Cardio vs. strength

Running and Kettlebells

Listening to our body and thinking about how it might feel best to move it (aka intuitive exercising) is about realising that what might feel right one day isn’t going to be right every time we work out. 

In my blog last month “How to build your weekly work out plan”, we looked about what you need to include in your work out plan and this month we are going to build on that.  I’m not here to try and convince you that one type of workout is better than the other, but more to discuss when and why we might choose one type of session over another. 

When I discuss cardio exercise, I’m thinking specifically of any workout that raises our heart rate and our breathing speeds up. Things like a bike ride, a brisk walk going on a rowing machine, an aerobics class or a run, any activity that cause us to use up more oxygen than we would at rest, the aim of the exercise is to improve our cardiovascular fitness.

Strength in this post is referring to moving heavy things, so that we can move heavier things next time. This is generally speaking lifting weights of some form, kettlebells, using resistance to improve muscle strength, barbells, dumbbells or weights machines in a gym.

Of course, nothing is ever black and white and it is worth saying that cardio exercises might still leave our muscles stronger and strength training can leave us breathless, therefore improving our overall fitness.  Functional non formal exercise like going for a walk and a chat with a friend also counts as movement, as well as stretching or mindful movements like yoga and Pilates.

There are many benefits of both types of workouts to consider when we pick what form of exercise to do, such as:

Cardio benefits

  • Less breathless when performing an activity like running around a hockey pitch
  • Improved mood (endorphin release)
  • Sleep improves
  • Better concentration through the day
  • Increased endurance for an event like a 5K or a 100K bike ride
  • Reduced anxiety levels
  • Stronger heart
  • Live longer and a better quality of life

Strength training benefits

  • Reduced risk of osteoporosis
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Sense of accomplishment of overcoming a challenge/progression
  • Improved posture
  • Boosts metabolism
  • Improved cognitive function

Once you have an idea of what you would like to achieve, here are a few questions to think about:   

What is your main goal or driver for this workout?

Are you trying feel better when you run up the stairs or around the tennis/basketball/netball court?  Are you looking for a stress release? Are you looking to lose weight? Are you getting back ache from sitting at a desk all day? Or, do you want to be able to sleep better at night?

For me as a personal trainer my primary workout goal is to be to prevent injury, to be mobile, to coach and motivate my clients, I also want to be able to boost my mood sometimes as I can be susceptible to low moods every now and then. For some of my clients they want to be able to jog injury free or play their favourite sport without pain. Once we know what’s behind the workout, we can use the benefits list above to choose what to do.

How do you feel right before the workout?

Intuitive exercise is very much about listening into how you feel on that day.  Have you woken up full of beans and ready to push hard?  Or do you feel run down or stiff and in need of a gentle session and a good stretch? Taking a moment to check in with ourselves rather than pushing on is a really good way to help prevent injury. Our bodies are great at giving us hints about what it needs, but we are all too good at ignoring these signals when we have a list of things to accomplish that day or week.

What do you want to be able to do in the coming weeks and months?

Are you training for an event or a sport and what does that involve? If it’s a tennis match and you want to improve how quickly you can run around the court then cardio fitness is important and improving you sprinting will help. If you are training for a fast 10K event then cardio fitness is also the way to go. Running intervals as well as building distance will help as will a strong core so some strength training for the core will help. Do you want to be able to sit all day and not suffer with back pain, then strength training the core and stretching out tightness will help with this. Do you want to go on a skiing holiday and be out on the slops all day? Then strength training your legs will help. Do you want to be stronger on your paddleboard? Then strength work on your core and balance work on a wobble board will help.

How do you want to feel after the workout, straight after and in the next few days?

Do you want to feel energised, then do a cardio workout or satisfied that you have progressed then progressive overload in strength training will help you achieve this? Do you mind feeling muscle soreness a few days after?  If so you might want to progress slowly and steadily giving your body time to adjust.  Do you want an immediate boost of feel-good hormones? Cardio will help with that where a strength training session might leave you feeling depleted. In the days following a particularly tough strength workout there will mostly be some delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that leaves you stronger in the long run, but a bit tired and achy in the short term which could potentially disrupt you sleep a bit.

Consider what you enjoy doing most

If walking out in nature is your favourite thing to do then making your cardio workout in nature at a brisk pace or hill walking is the way to frame the workout. If you are a social person and love being with people, can you join a club like a bootcamp, running club or a netball team? It should always be an enjoyable workout that achieves the goals you want to meet otherwise resentment and demotivation can kick in. Don’t underestimate the desire to just do the workout that feels fun and right to you on that day, not every movement we do has to come with a why or be part of a training plan.

I’d love to hear from you about which is your go to work out and why, click here to drop me an email and let me know.

Sara McDonnell

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