The title says it all – today we discuss the pros and cons of different times/ways to fit your cardio in!
To begin: a brief introductory statement which also serves as a conclusion for the article “At the end of the day, doing any cardio will be better than not doing it at all. Whenever and however it happens, if your goal is to do cardio that day, just do it sometime and somehow”. Obviously we are not going to go overboard and discuss whether 6:15 or 6:22 is a better time for cardio – instead, I will discuss four main schools of thought:
1. In the morning, on an empty stomach
2. In the morning, but after eating
3. Before weights (or other related training)
4. After weights
In this article we are specifically discussing low to medium-intensity cardiovascular endurance training. This type of training focuses on the endurance of your skeletal muscles, but also on your heart and conditioning in general (bloodflow, lung capacity, oxygen uptake). Other forms of cardiovascular training, such as circuits/crossfit/calisthenics and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) have different considerations to keep in mind (we will discuss this in a future article ☺).
Let’s start by putting this out there: Cardio is important! Your heart is a muscle too. It needs to be trained. Although it may not look as cool as sculpted biceps, avoiding cardiovascular disease sure does look cool. Benefits of cardio that may spill over into the rest of your fitness goals include:
- Improved bloodflow
- Enhanced nutrient delivery to muscles
- Hastened recovery
- Benefits for cognition and mental health
- Muscular endurance
Ok, so, when is the best time to do it?
1. CARDIO IN THE MORNING, ON AN EMPTY STOMACH
This protocol would usually involve waking up and banging out a quick run, a brisk walk, some circuits, a bike ride, whatever it is that you enjoy. The idea is that before eating, while blood glucose is low, your body is primed to scavenge fat stores for energy to sustain some low-intensity aerobic activity. The primary issue is that some people struggle to feel energetic enough to put in a decent effort, and that going too intense runs the risk of your body using a different energy source; that is the amino acids contained in the protein of your muscles. This shouldn’t be a huge deal for people who aren’t pushing their limits and really trying to gain muscle as rapidly as possible.
PROS: Effective fat-burner using low-intensity aerobic activity. May help you wake up!
CONS: Intensity may (need to) be sacrificed. Possibly higher risk of injury, but just be sure to warm up (especially if out in the cold)
2. CARDIO IN THE MORNING, AFTER EATING
This would also be done early in the morning, with the main difference that you give your body a little bit of fresh food energy to work with. The idea is that this food will help prevent breakdown of muscle tissue, and help you power through the session, while still keeping the benefits of starting the day strong
PROS: Wake up fresh, start the day on a good note. Can still be a good fat burner, while less likely to break down muscle tissue.
CONS: Eating defeats the purpose of fasted morning cardio, making this session somewhat similar to doing it any other time of the day.
For those who like (or need) to combine all their exercise into a single session, and want to do cardio as well as some weight training, there are two logical options – cardio before weights (point #3) or cardio after weights (point #4). For convenience sake, as well as many synergistic effects resulting from the combination, these can both be great options.
3. CARDIO BEFORE WEIGHTS
Cardio before a weight training session could involve jogging, skipping, sprints, a circuit of dynamic stretching or calisthenics, or really whatever you want! Careful not to burn yourself out entirely, because this can greatly increase your risk of injury during the weights session!
PROS: Act as a warm-up to get your heart and muscles activated and ready to work with heavy loads, lessening the risk of injury during training (BUT read the cons!)
CONS: Run the risk of burning your muscles out and therefore INCREASING your risk of injury! If you are planning to lift really heavy, keep the cardio light or opt for doing it after.
4. CARDIO AFTER WEIGHTS
This is my personal favourite. The idea is that after weight training, your body is primed with an elevated metabolic rate, helping you burn more calories during the cardio session, while also making sure not to feed off of your muscle tissue.
PROS: You are already warmed up, and your body has just been hit with stimuli signalling that your muscle tissue is in need of protection and repair - thus you will be more likely to use fat/glucose for energy. Since you’ve just trained, your glucose stores should be fairly low, meaning fat should be ripe for burning! Also acts a great way to pump some blood around, helping to flush out the lactic acid (“the burn”) and deliver fresh oxygen and nutrients to your freshly-worked muscles. You can also feel free to burn yourself out with 110% effort, since this is the last part of your session.
CONS: You might feel pooped after the weights session, and if using the same muscles (ie running after a heavy squat session), may increase the risk for injury. If you feel too tired for the cardio you have planned, try cutting the weights session somewhat shorter.
Remember: If you are planning to do cardio, it’s more important that you do it than worrying too much about when you do it. A good experiment would be to read the pros and cons of each option described here, choose the 2 or 3 you think fit you best, and try them each out for a week. Then you can choose your favourite, cycle through them every few weeks, or change it up every session! The more you learn, the better your results will be in the gym – and that is why we are so happy to share these articles with you. I hope you enjoyed ☺
If you found this article useful, leave a comment below! Do you have any other favourite times to do cardio?
Peter is a travelling fitness junkie, always on the search for new opportunities, places, and optimal physical and mental health. He has an academic background in chemistry and environmental science, and a passion for music, creating, and exploring!