Although I do a fair amount of incline walking on a treadmill, I'm really not a huge fan of cardio equipment.
As useful as these pieces may be, I can't help but feel like a lab rat when I'm moving frantically but not actually going anywhere.
Actually, rather than saying that I don't like cardio equipment, I should say that there's not much I do like about stationary cardio.
The seats and riding position on the bicycles are murder for anyone who's used to riding a proper bike. The elliptical machines make me feel kind of (or very) goofy. And the stairmill is just plain torture.
But they do serve their purpose during the colder months (of which Chicago has many), so cardio equipment and I coexist when we must.
But I don't really look forward to my indoor cardio and therefore don't put much intensity into it.
Luckily, at least for a few months every year, Mother Nature provides the perfect solution.
Get outside and do cardio!
Being a natural ectomorph, I could likely get away without doing a minute of cardio for the rest of my life and still maintain a lean physique (as long as I lift hard and monitor my caloric intake).
But after 5 months of barely breaking a sweat and being chilled 24 hours a day, I can't wait to tear it up in the heat and sunshine come spring.
In other words, I'm completely drawn to outdoor cardio!
The top 4 best outdoor cardio options
The possibilities are essentially endless, but some forms of cardio take better advantage of the open air than others.
Outdoor cardio option #1 – Jogging
Yes, the old tried-and-true cardio.
Not only is jogging the most well known form of cardio, it's also the most hated on.
For the past 5 to 10 years, lifters (myself included) have been ripping the grandfather of cardio a new one, and for good reason.
Endurance exercise sucks for building muscle, can be boring as hell, and can increase cortisol for a period of time that may do more harm than good.
If you need further reason not to jog just look at the common “runner's body” that's the exact opposite of what most of us want.
But! Keep in mind that professional endurance athletes are training their skinny bodies for hours and hours per day, not a mere 30 minutes at a time.
On that note, I promise you won't waste away if you go for a light, 30-minute jog a few times per week. Shorter sessions of endurance cardio are only going to be beneficial to you.
You'll burn extra calories, improve your heart and lung health, and, as with bodyweight exercises, be encouraged to stay at a more honest weight.
For myself, I've taken to jogging the long way home from the gym ever since the weather broke in Chicago.
Why? I just want to be outside in the mild morning air. To feel my lungs working and to get a good sweat going.
Much like Forrest Gump, I just feel like run-NING!
Outdoor cardio: How to incorporate jogging
If you haven't run for a while (or ever), the key is to start slow and build up from there.
Start by focusing on time in motion rather than distance covered. This'll help you avoid aches and pains from trying to go to0 hard too fast.
Hey, us heavy lifters don't always transition seamlessly to higher impact endurance work.
A good place to begin would be an every-other-day schedule, either after or on a separate day from lifting.
Start with just a 5-minute easy jog to feel things out.
If that was too easy and you don't have banged up knees or shin splints, add another 5 minutes for each of the next few sessions.
When you find that sweet spot of working hard but still enjoying yourself, add another minute here or there, but avoid putting too much emphasis on increasing the intensity of your jogs so running stays fun.
Save your energy for the weights!
Outdoor cardio option #2 – Cycling
My Windsor Oxford is nearly a perfect city bike.
When I say cycling, I'm not talking about getting dressed head to toe in slippery spandex and slapping through gears like you're entering a cheat code.
But rather, I'm thinking about plain ol' bike riding – something far too many miss out on when we grow up.
I actually went from the ages of 16 to 26 without even sitting on a bicycle. When you and your friends start getting cars, who needs a kid's toy?
But in college, I was living with my brother-in-law and noticed a really sweet Specialized Rockhopper from the late 90's in our garage. Turns out, someone gave the bike to him but he never rode it. Unsurprisingly, he replied, “it's all yours!” when I asked about it.
After the first ride, I was hooked!
I stopped driving the 1.5 miles to campus, started running errands on two wheels, and would hit some extended rides for light cardio.
