Looking to take your workouts outdoors? We take a look at the benefits of hiking, cycling and running and what to look out for.
Taking your cardiovascular training outdoors may be the answer to increased motivation and dodging results plateaus according to the latest research. One study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that activities such as hiking, cycling and running in nature have been associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy, and a reduction in feelings of anger, confusion and depression – meaning you are more likely to make it out the door to work out. Not only will hiking your local trails help to bolster your mental state, but the length of such activities (usually upward of the 45-minute to an hour threshold) means they will improve both cardiovascular fitness and your ability to dip into fat stores.
Muscular endurance, agility, balance and coordination are also improved via a hike thanks to the uneven terrain, says exercise physiologist and exercise scientist Naomi Ferstera (naomiferstera.com). Cycling is another winner for increasing aerobic fitness as you can adjust the level of intensity as you improve to avoid plateau, while running sits your heart rate at about 60 per cent – perfect for fat loss.
“You use primarily your aerobic energy system while running – this energy system uses mainly fat [rather than carbs] as fuel, which means that you burn a lot of fat. The repetitive activity helps you improve your VO2max, which is your cardiovascular fitness and your muscular endurance,” says exercise physiologist and nutritionist Veronika Larisova (eatlikeachief.com).
But before you ditch the treadie for good, be warned: research published in The Journal of Physiology found that just three 30-minute sessions of sprint interval training on a bike can be as effective as five one-hour endurance workouts per week in increasing the body’s insulin sensitivity. Improved insulin sensitivity supports the body’s ability to store carbs you eat as muscle glycogen instead of fat, meaning improved weight maintenance. So if time is a factor for your lifestyle, it might be worth keeping the gym membership on standby.
While muscle endurance can be aided by the odd hike up a hill, serious muscle gains are limited when performing cardio-based activities. Even the most avid professional cyclists still supplement their bike work with gym workouts for a reason. In order to lose fat and gain muscle, hypertrophy-focused strength training is necessary.
“My advice to anyone who wants to be fit overall – with good muscle mass and strength, low body fat and solid cardiovascular fitness – is that you need to cover all these components in your training,” says Larisova.
“You can’t gain muscle by running; you need to do specific hypertrophy strength training at the gym, which involves lifting heavy weights to gain muscle and to prevent muscle loss. And to lose fat without losing muscle you need to do different types of running such as sprinting, hill sprints, interval running and short bursts at high intensity. This will also work your anaerobic fitness, lactose threshold and power if done correctly.”
Running also puts a lot of stress on your muscles and joints, with the potential to cause inflammation, premature ageing and shin splints if overdone. Running on softer surfaces, fuelling your body correctly and ensuring adequate recovery time are important for preventing injury. Try alternating your longer runs with lower impact cycling every other day. Focusing on your ankle, hip and knee stability, your core strength, and glute and quad exercises – including single-leg versions – can also help.
“Work on overall body tightness and improve your flexibility with plenty of stretching – if you’re tight you won’t run properly because you won’t have good biomechanics, which then leads to injuries,” says Larisova.
Muscle tightness causes the muscle to shorten, which limits range of motion, while stretching increases the muscle length. Research shows that regular stretching will lead to the muscle being permanently extended, increasing flexibility.
“Long distance running and marathons also create lots of free radicals in your body, which is damaging and causes inflammation and premature ageing,” warns Larisova.
Opt for softer running surfaces such as sand or grass, and avoid concrete, which can lead to overuse injuries, shin splints, stress fractures and damage to your ligaments and tendons if adequate recovery time is not allowed for.
Good nutrition should never be overlooked. In order to maintain muscle despite in the midst of excessive cardio activites, a protein-rich diet high in amino acids is essential according to BioMed Research International. Think lean meat, soybeans and lentils.