Ask an Expert: When Should I Strength Train?

Horizon Fitness Indoor CycleI know I should incorporate more strength training into my exercise routine.  Is it better to do it before or after my cardio activity? -Stacey

You’re right, it is important to include strength training into your regular exercise routine.  It will aid in balancing the strength and mobility in your muscles and joints, improve metabolism by increasing active lean muscle tissue and even help improve your cardiovascular performance.  That being said, here are three answers to your question.

When you perform strength exercises, the goal is to break down the muscle tissue by repeating the exercise until you’ve reached momentary muscular failure.  That sounds scary, but all it really means is that your muscles get activated and then fatigued by the repetitive resistance of the exercise.  That breaking down of the muscles is what encourages growth and development through rest.

Performing the strength exercises before the cardio activity will allow you to perform the strengthening exercises on fresh muscles as you won’t be tired from the cardio activity.  This is especially important if you’re new to strength training and learning how to perform each exercise.  However, it’s important to make sure your muscles are warmed up ahead of time, so you could include a short 5 minute cardio warm up, then strength train and follow with the rest of your cardio routine.

On the other hand, if your cardio is primary – say, if you’re training for a triathlon or running event and you need to get in a solid workout – then getting in the cardio workout first and then following up with the strength training will be a better option.

Finally, to toss in another option, you can weave it into your cardio and create what I call a “circus workout” – where you warm up on cardio, then hit a strength exercise or two, then 5 minute of cardio, then strength again, followed by cardio.  You’ll feel the excitement of being in the circus with all the movement! Plus, it’s fun and before you know it, you’ll be cooling down thinking… when can I do this again?

There are benefits to weaving in strength training into your cardio routine, the key is to try each of these to see what works best for you.

Happy Trails.
Coach Jenny Hadfield

Coach Jenny Hadfield is a published author, writer, coach, public speaker and endurance athlete. To find out more, visit our Meet Our Writers page or visit Coach Jenny’s website.

Elliptical vs Treadmill


Walk into almost any gym or specialty fitness retailer and you will be confronted with row after row of treadmills and ellipticals. Although these machines are both classified as “cardiovascular equipment,” both have individual qualities that will suit some exercisers better than others.

Before purchasing a piece of equipment this fundamental to a balanced exercise program, it’s important to consider which would be best for your fitness level, workout style and budget.

Elliptical Machine Benefits

The elliptical features two pedals that move in a smooth, uninterrupted circular motion that allows for an impact-free workout. This can be invaluable for individuals with injuries or weaknesses in their knees, ankles, hips and lower back.

Additionally, two long handles extend upward from the base of the machine and place resistance on your upper body. This full-body workout means that you have the potential to burn significantly more calories per hour with an elliptical than if you were to use a treadmill or exercise bike.

There are some potential drawbacks to ellipticals. Because the structure of the elliptical machine controls and limits your range of motion, the movement may take some getting used to. The stride length is also built into the machine, although some allow for slight adjustments, and exercisers with shorter strides may find themselves hyper-extending their knees, which can be problematic over time.

Another factor to consider is that you set the pace on an elliptical (unlike a treadmill, which provides a motorized speed). This can sometimes make it challenging to maintain a constant speed, and if you aren’t highly self-motivated, it can be tempting to go easy.

Selecting an Elliptical

As with any piece of exercise equipment, it’s important to compare elliptical machines until you find one that perfectly fits your needs. Look for a durable machine that will be able to fully support the weight of all its users and has a heavy enough flywheel to offer a smooth, quiet workout. Quality ellipticals are designed to mimic your natural body posture and movement.

Benefits of Treadmills

Apart from the benefits associated with all forms of cardiovascular exercise, the key benefit of treadmills is accessibility. The running or walking motion required to use a treadmill is natural, comfortable and familiar.

Many home treadmills also fold up for easy storage. While running outside can be made difficult by terrain or weather, treadmills offer an even surface and the climate control of your home or gym.

Another advantage is that treadmills can have a built-in motivation factor. The belt speed and the incline will adjust automatically when you follow a program, reducing any tendencies to relax during a workout. Although you can stop or slow the machine at any time, the automated pace prevents you from easing up unintentionally.

The treadmill running surface is cushioned to reduce the stress on your joints from repeated impact, but this is still a concern for exercisers with a history of joint problems. Also, some people find treadmills repetitive, making them less likely to exercise as often as they should.

