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Cardio Workouts for Runners: Elite Running Cardio Secrets

The top cardio exercises beneficial for runners include interval training, tempo runs, and long steady runs. Runners should incorporate these cardio workouts into their routine at least three times a week.

10 min readAugust 3rd, 2023
NTWritten By Natalie Thongrit

In this guide, you’ll learn more about the importance of cardio workouts for runners, as well as the top cardio workouts you can incorporate into your training regimen for maximum results.

An Introduction to Cardio Exercise

During a cardiovascular workout, the heart and breathing rate increase. These increases allow for maximum oxygen in the blood, helping you to use oxygen more efficiently while exercising.

By using oxygen more efficiently, you will have more sustained energy throughout the workout.

To qualify as cardio, an exercise must meet the following criteria:

  • Boosts the heart rate
  • Raises respiration (breathing rate)
  • Increases oxygen levels and blood flow
  • Uses the large muscle groups rhythmically and repetitively

Examples of cardio exercise include walking, jogging, running, cycling, and dancing.

You can do cardio workouts at home, at the gym on the treadmill, or in an aerobics or spin class. Any rhythmic activity that gets your heart and breathing rate up counts.

Some personal trainers also offer cardio-focused training sessions and can design workouts to help you achieve specific goals, such as running faster or improving your endurance.

Regardless of where you do cardio or your activity of choice, this type of exercise progressively challenges the internal organs, particularly the heart and lungs. These progressive challenges allow for improved performance and function over time.

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Is Cardio Good for Weight Loss?

Cardio can help you achieve your weight loss goals. However, if you’re interested in losing weight and decreasing your body fat percentage, cardio alone is not the best approach.

It’s true that you can burn calories while doing cardiovascular workouts. However, doing more cardio won’t necessarily lead to faster progress and increased weight loss.

A combination of cardio and strength training will likely be more beneficial.

Strength training will help you build muscle, and gaining muscle mass improves your metabolism. With a faster metabolism, you will burn more calories at rest and while exercising.

Too much cardio and insufficient strength training could even cause you to lose muscle mass (especially if you’re also undereating), decreasing your metabolism and preventing yourself from burning as many calories.

Getting Started with Cardio Workouts

These best practices can help you get the most out of your cardio workouts, whether you’re new to this type of exercise or you just want to maximize your results.

How Often Should You Do Cardio?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the average person should strive to meet the following recommendations for aerobic activity:

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (such as walking) per week, OR
  • 75 minutes of vigorous activity (such as running) per week

For most people, meeting these guidelines is a good starting point. If you’re working toward specific goals, though, you might need to increase or decrease your aerobic activity.

For example, say you’re preparing for a powerlifting competition. You’ll probably do less cardio because you have different objectives in mind (i.e., gaining muscle and strength).

Before starting a new cardio routine, be sure to consult a physician as well. They can offer more specific guidance tailored to your health history and needs.

How Long Should Your Cardio Workout Last?

The length of your cardio workout can depend on many factors, including your current fitness levels and health or performance goals.

If you’re new to cardio and want to improve your general heart health, doing thirty minutes five days per week (150 minutes total) could be sufficient.

Conversely, if you’re more advanced, you might shoot for three 25-minute workouts (75 minutes total) that are more intense — perhaps featuring a mix of sprinting and moderate running.

A good rule of thumb is to start low and slow. Then, work your way up to more intense workouts, especially if you’re new to cardio, returning from a long exercise break, or recovering from an injury.

Remember that ten minutes of moderate cardio is better than zero. You can always add more if you feel up to it.

What’s My Target Heart Rate?

Keeping track of your heart rate in beats per minute (BPM) can help you monitor the intensity of your workouts and identify when you need to push harder or slow down.

According to the American Heart Association, a person’s target heart rate decreases as they age. Here are some general suggestions to use as a beginning reference point:

AgeTarget Heart RateAverage Maximum Heart Rate
20 years old100-170 BPM200 BPM 
30 years old95-162 BPM190 BMP
35 years old93-157 BPM185 BPM
40 years old90-153 BPM180 BPM
45 years old88-149 BPM175 BPM
50 years old85-145 BPM170 BPM
55 years old83-140 BPM165 BPM
60 years old80-136 BPM160 BPM
65 years old78-132 BPM155 BPM
70 years old75-128 BPM150 BPM

You can use these numbers as guides to help you measure the intensity of your workout.

