Cycling, running or the gym: What's the best 30-minute workout?

If you can only squeeze in half an hour of exercise, here’s how to make the most of it

Clock10:00, Monday 12th February 2024

Sometimes, it's simply not possible to set aside a lot of time for exercise. Family, friends, jobs and other plans often get in the way, leaving only small gaps of time for you to get a sweat on. With so little time, you may be questioning whether a short workout is even worth it, but it definitely is.

It's easily possible to squeeze a thorough workout into 30 minutes or less, but you need to spend it wisely. Even better still, there are lots of different activities you can fit in.

So, what are the options for getting the most out of a 30-minute activity? What’s practical? What’s going to burn calories? What’s going to be the most fun?

Here's a rundown of all of the different exercises you can cram into 30 minutes or less.

Go for a bike ride

This is GCN after all, so it only seems natural that we’d start with the obvious one. Cycling is a really efficient way to burn calories and a fantastic way to get fit. And perhaps more importantly, it’s a great way to get out into the countryside, breathe in that fresh air, and enjoy the sensation of exercising.

But with only 30 minutes, you need to plan your route out carefully – if you live in a city, there’s a risk that you’ll spend the entire 30 minutes chugging through traffic lights and junctions. Finding a good loop that takes just half an hour might take some trial and error, but once you lock in your quick training loop, it’ll be easy to jump on the bike and do a quick lap.

Take advantage of a cycling commute

Really though, for a 30-minute session, cycling makes the most sense if it can be integrated into your day. Perhaps you can extend your 15-minute commute and work in a couple of harder efforts or a climb? Squeezing a workout into your routine while getting from A to B is super efficient, plus it's a great way to destress before or after work.

The big drawback with jumping on the bike for a 30-minute ride is the amount of messing around. You’ve got to get yourself kitted up in many layers of lycra, then maybe pump up your tyres and oil your chain. And, when you’re back, all that kit has got to go in the wash while you spend precious minutes cleaning the dirt and grime off your bike.

That's why it's important to be prepared. Lay everything out and get your bike ready ahead of time. It'll be much easier to motivate yourself, especially if you're commuting by bike, if everything is prepared ahead of time. Check out the weather forecast too - it might only be a short 30-minute ride but it'll feel a lot longer if you're unprepared for any deluges.

Get on the indoor trainer

To get the health benefits of a bike ride, without the faff associated with cycling outdoors, a turbo trainer is ideal. In the traffic light-free realm that is Zwift's Watopia, there’s nothing stopping you from grinding the pedals as hard as you can from the moment you swing a leg over. You can get through your intervals without being interrupted by lights, junctions, sharp corners or descents. Ideal! And no matter what the weather, it’ll always be clean and dry in your living room or garage (until you start steaming up the windows as you ride).

Without interruptions to get in the way of your training, you can burn calories far more efficiently on an indoor bike, especially if you’re doing a high-intensity session, like this one which is one of Manon Lloyd's favourites. But no matter what your training goals are, 30 minutes on an indoor trainer will be plenty of time to complete a targeted session that ticks the right boxes for you.

So, what’s the drawback? An indoor trainer might give a fantastic 30-minute workout, but don’t we all spend enough time indoors already? On the indoor bike, you’ll miss out on the fresh air, the sense of movement, and the feeling of getting out of the house. Cycling is as much about freedom as it is about fitness, and somehow we doubt you’re ever going to replicate that feeling by staring at a TV screen.

So, why not integrate both indoor and outdoor riding into your routine?

Running is the best way to burn calories

Although a slightly alien concept to us cyclists, running is a fantastic way to get in a quick workout. Whereas 30 minutes on a bike might leave you wanting more, half an hour is more than enough time to get a decent run in. And if you’re looking to burn calories, you can’t beat running: it’s widely regarded as the most calorie-intensive exercise type. If calorie burn is your goal, intensity is key. Short, sharp efforts throughout your run are going to burn off that energy quicker than any other kind of exercise.

And for cyclists, running can be really helpful for strengthening muscles and joints that don’t get worked as hard on the bike. Our sport is so low-impact that our bones and joints can soften up, putting us at risk of osteoporosis as we age. Running, or even just walking, will add some impact forces that will boost our bone density and keep us healthy as the years go by.

For a quick half-hour workout, the best thing about running is the simplicity. You can do it anywhere, and all you need is a pair of trainers (and your clothes, obviously…). Minimal fuss, just a solid workout.

Hit the gym

If you’re looking to work on specific aspects of your health and fitness, the gym is the place to go. We know we have lost many of you there - for most cyclists, the idea of strength training is enough to make their muscles ache - but it's a really time-efficient way to exercise and also has lots of benefits for cycling.

Benefits of gym strength training for cyclists

Cyclists mainly hate gym exercises because they inflict plenty of suffering on weedy limbs and muscles, but that's exactly why they're such good exercises.

Strengthening our muscles can have both performance and injury-prevention benefits. Most obviously, stronger legs can push out more power. A stronger core will also be beneficial, helping you to keep better form on the bike, especially when fatigue kicks in.

Cycling is also a repetitive sport that recruits a limited number of muscles. Incorporating strength training into your routine will allow you to target underdeveloped muscles and strengthen joints, which in turn will help to prevent injuries. So, as much as you don't want to hear this, the gym really can be useful for cyclists.

The problem with hitting the gym is the extra hassle of getting there. It’s possible that you’ll be able to work it into your schedule conveniently – perhaps there’s a gym on your way to work, or near your home - but for many, getting to the gym is a task in itself. For time-poor people looking for an efficient workout, that extra time commitment isn’t going to work.

Swimming

Much like running, swimming is a really efficient way to burn calories, and similarly again, half an hour is more than enough time to have a solid session in the water. Swimming is a great option for those of us who want to squeeze in an efficient workout without putting too much stress on the body. It’s really easy on the joints, but still gives a full body workout.

But much like the gym, for many, getting to the pool will be an extra step that makes it impossible to fit swimming into a daily routine. The hassle of travelling to and fro (not to mention washing the chlorine out of your hair) turns swimming from a highly efficient workout to a time-sapping commitment.

So which is best?

Whichever type of exercise you fancy, 30 minutes is definitely enough time to get in a good workout, if you plan it right. For a sense of the outdoors and the joy of movement, you can’t beat getting out and going for a good old-fashioned bike ride, and if you can work that into your routine, even better.

If calorie burn is your goal, either get your trainers on or get in the pool, and if you’re working on specific muscle groups or fitness goals, the gym or static bike is your best bet. Cycling may be our remit, but for simplicity as an activity, as well as for boosting your bone and joint strength, it’s hard to beat a 30-minute run.

Whichever option you choose, the key is to plan ahead, ideally through a training plan. A well-created plan will target specific areas of improvements and you can plan in short 30-minute workouts that will help to achieve this. It's also much easier to motivate yourself to exercise on a regular basis if everything is planned ahead of time and you have a clear goal to work towards.

For more training advice and how to articles, head over to the 'Training' section on the GCN website, linked here.

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