Running, cycling, hiking, swimming…the list of cardio exercises goes on. Cardio plays a big role in many a workout routine, and for good reason: It offers a slew of health benefits, from lowering blood pressure and increasing lung capacity, to improving sleep quality, countering anxiety and depression, and more.
Though getting your cardio can be as simple as lacing up your sneakers and jogging around the neighborhood, there are a few things you should know about it in order to reap the most benefits possible and avoid injury. And, as with any exercise, there are a few mistakes you’ll want to avoid. Here, trainers break down the most common cardio mistakes they see—and how to make sure your routine is maximized for major results.
1. Doing too much, too soon
Have you ever felt super-motivated to pick up running and decided to pound the pavement every day, only to get hit with shin splints that put you out of commission for weeks? “Doing too much, too soon, with cardio is a big mistake many newbies make,” says Rachel MacPherson, C.P.T., a trainer for Garage Gym Reviews. It’s a recipe for getting injured or overtraining, especially with high-impact workouts like running.
“It’s better to stay on the side of too easy than to push too hard because it’s very challenging to backtrack from overdoing it,” she says.
A good rule of thumb is to increase your time, mileage, or intensity by about 10 percent per week on average. “[For judging] intensity, you can use a heart rate monitor or rate of perceived exertion scale from one to 10, where a one is slow walking and 10 is an all-out sprint,” she says.
2. Not cross-training
When you find an exercise you enjoy, it makes sense that you’d want to stick with it. However, failing to switch up your cardio routines can hurt you in the long run, says Dan Bulay, C.P.T., co-owner of District Training Facility in New Jersey.
Not only do you risk eventually becoming bored by the exercise, but your body might plateau doing the same activity over and over. “It’s important to have variation in your cardiovascular training, no matter your sport or activity level,” he says. “Most people enjoy variety in their day-to-day lives, so doing the same thing every day can make a lot of people less likely to commit to their long-term fitness goals.”
“Finding alternative workouts that target the same goals is one way around this,” he suggests. It can be as simple as hopping on the Stairmaster instead of the treadmill, or, as Bulay suggests, jumping rope or non-contact boxing if you don’t have a gym membership.
3. Relying exclusively on cardio for fat loss
Lots of people pick up cardio in hopes of losing weight, but it’s not the quickest ticket to dropping body fat. “Steady-pace, low-intensity cardio is very good for toning the heart and strengthening the cardiovascular system, but it won’t help you get shredded, no matter how much or how often you do it,” says George Yang, C.P.T., founder of YanreFitness.
Even if you stay in the “fat-burning zone” (which is about 55 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate), you’re still not burning fat efficiently, he explains. Better bets: HIIT workouts like intervals on a treadmill or resistance training.
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While the majority of calories you burn jogging for an hour will come from fat instead of carbs, you’ll burn many more total calories—and thus more calories from fat—in less time doing HIIT, Yang says. As for resistance training? Building muscle mass boosts your metabolism, meaning you burn more calories all day, every day.
4. Leaning On machines (Literally)
If you crank the incline on the treadmill up all the way or kick up the speed on the Stairmaster but hold onto the handles for dear life, you’re doing your workout—and your results—a disservice.
“Holding onto the top of the machine cancels out the impact of the incline,” says South Carolina-based trainer Shalama Jackson, C.P.T. “If the incline is set to 10 percent and you hold on, your body leans back at 10 percent, making it as if you are walking on flat ground.” On the Stairmaster, meanwhile, leaning on the handles reduces core engagement and sabotages your posture.
On the treadmill, ramp the incline up only as high as allows you to keep walking without holding onto the machine, Jackson suggests. And, instead of the Stairmaster, try walking lunges to really burn out those legs. Or, at least vow to stick to a manageable speed and keep your hands off the handles.
5. Not warming up or cooling down
We get it; your schedule is packed and you barely have time to squeeze your cardio in, let alone warm up and cool down. But please, hear this out: “Even when you’re only doing a moderate intensity cardio workout, your body will still benefit from a gradual warm-up and some dynamic stretching before you start, as well as a cool-down and some static stretching when you’re done,” says trainer Caroline Grainger, C.P.T., of FitnessTrainer.com. “It’ll allow you to go harder during the main phase of your workout and prevent injuries.” Check out this guide to warming up and cooling down to make sure you’re incorporating these bookends into your routine properly.