Many running workouts tell you to keep your heart rate within a certain range. For example, one might say to shoot for 60-70 percent of your max heart rate.

If you know the average max heart rate for a 35-7ear-old is 185 BPM, you’ll know to watch your heart rate and avoid going above 111-130 BPM.

How Should I Warm Up and Cool Down?

A proper warm-up and cool-down can help you prepare for your cardio workout and bring your heart rate back down to normal when you’re finished.

An effective cardio warm-up might start with a few minutes of walking to increase your core body temperature and get your blood flowing. Then, you can spend a few minutes doing mobility exercises to further warm up the ankles, calves, knees, and hips before you get into a more intense workout.

As for a cool-down, you might also spend a few minutes jogging and walking to reduce your heart rate and catch your breath. Then, you can do static stretches (each stretch is held for around 30 seconds) to loosen up your muscles and minimize post-workout soreness.

Best Cardio Workouts for Runners to Try

If you want to increase speed, endurance, or anything in between, these cardio workouts can help you enhance your running performance and achieve your specific goals.

Hill Workouts

A hill workout is a type of interval running workout that involves running uphill for a set period and then running on flat ground to rest and catch your breath before tackling the next hill.

You can perform hill workouts outdoors while literally running up a hill outdoors, or you can do them on a treadmill while adjusting the incline. Hill workouts challenge your cardiovascular endurance and your lower body muscles.

An example of a treadmill hill workout might look like this:

  • Warm-up: 10-minute walk or easy jog
  • Work interval: Run for 1 minute at maximum effort at a 3-4 percent incline
  • Rest interval: Jog for 1 minute at an easy pace at a 1 percent incline
  • Repeat: Alternate between work and rest intervals 6 more times,
  • Cool down: 5-minute easy jog

If you’re running outdoors, you might alternate between running up the hill, pushing yourself at your maximum effort, and then walking down.

Ladder Workouts

A ladder workout is another type of interval workout. It involves continuously adjusting the time and intensity of the intervals to keep challenging yourself.

Here’s an example of a ladder running workout:

  • Warm-up: 5-minute easy jog
  • Work interval: 5-minutes run at 50 percent of your max heart rate
  • Recovery interval: 1-minute easy jog
  • Work interval: 4-minute run at 60 percent of your max heart rate
  • Recovery interval: 1-minute easy jog
  • Work interval: 3-minute run at 70 percent of your max heart rate
  • Recovery interval: 1-minute easy jog
  • Work interval: 2-minute run at 80 percent of your max heart rate
  • Recovery interval: 1-minute easy jog
  • Work interval: 1-minute sprint (maximum effort)
  • Recovery interval: 1-minute easy jog
  • Cool down: 5-minute easy jog

If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can also measure your intensity on a scale of 1-10 (10 being a push to your absolute max and 1 being a leisurely jog). This measurement is sometimes called your Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE.

Running/Strength Combo Workouts

Some people like to combine running and strength training to get more bang for their buck. This approach allows for a more efficient workout and helps you achieve your cardio and strength goals.

A sample running and strength combo workout might look like this:

  • Warm-up: 5-minute easy jog
  • Run interval: 1-minute run at RPE 5
  • Strength interval: 1 minute of bodyweight squats
  • Run: 2-minute run at RPE 5
  • Strength: 1 minute of walking lunges
  • Run: 3-minute run at RPE 5
  • Strength: 1 minute of alternating donkey kicks
  • Run: 4-minute run at RPE 5
  • Strength: 1 minute of tricep dips
  • Run: 5-minute run at RPE 5
  • Strength: 1 minute of push-ups
  • Cool down: 5-minute easy jog

Depending on the amount of time you have to work out, you could also increase the duration of the run intervals (or increase the intensity and shorten the time) to challenge yourself further.