Finding the Perfect Treadmill

When shopping for a treadmill, look for a machine with a solid frame and a wide running belt. These features will allow you to use the machine comfortably without modifying your natural stride. The highest rated treadmills have larger motors that allow the belt to rotate smoothly and quietly.

Integrated support for media players is an additional feature that may help to alleviate some of the boredom experienced when running indoors. Features that allow you to track your progress through multiple workouts will also make your routine more enjoyable.

Which is Best for You?

If you already enjoy running outdoors but find that your cardio routine suffers because of the weather, a treadmill might be your best choice. People who suffer from joint pain, however, would likely benefit from using an elliptical. Also, if you have difficulty incorporating an upper body workout into your schedule, you may find that the elliptical helps you save time by including these muscles in your cardio.

Regardless of which machine you chose, you’ll want to select a quality model that will last you a long time and help you reach your fitness goals.

Strength and Cardio Training: Should They Mix?

woman doing a push up at home

Strength and cardiovascular training methods are often at odds. Many people train in strictly one or other, believing that the neglected training style will somehow hinder their progress. Gym myths and misunderstandings just add to the confusion, promoting ideas like “running burns muscle.” Other exercisers simply don’t know how to incorporate both strength and cardiovascular training into their schedule and favor the one they enjoy the most. Should these two training styles be used together? If so, how? Let’s dig in.

Myths and Misunderstandings

Usually, people practice cardio because they want to lose weight and lift weights because they want to gain muscle. However, two persistent— and incorrect — ideas have pervaded gyms around the world, deepening the divide between strength training and cardio workouts.

Some people who hope to slim down avoid lifting weights, because they are afraid it will make them too bulky. The truth is that muscle growth is a very slow process, and it requires a well designed program of diet and exercise to be followed for years before you appear “bulky.” On the contrary, proper weight training will increase the strength and endurance of your muscles, which will improve your cardiovascular efficiency and burn more calories and fat in the process.

On the other hand, weightlifters who are looking for bulk tend to fear that cardio burns muscle. This one is more of an oversimplification than an outright myth. It is true that in extreme cases of over-training your body will begin to use muscle for fuel. However, your body will only go catabolic when you exercise at a high intensity for more than 45 minutes, exercise every day, or exercise on an empty stomach. Put simply, cardio will only burn muscle when you give it no other choice. Balance in your training and in your diet will prevent muscle loss.

A healthy combination of strength and cardio training will allow your body to perform at its best, letting the two systems complement each other rather than compete.

How to Do It Right

Understanding that cardio and strength training don’t cancel each other out is only half the battle: now you have to balance the two properly. Mixing cardio and strength training requires a highly individualized approach based on your goals, body type and chosen sport.

First, you should decide whether your focus is to lose weight or gain muscle. Trying to do both at the same time will most likely slow your progress and frustrate you, and may even lead to over-training injuries. Again, this does not mean that you are choosing one training method over the other; the key is to make them work together.

If your primary goal is to gain muscle, then you should lift three times per week, with two moderate-intensity cardio sessions of about 20 to 30 minutes each on your off days. Lifting and running on the same day not only takes more time, it increases your risk of overworking your muscles, which is exactly what you want to avoid.

Next, you need to consider your body type. Is it easy for you to lose weight or does it feel like a constant struggle? Are you naturally muscular? Your body’s natural tendencies will have a strong bearing on your workout plan. For example, an endomorph —  someone who is natural heavy-set — will need to schedule more cardio days to lose weight, but will likely find it easy to gain muscle with plenty of stored fuel in the body.

Lastly, we need to consider your sport. An endurance athlete (such as a marathon runner) will need a completely different skill-set than a football player. While both of these examples lean towards either cardio or strength, these athletes can still benefit from both modes of training.

As is the case with many aspects of fitness, balance is the key to mixing both cardio and strength training into your routine. While these two modes of exercise are frequently considered incompatible, when scheduled properly, they will work together to help you reach your fitness goals.

Have any tips on mixing strength and cardio training? Please share them in the comments!

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5 Ways to Keep Running Fun and Boost Your Motivation

Female_Pair_RunningLet’s face it, sometimes running can be a drag. Whether it’s because we run the same old route or distance, or we’re just lacking the love, trying the following five fun-boosting strategies can lift the spirit of your workouts and inspire you to once again run happy.

