What’s the best running workout if your aim is to increase your cardio health or to burn more fat?
A lot of people won’t understand the question. Running is running right? How can there be different ‘types’ of running workout?
Actually, there are plenty of different ways you can enjoy running and each of them is really rather different in terms of what it does for your health and how it feels to do it. You can run on a treadmill, you can run outdoors, you can run up a hill, you can do sprints, you can use HIIT, you can do speed drills…
Read on and we’ll discuss the benefits and weaknesses of each of these different types of running, so that you can find the best type(s) for your goals!
The most obvious way to enjoy running is of course to simply get out there and start running. This is what most of us think of when we hear the word ‘running’ – we imagine someone hitting the tarmac and just running for a long distance and a long amount of time before eventually giving up.
This type of running is an old favourite but it has lately fallen out of favour somewhat with the ‘functional’ crowd. Recently, more and more people are starting to prefer HIIT over steady state cardio for its ability to help them run faster, burn more calories in a shorter amount of time and improve their VO2 max without burning muscle.
That all sounds very appealing and it is true that in the long term, HIIT burns more calories than steady state. But don’t write steady state cardio off just yet – it has a lot of advantages over HIIT still and some people still swear it is the better option. In fact, it’s a pretty heated discussion with lots of strong opinions on either side.
If nothing else, steady state is easier for those with heart problems or weak joints (HIIT is surprisingly brutal) and furthermore, it can help to improve the strength of your heart (the left ventricle to be precise). This lowers your resting heartrate, which in turn has countless very important health benefits – benefits that you just can’t get from HIIT!
That said, HIIT is still very promising and has a lot of benefits that steady state doesn’t. The ideal workout would combine both together, although if you don’t have time it will likely just come down to personal preference.
Essentially, HIIT is a form of training that involves alternating between periods of intense exertion (sprinting at 90-100% max heartrate) and periods of relative recovery where you might jog or walk gently as your body recovers.
The benefit of this is that you’re switching between aerobic and anaerobic activity. When you’re sprinting, you’ll be in an aerobic state because you’ll be placing energy demands on your body that are too great and too fast for you to possibly provide the requisite energy via your heart and lungs. Instead, the body is forced to use energy that’s in your blood and muscles and when this gets depleted, you’ll find yourself slowing back down.
The great thing is that this means you now have to burn lots of fat because there’s no energy left anywhere else. And best of all, this process carries on for long after you’ve finished training meaning that you’ll carry on burning more calories for the rest of the day. Many people call this the ‘afterburn effect’.
On top of those benefits, HIIT also takes considerably less time, trains the muscles harder (because you’re sprinting) and thus prevents muscle atrophy and improves your max running speed and VO2 max. Learn more about the benefits of HIIT here.
Another option is to go running on the treadmill, which you can use for both steady state and HIIT training.
The problem with treadmill running though, is that it doesn’t work the muscles as hard as running without a treadmill. That’s because you don’t need to propel yourself forward – you simply need to lift your legs up off of the treadmill while it moves underneath. You also don’t get a lot of the other benefits – such as the benefits associated with getting fresh air and sunlight (which are considerable).
But don’t write treadmill running off entirely! Running on a treadmill has various other advantages. For starters, it allows you to burn calories in a very convenient manner while you’re at home – which means you can still watch your favorite TV show or even read something on a Kindle. You don’t need to go outside in the cold either, which means that you will be more likely to train when the weather is bad.
On top of that, treadmills allow you to precisely set your speed, duration and distance. That means you can much more tightly control the way you’re going to run and how far and fast you intend on going.
Speed drills are small exercise routines that are designed specifically to challenge your speed and to help you improve your sprinting ability. The best speed drills will still train your cardio to a big extent though and burn a lot of calories, so this is definitely an option.
Examples include ‘Marching As’ (keeping your knees high as possible while skipping), ‘High Knees’ (running on the spot with your knees high), ‘Prowler Sprints’ (pulling a prowler piled with weight), ‘Overspeed Training’ (running downhill in order to teach your legs how to move faster!). See more here.
Prowler sprints are an example of resistance cardio – meaning that you’re running against some kind of resistance. This is an excellent way to build more strength while running, which thereby prevents muscle loss.
Other examples include running in shallow water, running up hills or even running with a parachute that is designed to offer resistance! You can find out more about resistance cardio and why it’s so effective here.