Sprint Interval Workouts

If you want to work on your speed and cardio endurance, sprint interval workouts can help. These workouts alternate between bouts sprinting and recovery periods of slower running or jogging.

Here’s a example of what a sprint interval workout might involve:

  • Warm-up: 5-minute easy jog
  • Run: 30-second fast run (not a sprint)
  • Recover: 1-minute easy jog
  • Run: 30-second fast run (not a sprint)
  • Recover: 1-minute easy jog
  • Run: 30-second fast run (not a sprint)
  • Recover: 1-minute easy jog
  • Run: 30-second sprint
  • Recover: 1-minute easy jog
  • Repeat: Repeat the run/recover cycle for a total of 20 minutes
  • Cool down: 5-minute easy jog

Sprint interval workouts are generally quite short. Because you’re pushing yourself so hard during the running intervals, you don’t need to exercise for as long as you would during a more moderate-intensity workout.

Tempo Running Workouts

Tempo runs are challenging but comfortable enough that you can sustain your pace for a while.

This type of run helps to increase your lactate threshold, which is the point when you switch from an aerobic to anaerobic workout (anaerobic means your body is using glucose for energy without oxygen).

Training this way improves your cardiovascular endurance and can help you increase your speed while running longer distances (it’s helpful for those planning on running longer races like marathons).

  • Warm-up: 1-2-mile easy run
  • Run: Run 3 miles at tempo pace (85-90 percent of your max heart rate)
  • Push: At the end of every ½ mile, push yourself for 60-seconds to get closer to 95-100 percent of your max heart rate
  • Cool down: 1-2-mile easy run

This running workout will take longer than some of the others featured in this guide, so save it for days when you have more time to dedicate to your training.

Fartlek Running Workouts

Fartlek is a Swedish word meaning “speed-play.” This type of workout involves experimenting with different speeds and distances within a single run.

Fartlek running workouts help you to improve various aspects of your performance, including speed and endurance. Here’s an example of a 5K Fartlek workout:

  • Warm-up: 5-10-minute easy run
  • Run: After the warm-up, increase your speed for one minute
  • Recover: Dop back to an easy pace for one minute
  • Run: Increase your speed for 60-90 seconds
  • Recover: Drop back to an easy pace for one minute
  • Repeat: Repeat this cycle for 20-25 minutes
  • Push: End the workout with a 2-minute surge at maximum speed
  • Cool-down: 5-minute easy run

If you don’t want to keep an eye on your watch through the whole run, you can use other markers to determine when you’ll increase or decrease your speed. For example, when you pass a lamp post, you might sprint until you reach the next one.

Cardio Benefits

Even if you’re not planning on running any races anytime soon, cardio exercise offers numerous physical and mental health benefits, including the following:

Improved Heart Health

Cardiovascular exercise improves your circulation and lowers blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure is associated with an increased risk of various health problems, including heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

Stronger Immune System

Regular exercise, including consistent cardiovascular exercise, strengthens the immune system and helps your body fight off foreign invaders.

Exercise supports the immune system by flushing bacteria from the lungs and airways and increasing the circulating of white blood cells, allowing them to detect illnesses earlier.

Because your body temperature increases during and after exercise, the elevated temperature may also improve the body’s ability to fight off infections.

Improved Sleep Quality

Many people find that they sleep more soundly at night after exercising during the day (as long as they don’t exercise too close to bedtime).

Even a small amount of exercise can make a difference.

One survey of 155,000 people, conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, revealed that those who had exercised at least once in the past month were one-third less likely to experience sleep problems.

Reduced Depression and Anxiety

Cardiovascular exercise helps to improve the body’s glucose regulation processes to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

Consistent exercise (including cardiovascular training) can also improve insulin sensitivity, making it easier to move glucose from the blood to the muscle cells.

Bottom Line

From Fartleks to interval training, there are lots of cardio workouts for runners that can help you increase speed and endurance.

Keep the workout suggestions discussed above in mind to achieve your running goals while also improving your physical and mental well-being.

More Cardio Advice from GymBird Experts