How to get a bike
If you don't already have a bike, getting your hands on one shouldn't be a problem.
Luckily, people are always in a hurry to throw money around in an attempt to lose weight, but aren't willing to put forth much effort.
So chances are good that you know someone with a nearly brand new bike in their shed that they'd gladly give or sell you for next to nothing (gotta make room for that new riding lawnmower!).
Start asking friends and family members, check Craigslist, or see what kind of deals you can find online.
Here's the city bike I currently ride.
After you have a bike…
Outdoor cardio: How to incorporate cycling
There are a bunch of ways to fit cycling into your life. Consider:
- running errands
- bike trails
- neighborhood rides (check for local events here)
The best way to incorporate cycling into your life is to swap your daily commute for some peddling (if it's within a reasonable distance and you've got options to bypass highways).
You were going to spend that time traveling anyway and since you have to go to work, it's not like you can hit the snooze button and skip out on cardio.
BONUS: you'll save a lot of money in the process.
You can also hop on your bike for those in-between distance errands.
I always found it annoying that in the suburbs, everything was just a little too far away to make walking practical but was a pathetic excuse for a drive.
So if the post office is a 30-minute walk but only a 5 minute drive, you can split the difference with a perfect 10-15 minute bike ride.
One of my favorite summer activities was to throw some bikes in the back of my S-10, drive the five miles to a decent trail, and put in a couple hours of riding with a friend in more relaxing setting.
However you choose to ride, you're almost certain to feel better both during and after.
Outdoor cardio option #3 – Hiking
It's almost impossible not to feel “complete” and totally at ease when you're out hiking in nature.
And as an added bonus, it counts as cardio!
Hiking is great for overall fitness because it's sustained endurance activity much like jogging. But unlike jogging, each step is different, so you don't have to worry about overuse injuries.
Hiking taxes many rarely used muscles in your feet, ankles, and hips. These smaller muscles struggle to maintain stability as you hop over rocks and logs, navigate tricky descents, and power up steep climbs.
This puts hiking squarely in the “prehab” category of activity.
But the major benefit of hiking is that no matter how much it qualifies as exercise on paper, it's as fun and relaxing as nearly any other weekend activity.
A long hike is like taking a short vacation.
Outdoor cardio: How to incorporate hiking
Growing up, I was lucky enough to live near the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. So sandy trails were always available to me (although I usually opted to play video games in the air conditioning).
But even if you live in an urban setting as I do now, nearly every city has some type of park or nature preserve that could easily serve the same purpose.
Unlike jogging or cycling, both of which fit neatly into your daily routine, hiking is a great weekend activity. So plan your trip ahead of time, even if it's just the night before.
Know where you're going, which trails you want to hike, and who's coming with you. Don't forget pack a lunch with plenty of water.
I've learned that if I don't bring food with me, I feel way too inclined to justify a post-hike “refeed” meal at the local Chinese Buffet where I accidentally pack away a few thousand calories.
As far as distance, covering a few miles really shouldn't pose too much of a challenge for most, especially when you're having fun.
Just do what feels good and enjoy your time outdoors.
Outdoor cardio option #4 – Sprinting
I'm generally not a fan of HIIT since it taps into my motivation and energy that are better allocated to lifting.
But aside from that, I also avoid it because it can be a real pain in the ass to execute on indoor cardio equipment.
Often times, you're stuck with preset intervals like 1-minute high followed by 1-minute low. This aren't optimal intervals for all-out effort exercise.
Even if you choose to do things manually, you're left rapidly stabbing your finger at the speed or incline buttons which never respond as fast as you want. Now you've just lost 5 seconds of your 15-second sprint fiddling with buttons.
But when you take yourself outside and control the intensity with your own body rather than a piece of equipment, the process becomes much more enjoyable.
Plus, getting your heart and lungs pumping outside just plain feels right.
Back in college, I used to run hill sprints on sand dunes with a friend who was a lifelong runner.