1. Mix up the terrain. Get out of your running route rut and run your normal route backwards. You’ll be amazed just how different everything looks and how much joy a fresh route will bring. You can also spice up both your indoor and outdoor workouts by adding hills to your flat route or find a trail to make the most of a shade-filled run through nature.

2. Shake things up. It’s easy to get into the habit of running the same 30-40 minute workout during the week. Although it’s a great way to maintain fitness, once your body adapts to it, you burn fewer calories because it becomes easier. That’s the good and not-so-good news. A simple way around it is to vary the intensity of your runs during the week to include a variety of workouts. It will freshen your running recipe so you look forward to the next workout. Here are a few examples:

  • Interval Workout: Run hard for 30 seconds to 60 seconds followed by 2 minutes of walking or easy jog – eight times. This is an effective metabolic booster and a great way to burn calories and fat for hours post workout.
  • Tempo Workout: Warm up and cool down running easy for 5-10 minutes, then run at a comfortably challenging effort for 15 minutes. This is a workout that requires focus, but feels fantastic and raises your threshold allowing you to run faster at an easier effort level down the road.
  • Recovery Run: Exactly like it sounds – an easy run that allows you to keep the momentum flowing but gives you a break from the higher intensities.
  • Endurance Workout: Typically run on your off work days, run for 60 or more minutes at a conversational effort level to develop your fat burning enzymes and aerobic endurance.

3. Make it social.  There isn’t one run that I’ve done with a buddy or group that didn’t make me smile or make the time go by quickly. Research has shown that people who exercise socially (with people) can go longer and harder than when alone. Plus, you can solve the world’s problems, discuss the TV series you binge watched the night before, or the plot twist in your favorite book. Invite your friend to hop on the treadmill next to you, join a running club or training group and keep your running fun alive. You just may improve your performance along the way.

4. Run musically.  Create a special running mix for your next workout and you just may run faster than you think you can. That’s because research suggests exercising to music can boost your ability to run harder and longer. Create a musical workout to boost motivation by starting and finishing with two songs that have a slower rhythm to warm up and cool down. Then alternate a fast paced song with a slower song 4-6 times and match your speed to the tempo of the music to get in a musical interval workout. The time will fly, you’ll love this workout, and will count the days until you can run it again (promise!)

5. Register for a race.  The old adage of dangling a carrot on a stick can be enough to brighten any runner’s gloom. Whether a 5K or a half marathon, once you commit, every workout has a purpose and inspires you to prepare for the challenge ahead. If you’ve been racing, try something new to spice up your routine; a triathlon, trail race or obstacle course. When you challenge yourself, you will rise to it and make the most of every workout.

Every runner goes through highs and lows over time. The highs lead to improved performance and impressive accomplishments, while the lows (if you listen) can guide you to making the changes needed to continue to evolve.

Happy Trails.
Coach Jenny Hadfield

Coach Jenny Hadfield is a published author, writer, coach, public speaker and endurance athlete. To find out more, visit our Meet Our Writers page or visit Coach Jenny’s website.

Exercising Safely in the Heat

Exercising in HeatThe summer season comes with longer days and more frequent outdoor exercise activity which means whether you’re riding your bike with the family or training for a half marathon, it is wise to understand how the heat and humidity affects your body. Let’s take a look at the signs and symptoms of heat illness and how to exercise safely this summer.

For most people, the perfect temperature for exercise is around 55-65 degrees. This is especially true when participating in consistently moderate to high intensity activity like running. I say most people because everyone is different and there are some people that can thrive in the warmer temperatures (but those are far and few between).

For instance, when my team ran in the Chicago Marathon in October, 2007 (the hot one), the temperatures rose to 90 degrees and the humidity was in the 90% range. All of the runners but one suffered from the heat (499 people to 1) and their times were on average 45 – 90 minutes off their normal marathon times. It’s also important to note that many medications can affect the cooling system in the body so it’s important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your medicinal protocol as it relates to the heat.

You can’t beat the heat, but you can learn to work with it.

When the temperatures are in this optimal exercise zone, your body neither has to keep itself warm in the colder temperatures or work hard to cool itself via sweating, blood redistribution and panting. It’s the Goldilocks “just right” temperature and allows the body to efficiently cool itself as you move.

