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How to make your cardio workouts more effective

Ah, cardio. We love to hate it, and hate to love it.

While there’s no doubt that cardio workouts should be included in all of our training plans, it can easily become one of the most dreaded sessions of the week. There’s something about running on the treadmill for an hour at the gym that’s not exactly appealing.

There’s something about running on the treadmill for an hour at the gym that’s not exactly appealing.

How then, can you spice up your cardio workout and make it not only more effective, but more enjoyable and engaging to boot?

To help put this age-old issue to rest, we caught up with Dr. Caitlin Glenn Sapp, a USA Triathlon Certified Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). She specializes in all things endurance, and has a fresh perspective on modern-day cardio workouts for the treadmill and stationary bike.

We hate to break it to you, but the treadmill still reigns supreme when it comes to the best bang for your cardio buck.

To start off, how much physical activity is recommended each week?

The Surgeon General’s recommendations for physical activity is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. Broken down, this is approximately 30 minutes of exercise on most days per week.

So, you can achieve this goal by going to the gym for 30 minutes per day during the work week.

What are some of your favorite ways to work on cardio at the gym?

When integrating cardio at the gym, I like to keep the sessions focused on an objective. If the goal is to complete a run workout, I may add some hills or intervals that the treadmill can help me execute.

If my goal is to simply achieve an effective cardio workout, I suggest keeping the sessions fun. For example, this might mean 20 minutes on the treadmill, followed by 15 minutes on the elliptical and 10 minutes on the rower.

What are some fun or unique ways to spice up a cardio routine in the gym?

Cardio routines can be spiced up by varying intensities and equipment. You can also listen to your favorite music or podcast, workout with friends, or take a group class.

I also like to suggest having a goal before starting. If you have 30 minutes to workout, decide what you want to achieve before entering the gym. If you want to execute high-intensity intervals, the spin bike may be a good place to start for the day.

Like I mentioned, the workouts can also be made more fun by using a variety of cardio equipment.

How can you make the treadmill more effective and less terrible?

Establish the objective of your workout before it even starts. The treadmill is a great tool to execute form specific work, return from an injury, climb hills or hit pace targets.

The treadmill also allows us to listen to music we enjoy, join run partners who run at a different pace and allow us full access to our fluids and nutrition. 

How can you get the most out of a limited amount of time?

Establish intervals throughout the workout. This will allow the individual to achieve a high quality session in a limited amount of time.

Another way is by using the treadmill’s capabilities to your advantage. This can improve run form, increase strength and reduce impact on the individual.

You can get a great workout with the treadmill’s incline even at a walk. For the busy professional, a treadmill hike can allow one to read and catch up on emails while still having a quality session.

Can you recommend a specific treadmill workout?

I recommend a treadmill hike. During this workout, the focus is on tall, upright posture. The individual can think about producing force from the gluteal musculature which translates to good run form.

  • Five- to 10-minute walk/jog warm-up
  • 3x through:
    • Five minutes walking at a six to 10 percent incline between 3.0 – 3.5 mph (do not hold on!)
    • Three minutes at 0 percent, at either a walk or light jog
  • Five-minute warm-down

Now, how can you make a spin bike more effective? How can you get the most out of a limited amount of time?

To make the spin bike more effective, be sure it fits properly. You can ask a gym employee to assist you with this.

Some pointers include: be sure the hips are not rocking back and forth, the knee should never go over the toes, and the knee should be slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal stroke.

Once you are in a good position, mix up the intensity of your workout. If striving for some high-intensity intervals, keep these between 30 seconds and three minutes.

Can you recommend any specific spin bike workout?

  • Five-minute warm-up at a comfortable effort
  • Repeat the following three times (this is also part of the warm-up):
    • 30 seconds strong — think 90 percent of max effort
    • 1 minute easy
  • Repeat the following three times:
    • Three minutes at a strong effort
    • Three to five minutes easy — allow your breathing to return to normal before beginning the next interval
  • Five-minute easy warm-down

If you could only do one, what is the most effective cardio tool in the gym?

The treadmill is arguably the most effective cardio tool in the gym. The treadmill is weight bearing, safe, requires a variable amount oxygen to complete the task at hand, and is very versatile.

You can step on a treadmill and complete a task at any intensity. If you suffer from joint pain or are returning from an injury, you can increase the activity to moderate by using the incline rather than increasing speed.

For the most novice gym goer, what are some metrics they can use to track and improve their performance?

  • MET ranges:
    • < 3: Light physical activity
      • Sleeping, watching TV, very light walk
    • 3-6: Moderate physical activity
      • Walking 3.0 mph, leisurely bike ride, gardening
    • > 6: Vigorous physical activity
      • Jogging, lifting, competitive sports
    • Heart rate:
    • Power:
      • If located on spin bikes, the individual can track their power outputs for each workout. A goal could be to ride steady at a high power or perform intervals at specific power ranges.
    • Pace:
    • Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE):
      • Scaling the workouts on a 0 to 10 scale at similar heart rates, paces or power outputs can help an individual track their improvements. If putting forth less effort to move faster, progressions in aerobic fitness would be achieved.

How does heart rate boost effectiveness?

Heart rate is an excellent tool in boosting effectiveness by providing an objective measure to how the body is responding to stress. This tool can be used to determine the appropriate exercise prescription for a workout.

Knowing how to use heart rate can provide the appropriate feedback on what intensity is suitable for the goal of the workout. This tool can allow us to know when we need to push harder or pull back during a session.

You mentioned group classes, what are some of their positives and negatives?

A lot of positives to group classes! A group setting is motivating and can push you harder than you can go yourself.

Also, these classes are led by a fitness professional who can be sure you’re performing the exercise prescription properly and with good form. You can also bring a friend to the class. This is also a great way to meet new people and form a community of fitness friends.

A negative to group classes could be the lack of individuality to specific goals. The class is written with the generalization that everyone can safely complete the workout.

But if you use a heart rate monitor to track and analyze all your workouts, including group workouts, you can make sure you get the most out of your workouts — without overdoing it.


Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals or physicians. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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