Slow and Steady and Boring: Mix Up Your Endurance Work

The Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Steady state conditioning has benefits for all people, athletes and everyday Joes alike.
  • The best workout is the one you actually do, so don’t bore yourself into the point of finding excuses to not work out.
  • Even if you are an endurance athlete, cross training shouldn’t just be viewed as a “maybe if I feel like it,” it has value and you should always look to implement it.

Building of one’s aerobic base is something I’ve mentioned on here a few times. A concept which I believe holds huge benefit towards overall conditioning, and not just for endurance athletes. The benefits of low intensity, steady state (LISS) conditioning work are well noted throughout the history of sports science.

  • Increased ability to recover from workouts
  • Improved cardiovascular function
  • Better, more restful sleep
  • Decreases stress and anxiety

The simplest way to accomplish this is to just get on your own two feet and move at a brisk pace (either a fast walk or a slow jog) for increasingly longer distances. It requires no extra equipment, no gym membership, and can be scaled to ideal effectiveness for any fitness level. A big drawback though, is that it can be fairly boring.

Outside of finding new ways to trick yourself into being interested in your slow, mileage day(s), you may wonder “do I really need to be doing this?” And the answer could very well be a resounding “no.” Are you running to train for competitive running events? If so, then keep running. If the answer is “no,” for any other reason, then mix it up. Of course if its “no, I am training for a cycling event” or “no I am training for a swimming event” the solution becomes easy. But if your answer is “no, I am just interested in general conditioning for personal health,” then the world is your oyster.

Have you considered the following?

In the Gym

Stair Climber One of the slower but more grueling ways to build up your conditioning, depending on your body mass you could be burning upwards to 500 calories an hour.

Jacob’s Ladder – If your gym has this rare piece of equipment, consider yourself lucky and hop on! Again, body mass dependent, you may be close to 1000 calories in a 60 minute workout.

Row Machine – For a more full body approach, a row machine can’t be beat. And its highly effective, you may be in the neighborhood of 700 calories or more in an hour.

Swimming – This could be considered in the gym, if your gym has a pool. But if you just have access to one, you have a full body, low impact workout. Especially useful for rehabbing, due to the lack of jarring motions and decreased gravity. The effectiveness of the workout will be on your own judgement and ability to pace, but even a leisurely hour of swimming might put you in the area of 500 calories burned.

Outside of the Gym

Hiking – If you’re lucky to live near some wilderness, there’s nothing as liberating as getting lost. And while a lot of the energy expenditures on this list are bodyweight dependent, this is the easiest activity where you can add some extra weight without too much trouble. But your bodyweight alone can burn you 500 calories in an hour.

Biking – If you own a bike and are near some trails, biking can be one of the more exciting ways to mix up your cardio, as a little bit of speed always makes things more enjoyable. Hop on, burn in the neighborhood of 600 calories.

*It is important to note, there is no hard and fast rule to determine just how many calories you’ll burn from an activity. In addition to your own body mass that you carry through the activity, your own ability to pace yourself, and the level at which you push will decide more than the “average figures.”

Let’s Pretend You Are Training to Compete

You can, and should, still utilize de-loading periods in your training, as well as cross training. And in those moments, it becomes IDEAL to utilize different methods. Firstly, repetitive stress from extreme mileage of the same motion can cause inflammation and increase risk of injury. Breaking the monotony of your running or cycling mileage can give rest to weary or sore joints. Secondly, that same repetitive motion can build imbalances of muscle, due to focusing on the skills and ability of that specific motion. Cross training can help build up areas in which you are weak, to build a more balanced muscular structure that will also be a little more resilient and resistant to injury.

This was something I had to be mindful of specifically while conducting military training. Many of the endurance events I was asked to complete were timed road marches, carrying up to 65 pounds of load on my back. The events were pretty stressful on the back, knees and hips. It would be easy to grind yourself into a useless pile of dust by overdoing it, so I became quite fond of the Jacob’s Ladder. It worked wonders in developing the right type of conditioning, and it was easier on my weary old bones. And I never failed to make time on any event, giving credence to the ability to maintain high levels of conditioning without necessarily overdoing the specific exercise.

Sooner Rather Than Later

A lesson can be summed up to this: plan on mixing it up. Do not wait until 1) you actually develop a nagging repetitive stress injury, or 2) bore yourself into choosing the sofa over your conditioning work. The best exercise is the one you actually do, whether its your choice to actually do it, or your ability to actually do it.

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