TO get in great shape, you can work out harder -- or, sometimes, just smarter.
A few clever techniques can help people get more out of their workouts and see better results more quickly, fitness experts say. Those methods can also reduce the risk of injuries and make the sometimes grueling process of getting, or staying, in shape more enjoyable.
Whether the workout is cardiovascular, strength-based, mind-body or team-related, researchers and fitness professionals are increasingly identifying ways to ensure maximum return on physical effort.
Sometimes adding focus and concentration to a workout can kick it into high gear; other times what's needed is nothing more than mixing up the routine and adding a few new activities.
SOME people love a crowd, especially if it's on a playing field. For them, exercising solo takes a back seat to team sports, where competition and camaraderie join up for an intense experience.
A vigorous basketball game can send the heart thumping for a couple of hours -- and enhance real-life fitness through moves that build balance and core strength.
But choose a league or team that fits, one that makes you want to play. "Make sure it's the right crowd -- age, ability and fitness-wise," says Dr. Stephen Rice, director of sports medicine at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, N.J. The result will mean more people get a turn with the ball and fewer get hurt.
To make the most of team experience, players also should maintain a good fitness level all year long, not just during the playing season. "It will help you tolerate the loads you'll encounter in sports," says Michael Bergeron, a physiologist and assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. "You'll run more, cover more ground," which has the pleasing effect of burning more calories. And, offers Rice, "You'll have more fun."
Both experts say off-season workouts should consist of a basic regimen of cardio, strength-training and stretching. Add sports-specific routines closer to the season -- sprints for football, for example, or plyometrics for basketball. Those regular workouts should be kept up during the season, too. Depending on the sport, a one or even two-day-a-week game may not provide much exercise.
Just before a game, Bergeron suggests warm-ups to get the heart rate up, such as light jogging, and adding some stretches. Going in cold takes longer to reach peak performance levels and may lead to injury. Hydration is essential, especially on hot days, and healthy snacks to boost energy.
Even bench warmers can stay in a game-ready state, says Bergeron, by walking around, jogging, doing some mild calisthenics and stretching. The light activity will keep them in a state of readiness -- and burn more calories, too. Even pro baseball players sometimes duck into the club house for a little cardio between plays.
If the activity is particularly intense, players need a cool-down period to give the heart rate a chance to slow down and their body temperature to go back to normal. After a moderately paced game it's a good idea to stretch, and perhaps add a little more cardio.
"For the recreational athlete," says Bergeron, "it's nice to get more activity going because it will help the body from a cardiovascular perspective."
THE boredom that creeps in from doing the same exercise at the same intensity can be mind-numbing -- gyms stick a bank of televisions in front of their cardio machines for a reason. But it can be body-numbing as well.
A routine that feels like smooth sailing may not be doing enough to challenge the cardiovascular system.
Not to completely knock it -- it's great to be doing anything for your heart and lungs. And cardio workouts are essential for losing weight, which is always in the top five on the New Year's resolution list. But an ideal cardio workout doesn't involve acting like a hamster on a wheel.
The best cardio workouts, research suggests, are not one-speed-fits-all.
Interval training, in which intensity is increased periodically, "is a great way to enhance cardiovascular efficiency," says Scott Lucett, director of education for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
By changing the levels, "you're placing more demands on the cardiovascular system," he says, eventually helping you run farther or shoot more baskets.
Studies done with elite cyclists show that high-intensity interval training improved their time trial performance, as well as their peak sustained power output and fatigue resistance.
Such training is also more efficient time-wise. "Rather than staying on a machine longer," Lucett recommends, "focus on increasing the intensity. That way you'll burn more calories without spending more time in the gym."
Just make sure the intensity isn't too extreme, says Dino Costanzo, chairman of the committee on certification and registry boards for the American College of Sports Medicine.