A woman working out with jump rope outdoors

Indoor Cardio Workouts for Road and Trail Runners

Photo: Lightfield Studios

How to stay fit for running from inside your home or gym.

Maybe you’re stuck inside because of extremely cold or even dangerous outdoor running conditions: a lightning storm, poor air quality due to wildfires, or some other factor. Or maybe you’re caring for children or loved ones who need you home. Whatever the reason, if you’re a runner, runners want to keep running—or at least be ready for a return to the outdoors.

The obvious way to maintain running fitness is to hop on a treadmill, though not everyone has (or has access to) a treadmill. For those who do, the following tips will help you to beat boredom during your indoor runs. Other cardio machines, like a rowing machine or stationary bike (Peloton, anyone?) can also effectively translate workouts to running fitness. Don’t have access to any type of cardio machine? Don’t worry: A few key at-home moves outlined below can keep you fit to run without any machinery at all.

Make the Most of the Treadmill

Running on a treadmill, obviously, mimics running outside better than any other cardio machine or exercise. But it can be dang boring. To spice things up, try these strategies.

Watch TV or Listen to a Podcast

If you’re able to see a TV from the treadmill, watching a show or movie can keep you entertained and pass the time. Even a tablet laid flat on the treadmill console will work fine, especially with wireless headphones to tune out the whirr of the treadmill belt. If you’d rather enrich or entertain yourself with a podcast, put those headphones to work and hit play—your treadmill time will fly by.

Do “Commercial” Intervals, or Music Intervals

If you’re watching live TV, run at an easy pace during your show, and pick up your speed during commercials. Once your show resumes, return to your easy pace. If you’re only listening to music, try running easy for one song, then pick up the pace for the next.

Play With Incline and Speed

One of the perks of running on a treadmill is that you can modify speed and incline with the touch of a button. To stave your boredom (and to make you seriously fit), adjust the incline and speed to vary your workout. For instance, start your run with 5 or 10 minutes of easy running at a 1% incline. Every minute (or more, depending on your fitness level and desired workout), increase either the incline by 1%, or the speed by .5 mph, alternating between the two. Once you’re at your max, but before you’ve hit a dangerous breaking point, descend the incline and decrease your pace.

Mimic the Trail

Trail runners, in particular, should play with incline: An increase correlates with a hill climb, while the decline is just as critical for training. Trail runners should also supplement treadmill time with ankle-strengthening exercises, like balancing on a wobble board or pillow, to keep ankle joints prepped for the off-kilter, technical nature of trails.

Row, Row, Row Your ERG

Working out on a rowing machine (also commonly called an ‘erg,’ short for ergometer) provides an intense cardiovascular workout that translates well to overall running fitness. The rowing motion is also low-impact; it doesn’t have running’s ground  pounding repetition, making it an ideal tool for cross-training with certain injuries prone to aggravation outdoors—or for simply mixing up your routine.

Muscularly, rowing is also a full-body workout. Many think the motion only calls for arm and back muscle recruitment; in real practice, the quadriceps are the main muscle group recruited on a rowing machine. Gaining strength in your quads, while also strengthening your arms, back, and core helps yield real running benefits. 

Though rowing technique takes a while to master, it’s also a fun challenge. As you become more efficient, you’ll row more comfortably, and for longer—gaining fitness. Rowing machine manufacturers often have good instruction videos on their websites.

Man on an indoor fitness bike

Ride that Bike

Cycling has long been a go-to cross-training choice for runners. The reasons are many: The main muscle groups worked on a bike are in legs and glutes, which are obviously important for runners. (Note: Standing on the pedals most closely mimics running, so sprinkle in some standing intervals for the closest muscle recruitment transference). Plus, like rowing, cycling is a non-impact activity that tunes your lower half, offers cardiovascular gains, and works your core, especially if you hold onto the handlebars/console instead of sitting upright.

The all-popular Peloton, or other home fitness bikes and their coached classes, guide athletes through bouts of intensity that translate to overall fitness for running—and for life. Be sure to follow the coach’s instructions on maintaining proper form. You’ll see the most benefit from a muscle recruitment standpoint.

Cycling at a low intensity on your own helps blood flow to leg and glute muscles, which can aid recovery from a long run, or just keep major running muscle groups active for when you do return to running outdoors.

Burpee and Jump-Rope Routines

If you don’t have access to any cardio machinery, don’t worry. There are bodyweight moves that will both increase your cardiovascular fitness and keep your running muscles fit and strong. The bonus with these moves is that they’re athletic—they require coordination and focus, which is good for both your body and your brain.

There’s no way around it: Burpees are hard. They work virtually every muscle in your body, from your feet to your palms. Lowering to the ground into a plank and then a push-up, and then returning to standing and performing a mini-jump before repeating is also cardiovascularly challenging. Increasing the speed, and the quantity, of your burpees increases both the cardiovascular and muscular work that can greatly benefit your running endurance.

Jumping rope also works your aerobic system, challenges coordination, and trains your muscles. The jumping motion mostly targets calf muscles, but also works glutes, quads, and hamstrings, as well as chest, triceps, back, and shoulders. And the upright positioning required to keep that rope from tripping up your feet helps improve posture, which translates well to holding good posture while running.  

Squats and Lunges

Air squats done with good form—knees directly over feet and not falling inward, chest upright, butt back and at bent-knee level or lower—strengthen the muscles around the knee and hip joints, which can prove critical in keeping runners healthy. Performing numerous squats in a row also taxes the cardiovascular system, which always helps keep you fit for running.

Lunges done correctly—keeping the front knee directly over the front foot and lowering to touch the back knee to the ground slowly and in control, keeping the torso upright—strengthen quads, glutes, and adductors, add mobility to hip flexors and ankles, and help build core strength. Walking lunges, or alternating standing lunges, can also work the cardiovascular system. Just don’t do them too quickly for fear of losing form.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.