Incredible 20-minute workouts

I’ll bet my readers never expected to see a headline on my blog that sounds like it comes from a trashy fitness magazine.

A Timex stopwatchBut I’m writing this article because experience has shown me that it’s possible—and often desirable—to do a great workout in only 20–25 minutes. That can be 20 minutes of running, swimming, or time spent on a cardio machine at the gym.

Almost all of my hardest cardio workouts are only 20–25 minutes long. There are several reasons why I choose to limit myself to short workouts. The same reasons will apply to many people who want to stay fit but don’t think they can do it.

1)      Injuries. Running is the activity I love, but a severely arthritic knee has limited my running to two 5–6K runs a week—at most. I also have to hold back on my speed, so I cover this distance in roughly 23 to 28 minutes.

2)     Boredom. I find cardio machines at the gym boring. For me, they are a pathetic and automaton-like substitute for the joy of running or cycling outdoors. However, I like being fit, and I need my exercise “high”!

To make workouts on cardio equipment bearable, I eliminate boredom with these strategies:

  • Never go longer than 20–25 minutes.
  • Use different machines—my current favourites are the Arc trainer and a reclining stationary bike.
  • Put lots of variety in your workouts.*
  • After a very short warmup, focus on intensity. You can’t be lazy. If you’re going to go short, you have to go hard.
  • Listen to music.

3)     Time constraints. If you have limited time because of your work schedule or family responsibilities, you can squeeze in a high-quality workout in 20 minutes.

4)     Athletic goals. If you are exercising to keep fit rather than to compete, you don’t need to do long workouts. Also, in a previous post I mentioned that completing a sprint triathlon or a 5K run are worthy goals for both new and seasoned athletes. Many people discover they like competition and are motivated by creating racing goals for themselves. You can get good results in a 5K with 20–25 minute workouts.** For triathlon training, you’ll want to “double up” the short workouts to practice two of the three events in some of your workouts.

5)     Optimal health and a balanced lifestyle. If you’re a busy person who has a challenging job, children, and hobbies not related to exercise, you may find it difficult to fit exercise into your day even if you know it’s important to keep fit. Doing a 20-minute workout doesn’t take a big chunk out of your day. Also, instead of sapping your energy like a long workout might (depending on your age and fitness), a short workout will get you going and give you energy. There is also a good chance it will boost your mood and creativity, increasing your productivity in other areas of your life.

When I had to cut back my running workouts significantly a few years ago, I stopped getting sick. Now that my immune system isn’t stressed by long, intense workouts, I very rarely catch a cold. Instead of struggling with several week-long colds a year, I typically just have the sniffles for one or two days a year.

* Look out for future posts about 20-minute workouts!

I plan to write more posts soon to give detailed examples of 20–25 minute running workouts or workouts on cardio machines at the gym.

* * 20-minute workouts produce results!

Near the finish of the Longest Day 5K in June, 2012. Photo by the Lower Mainland Road Race Series.

Near the finish of the Longest Day 5K in June, 2012. Photo by the Lower Mainland Road Race Series.

Last June I ran a 5K in 19:35 by doing only two 5—6K training runs a week plus roughly three 20-minute cardio machine sessions a week. This is a pretty good time for a 53-year-old woman, demonstrating that this training approach is effective. Granted, I have innate talent and a background as an elite runner, but I think the general approach is valid for all levels of runners. I would advise uninjured runners to aim for three or four short running workouts a week rather than the two that I’m limited to.

Caveats and confessions


I’m not suggesting that the only good workouts are short workouts. For those of you who enjoy running, cycling, or getting sweaty in the gym for hours, and have no time constraints, by all means go for it!

Also, if your goal is to complete a longer event, such as (in running) a 10K, half marathon, or marathon, you definitely need to do some workouts that are event-specific. That means some of your runs should be at least two-thirds as long as your race distance.

You will not achieve a world record or your potential personal best by doing only 20-minute workouts. However, even elite runners might be surprised how much fitness they can maintain if they have to include a lot of short workouts in their schedule due to injuries or other life circumstances. For many elite athletes, there are times when doing less is more because it gives their bodies time to rest and heal.


Although it’s true that my cardio sessions in the gym are seldom longer than 20 minutes, on most days I work out for an hour in total. Instead of being bored on a cardio machine for an hour, I push myself hard on a machine for 20 minutes. Then I spend the remaining 40 minutes doing some combination of weights, stretching, or Pilates. This means I’m not only training my cardiovascular system, but maintaining strength and flexibility as well.

If I’m pressed for time and have only 20 or 30 minutes to work out, I’ll blast away on the Arc trainer or stationary bike and forget the rest. My need for an exercise fix will be satisfied!


About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
This entry was posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Racing, Running, Training Tips and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Incredible 20-minute workouts

  1. Caroline Crabtree says:

    Great Article Nancy, I too have reduced my cardio workouts – have to admit that I do 30 minutes hard on the cross-trainer. Cannot wait to read your examples and try them out. I too have noticed in the last year since I have cut down the time of my cardio workouts(use to always be an hour long) that I have not gotten a cold so far this year – just little sniffles. In the past I would get at least two really bad colds or flues were I was out for the count for at least a week. Keep up the great writing – I really enjoy them and wish I could have long discussions with you on them!

  2. I bet you could give me a few tips on cardio machine workouts, Caroline, since you have also been unable to run for a long time! I’ll write a follow-up article to this in a week or two. Thanks for your encouraging comments about the blog.

  3. Pingback: 20-minute cardio workouts at the gym | NancyRuns&Writes

  4. Pingback: My Sasamat Lake mini-triathlon | NancyRuns&Writes

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