps (to name just a few!). You can either create a workout based entirely on these exercises or use them in addition to your existing cardio workout. These exercises are great at adding variety to your workout regime, increasing muscle mass and burning calories. What’s more, they can be performed in most places, on your own or with others, such as in a circuit training class.


Take Home Message

There is no limit to the number of ways you can mix-up your cardio workout. A varied approach is useful to keep things fresh, ensure continued adaptation and motivation, and most importantly, keep cardio training fun and enjoyable. It is prudent to write down your workout before you start so that you have an outline of how your session will progress, although rigidity with this is unnecessary as you may wish to mix up your routine at any given point. Be sure to monitor your workout carefully so that you can keep track of your progress.



1. Levine, J. A., Eberhardt, N. L., & Jensen, M. D. (1998). Role of non-exercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science Reports,
2. Waterhouse, J., Hudson, B., & Edwards, B. (2009). Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20, 662-669.



Writer and expert

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