Sometimes, slow and steady wins the fitness race.
Steady-state cardio often gets a bad rap, and the reputation is understandable. There are a ton of reasons to mix up your workouts — variety usually means you use a wider range of muscle groups, force your body to adapt to new situations, and push yourself harder for bursts of time. While those benefits are great, don’t write steady-state cardio off quite yet, as it may still have a place in your weekly exercise routine.
Firstly, what is steady-state cardio? True to its name, it is moderate-intensity cardio that is performed at a constant pace for the majority of the exercise duration. On the other end of the exercise spectrum, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) involves alternating between periods of relatively high and low exertion. HIIT is often lauded as burning more calories and ramping up your metabolism better than exercising at a constant pace, but it’s not always the best option for other fitness goals you may be pursuing.
Here are a few situations when you may want to opt for slow and steady over fast and furious:
1. When “highly intense” equals “too intense”
If you’re just starting out on your fitness journey, diving headfirst into a high-intensity workout regimen may be too much to handle. This is especially true if you’re developing your cardiovascular base level. For example, if you reach your maximum heart rate (roughly calculated as 220 minus your age) just a few seconds into intense exercise, like sprinting, you will probably not be able to safely or effectively complete a highly strenuous workout. By starting with low or moderate-intensity steady-state cardio, you can build up the necessary cardiovascular foundation to tackle a more challenging workout.
2. On active recovery days
It’s important to schedule recovery days to recuperate from the wear and tear caused by regular exercise, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend them sitting on the couch. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), “Passive recovery involves doing almost nothing and is only warranted in the case of certain types of injury.” That means moving even a little on your off-gym days is almost always better than doing nothing.
Steady, relatively low-intense activities like walking, light jogging or an easygoing bike ride can be a perfect way to give your body a break while still fitting some physical activity into your day. If you’re feeling extra sore or tired, self-massage with a foam roller or mobility stretches are also a great way to spend a rest day. The important part is that you set aside time each week to abstain from intense exercise and give your body some much-needed TLC.
3. When you’re trying to create a fitness habit
When going to the gym feels like punishment, it can be hard for new exercisers to build and maintain a consistent exercise habit. You may find yourself making excuses to skip workouts or dreading your sweat sessions, and eventually give up on your fitness journey altogether. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Social-media sensation and popular international trainer Kayla Itsines is a proponent of what she refers to as low-intensity steady-state cardio, or LISS. She says, “LISS is a great way to exercise because it is easy to stick to. If you don’t think of it [exercise] as a chore or something you absolutely HAVE to do, you will be surprised at how much you want to do it.” If you find yourself avoiding the gym each week, remember that working out isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor — it is okay to start small and progress from there.
4. When you want to stay in the fat-burning sweet spot
Your heart-rate zones, which are determined as a percentage of your max heart rate, indicate whether your body is mostly burning fat or carbohydrates as its primary source of energy. The ideal zone for fat burning is approximately 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. In this zone, the highest percentage of calories burned come from fat.
When you’re doing high-intensity training, your heart rate often rises above this zone, which is good if you want to improve your endurance or athleticism, but may not be as good for burning the highest percentage of fat. With steady-state cardio, you can control your heart rate and more consistently stay in the fat-burning sweet spot.
Hopping on the treadmill and running at a steady pace is, admittedly, less exciting than busting your glutes with the newest fast-paced interval workout, but sometimes it is the better choice. Choose the type of training that is best suited for you and your unique goals, whether that’s the latest trendy class or a low-intensity half-hour session on the elliptical, and you’ll likely be a happier and more successful exerciser.
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