When you want to win a race or transform your physique, slow and steady won't do the trick. Sure, even-paced sessions on the elliptical or treadmill can strengthen your ticker and help you let off steam. But those workouts won't necessarily make it easier to zip up your skinny jeans or smoke the competition at your next 5-K.
While the logic behind "the more miles I log, the more weight I'll lose or the faster I'll get" may seem sound, there's a sneaky loophole most people don't consider. Your body is a master adapter. When it gets used to a routine, it becomes more efficient, so it uses less energy. Translation: You burn fewer calories and your gains in speed and endurance level off.
"When you first start exercising, you challenge your body and it responds," says Janet Hamilton, a running coach and registered clinical exercise physiologist in Atlanta. "If you want to continue to see results, you periodically need to push your body outside its comfort zone."
The best way to do that? Speed training, which does much more than simply quicken your pace. It jump-starts a sluggish metabolism, helps burn fat, builds muscle, prevents plateaus, and increases endurance. And that's just the physical payoff of the fast-paced total body workout. It also busts boredom, boosts confidence, and improves mental toughness, giving you the strength to keep going when your body wants to stop, says Jenny Hadfield, a coach and personal trainer in Chicago.
As valuable as speed workouts are, you don't want to OD on them. "A little bit goes a long way," says Hadfield, who is also the author of Running for Mortals. "Doing speed workouts more than once a week can increase your risk for injuries." So slip just one of these fat burning workouts into your weekly routine. While running is a natural fit, you can apply these tactics to any cardio activity. Try them on the elliptical, bike, or stair-climber.
If there's one workout worth adding to your routine, most coaches would say it should be tempos (maintaining a comfortably hard pace for a sustained period of time).
"Tempos are the little black dress of fitness," says Hadfield.
"They're classic and they benefit everyone. They teach your body to use oxygen more efficiently and run faster before fatiguing." That's because tempos increase your lactate threshold, or the point at which your body fatigues at a given pace. That means you can go longer and harder—and burn more calories—before feeling like you need to call it a day. The trick is to work just outside your comfort zone (or what Hadfield calls your "happy pace"). On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being effortless, 10 being killer), you should feel like you're at a 7 or 8. You're breathing heavily, but not so hard that you are gasping or have to stop.
Try it: After a 10-minute warm-up, increase your tempo pace and hold it for 15 to 20 minutes. Finish with a 10-minute cooldown. If sustaining a tougher-than-normal effort for 20 minutes is painfully punishing, scale back: Hold the tempo pace for five minutes, then recover at an easy pace for two minutes. Repeat three times, then cool down.
When you rotate high-intensity exercise (a 9 on that 1-to-10 scale) with recovery periods, you send your heart rate soaring and torch tons of calories, says health and fitness expert Kim Juarez, owner of Team LOLA in Mill Valley, California. It's a fantastic strategy when you're pressed for time. "You're getting the benefits of a 60-minute workout in 30 minutes," says Hadfield. In fact, a study published in The Journal of Physiology showed that short bursts of very intense exercise can produce the same results as traditional exercise.
Try it: After a 10-minute warm-up, speed up to an all-out effort for 30 seconds, then jog for one to two minutes to recover. Work up to repeating that cycle four to eight times, then cool down. Or try a ladder drill, climbing up (run gradually longer intervals) or down (run gradually shorter intervals), like this one: Run one minute hard, two minutes easy, two minutes hard, three minutes easy, three minutes hard, four minutes easy, and then work back down.
Up and Overs
Hill workouts not only increase your speed and power but also improve your stamina, prevent overuse injuries (by engaging different muscles), and give you a gorgeous set of gams.
Most people take an attack-and-conquer approach to hills, but hammering as hard as possible can cause you to burn out quickly, says Hamilton. A better strategy: Climb up at the same perceived effort (rather than pace) as your flat-terrain running. As you descend the hill, keep an even effort by speeding up. Just don't pick a super-steep doozy, cautions Hadfield. "If you go straight to a 5 percent incline on the treadmill, you'll hate it and never want to do it again." Start with a 2 to 3 percent incline (if you're outdoors, look for a gradual hill or incline—one that challenges you but doesn't force you to take a walk break), says Hadfield. It should feel challenging but manageable.
Try it: After a 10-minute warm-up, ascend a hill at an even pace, then come back down to the base. Work up to a total of four to six repeats before cooling down. On a treadmill, you can either follow a programmed hill workout (choose level two or three) or create your own: Once you're warmed up, alternate running for one minute at a 2 to 3 percent grade with one-minute recovery jogs at no incline. Build up to repeating this eight times, then finish with a 10-minute cooldown.
If your to-do (or even wish) list includes a race, incorporating pace runs will help you get a feel for how fast you can go and still complete a certain distance in a given amount of time, says Hamilton. If your goal is to finish a 5-K in 25 minutes, then you need to practice running at that pace to make sure it's doable on race day. Bonus benefit: These race-rehearsal sessions will burn more calories than a steady slog.
Try it: Pace workouts are based on the finish line you have in mind, says Juarez. For a 5-K, do 400-meter repeats: After a 10-minute warm-up, run 400 meters (i.e., one lap of a track or a quarter mile) at your goal pace. Then jog or walk for 45 seconds. Build up to comfortably completing 10 repeats before race day.
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