Talk about an ass-kicking workout!
When going all-out, I could only manage about 15-20 seconds of true sprinting, which quickly transitioned to barely moving forward, then involuntary collapsing in the sand.
Now that kind of HIIT I like!
Outdoor cardio: How to incorporate sprinting
If I'm going to do HIIT, I like to schedule it on a day I don't lift or at least for a different workout (i.e., HIIT in the a.m. and lifting in the afternoon).
Continuing with the enjoyment theme, I much prefer to use distance between objects to separate my intervals rather than time.
I wouldn't waste time staring at a watch trying to get some scientifically proven ratio of high intensity to low intensity intervals.
If you're going all out, your body will take care of the timing on its own.
One option is to sprint toward an object and walk back (i.e., bottom of the hill to the top). Since you're walking, it should take at least three times as long to walk back than it did to run, which will give you good interval times.
Or if you're not planning on staying put, pick a repeating object like telephone poles and sprint to one then walk to the next.
If you're intervals are too long or short, just pick a different object that gives you intensity intervals that feel right to you.
3 tips to make your outdoor cardio more effective
Removing yourself from the recycled air of your gym and out into the great outdoors is an excellent first step to having a kick ass cardio session, but there are other things you can do to squeeze all you can from your cardio.
Effective cardio tip #1 – Get the right shoes
Sure, any old shoes will work well enough for most activities, but one pair won't be optimal for all activities.
Track shoes are great for sprinting, but aren't tough enough to stand up to the hazards of rough trails. Chuck Taylors are awesome for squats and deadlifts, but aren't ideal for jogging. And hiking shoes are too clunky for road running.
Going barefoot might even be the best option.
I've found that I much prefer going without shoes all together when training in the sand to not only be lighter on my feet but also to avoid finding sand in my shoes for the next year.
However, if you're looking for a shoe that's pretty good all-around and looks good enough to transition to casual wear, I recommend the Saucony Bullet retro trainer.
Effective cardio tip #2 – Take a fat burner
When I'm waking up at 5 am, training 6-7 days per week, and being extra diligent with my diet, I want to maximize results.
To make my training as efficient as possible, I always have a fat burner, pre-workout, or at least a few cups of coffee before doing any cardio.
The biggest benefit of using a fat burner is that it slaps the sleepy/lazy feeling right out of me, allowing me to push myself harder.
Typically, a fat burner will provide some combination of the following benefits:
- Improve mental focus
- Better sense of well-being throughout the day
- Decreased perceived exertion (lets you work hard without feeling like you're working hard)
- Increased fat mobilization
- Elevated metabolism
- Appetite suppression
I've recently been taking (and loving) RED-BURNER and it's been delivering on all of the above points without that uncomfortable, jittery feeling sometimes caused by stimulant-heavy fat burners.
Effective cardio tip #3 – Always warm up
Guys spending 99% of their gym time lifting weights who suddenly decide to go head first into a full on cardio routine are particularly susceptible to injury.
Jogging can really batter your knees, sprinting subjects your hamstrings to tears, and you can strain your hip flexors climbing over rough terrain on hikes.
The worst possible outcome of cardio would be for it to screw up your lifting progress, so always make sure you warmup properly.
Depending on the type of cardio you plan on doing, you can find plenty of specific stretches, drills, and techniques on Youtube.
Keep your cardio enjoyable!
If you're doing cardio for physique purposes instead of athletic performance, keep in mind that setting personal records isn't the end goal.
Cardio is simply a tool that can be rotated in and out of your routine to help you achieve the body you want.
You shouldn't dread your cardio, you don't need to agonize over the details, and you don't need to strive for constant continued improvement to see the benefits.
If at any point you start to resent your cardio sessions, put 'em on the back burner for a while and focus all of your efforts on pumping that iron until the cardio itch returns on it's own.
At the end of the day, outdoor cardio should be about getting outside and enjoying the feelings that come from getting your heart and lungs pumping in the great outdoors.
All the best,