However, as the temperature and humidity rise above this range, your body has to invest more energy into keeping you cool. And because the body cools itself via evaporation in your sweat, the higher the relative humidity, the harder it is for your body to cool itself. When the heat gain exceeds the level your body can deal with, your body core temperature rises and this is when you are at greater risk of developing heat-related illness.

Heat Cramps. These are the mildest form of heat-related illness and commonly occurs in the diaphragm, calves, hamstrings and even your extremities (hands, feet, etc.) You may have a mild fever (102 F) and your skin flushed. This is often related to the heat, and a higher level of sweat loss (fluid and electrolytes) your body is producing while exercising.

  • What to do for Heat Cramps: If this happens, it is important to cease exercise, move into a cool space (shade or indoors) to cool the body and hydrate with an electrolyte beverage (sports drink, tomato juice, salted pretzels), place cool clothes on body or take cool shower (or pool), and remove layers of clothing.

Heat Exhaustion. This is more serious than heat cramps and if left untreated, it can lead to heat stroke and more serious consequences. Symptoms can include: fever higher than 102F, nausea, headache, diarrhea, fatigue, heavy sweating, cramps, increased heart rate, goose bumps or cool skin, and feeling faint.

  • What to do for Heat Exhaustion: Stop activity, get out of the heat, and cool body with wet towels or cool water submersion to reduce body temperature, lie down and elevate feet, drink electrolyte drink, and if there are no signs of improvement, call 911 to get medical help.

Heatstroke. This is the most severe heat-related illness as it occurs when there is a complete failure of the body’s heat regulating system and can lead to coma, seizures and death. Symptoms include: ceased sweating, warm, dry skin, loss of appetite, nausea, weakness, confusion, convulsions or seizures and rapid heart rate.

  • What to do for Heatstroke: Call 911 or your local medical service immediately! Get out of the sun and into a cool place, remove all clothing and put ice in the armpits and groin or immerse in cold water and drink cool electrolyte beverage if coherent.

Now that you know how the heat affects your exercise and resting performance, here are tips for exercising safely in the warmer temperatures.

  1. Acclimate and move by effort rather than speed. It takes about two weeks for your body to acclimate to exercising more efficiently in the warmer weather, and even then can still be a challenge. It’s important to recognize this at the change of seasons like springtime, and invest in easier effort activity until your body has time to adjust to the temperatures. It’s also important to run by your body rather than the speed on your watch or bike. If you normally run a moderate effort run on Wednesdays at a 9 minute per mile pace, run by your body instead and let the outcome be just that – the outcome. It will likely be slower than normal, but adjusting to the heat will allow your body to better recover down the road. When you exercise by what your body is experiencing on the given day, you’re better able to dial in the correct and optimal zone to accomplish your goal for the day and adapt much more efficiently workout to workout.
  2. Adjust your exercise time and location. Plan your exercise route on tree-covered, shaded streets, paths or trails and get in your workout in the early morning or at dusk when the temperatures are lower. Take your workouts indoors on Ozone or Heat Alert days as you’ll get in a higher quality workout with no risk of heat illness or the delayed recovery that often follows hot weather workouts.  This is especially important for athletes following a specific training program as a delayed recovery can have a domino effect in fatigue and greatly reduce their performance.
  3. Accessorize and hydrate. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting wicking apparel that will deflect the sun’s rays and allow for better body cooling.  Visors are effective for keeping the sun off your face while still allowing heat to leave your body via your head.  Top it off with a good sweat proof sunscreen and sunglasses and you’re set for the workout.  It’s better to hydrate consistently through the day than to power load your body with a lot of fluids before, during and after.  Everyone has their own unique hydration needs and they vary on your fitness, health, age, medications and more. Dr. Tim Noakes, exercise physiologist and author of Waterlogged, recommends hydrating to your thirst during exercise to avoid over drinking and the complications that come with it.  Water is the perfect beverage for workouts under an hour, where a sports drink with electrolytes will benefit you more for longer sessions.

Ultimately, it is most important to tune in and listen to your body and be aware of the signs and symptoms of heat-related issues.  When you do, you’re able to make small changes in your exercise routine to assure a safe, effective workout.

Happy Trails.
Coach Jenny Hadfield

Coach Jenny Hadfield is a published author, writer, coach, public speaker and endurance athlete. To find out more, visit our Meet Our Writers page or visit Coach Jenny’s website.