Fun fact: trying to jam in a two minute drill is pretty effing exhausting. So is practicing knee falls on the whistle, blocking, and most everything else involved in derby. Your heart rate gets up there. If you don’t start derby with a fair amount of cardiovascular fitness, you will most likely need aerobic cross-training to help you keep pushing through three-hour practices and sprint after runaway jammers.

Aerobic exercise includes running, walking, hiking, swimming, biking, rowing, ellipticizing, jazzercising, Zumba-ing, running Harvard Stadium until you want to vom… Basically, anything that gets your heart rate to a place where you can’t speak a ten-word sentence without having to catch your breath.

You may be thinking, “Okay, I’ve got this!” Women tend to be (though not always, obviously) more comfortable with cardio than other forms of training. Most of us have been on an elliptical or treadmill at some point in our lives, even if we’re not avid gym-goers. But cardiovascular training for a sport is a bit different from a jog through the park or lolling on your favorite machine while you watch an episode of Dr. Who on your iPad.

Choose your weapon

First, it’s important to consider what type of cardiovascular training you’re doing. Especially when you get into multiple derby practices per week, you have to be careful not to overtax the muscles you’ll use while skating, or further muscle imbalances that can lead to injury. Here are some things to consider when choosing your cross-training method:

Running – Everybody knows how to run, right? And it’s pretty similar to sprinting after somebody during a scrimmage. Makes sense that running would be a good option for cross training for derby, right? Not so fast—not all running is created equal, and some may hinder your skating. Think of it this way: The front of your legs (the quadriceps), the muscles that flex your hip, and calves all get a lot of work while skating. Interestingly, these muscles are also used a lot when you’re running on a treadmill, because your body is trying to lift your legs up to keep up with the moving belt; conversely, if you run outside, you tend to use more of the opposing muscle groups (like your butt) to help propel yourself forward. More butt action = happier derby playing. Your best bet? Run outside, particularly with some hills along the way (which give you even more posterior chain involvement). If you do have to run inside (hey, it’s been effing cold out lately—I don’t blame you)—make sure to jack up the incline to at least 2% (if not more) to better simulate outdoor running and keep your legs healthy for skating. (Okay, so I wrote this paragraph, and then the next morning, this article was released, explaining that a biomechanics research found a lot of what we thought about treadmill running is wrong. So take everything with a grain of salt. Except for the stuff about hills.  Run on hills. They’re good for your butt.)

Biking – A great low-impact option for improving your cardiovascular fitness; like running, going outside is probably better for your body than staying inside. Biking does have a tendency of tightening up the hip flexors, so be wary if that’s a problem spot for you normally. That said, a good spin class is a great option for getting your interval training on (more about interval training in a second).

Elliptical – Another low-impact option if your body’s not too fond of running. Just keep in mind that unlike a treadmill, which forces you to maintain a certain pace, it’s easy to start slacking off as your body gets tired on the elliptical. Pay attention to your strides or repetitions per minute and try to keep up a consistent pace. Also, even if the machine tells you that you’ve been burning a zillion calories, don’t believe it: the numbers are very skewed. Judge how hard you’re working by how you feel—if you can only say a few words at a time without catching your breath, than you’re working hard. If it’s easy to carry a conversation with your derby wife on the next machine over, you’re probably not burning 1000 calories per hour.

Stepmill – Or better yet, stadiums. A lot of our league members will run up and down the stairs of the Harvard stadium. Nothing gets your heart pumping and your butt muscles firing like running up and down stairs. No matter how in shape you are, running up stairs will challenge you.

Plyometrics and such – One of the best ways to get your heart working is to do a bunch of different quick movements that get your heart rate up—things like jumping rope, hopping on one foot, squats at a very fast pace, swinging kettlebells, etc. String a bunch of fast-paced exercises together, and you’ll end up with the best possible cardio workout for your body: one that takes you through various movement patterns and speeds that keep your body guessing.

And then what?

Once you figure out what kind of aerobic training appeals to you, you’ll want to figure out a plan of action that will benefit you most. There are a few approaches to cardiovascular training, each with different purposes.

Choose the method of cardiovascular training based on what you need help with in derby– If you’re struggling to make it through your red tape practices without a lot of breaks on the sidelines, then working on your overall endurance will help the most. In that case, you’ll aim to do steady, moderate-intensity exercise of your choice a couple days outside of derby practice, building up from twenty to thirty minutes of training towards an hour or so. Just try to keep your heart rate up to a level where it’s difficult to speak more than a sentence without catching your breath.

If you’re fine getting through the duration of practice, but can’t catch up with the opposing jammer when she’s skating away from the pack, you may want to try some high intensity interval training (HIIT): sprint/jump/what-have-you as hard as you can for thirty seconds to a minute, recover for twice that time, then repeat for a total of ten or twenty minutes. (Note that interval training actually helps with increasing overall endurance as well, but if you can’t maintain moderate-intensity activity for a half hour, then HIIT may not be the best option to start.)

Finally, consider how much training you should be doing. Your practices will definitely help with your cardiovascular fitness, so plan accordingly. If you’re going to one day of practice, you probably want to have at least two days of cardiovascular training. If you’re going to two practices, you could probably have anywhere between one to four, three practices would merit between one and three days of training, and so on.

Some folks will do both practice and cardio on the same day; while there’s nothing wrong with this method of training, it’s taxing on the body and isn’t something you jump into immediately. You want to make sure you slowly build up your quantity of exercise over time—a good rule of thumb is only increase your work load by about 10% per week on average. Thus, if this week you did two two-hour practices and then two 45-minute cardio sessions (a total of 330 minutes), you could safely add another half hour session in the following week. Always listen to how your body feels: if you’re extremely fatigued, have a hard time sleeping (or sleep all the time), find your appetite has changed, etc, then it’s time to take some rest.

But wait! There’s more! Next time we’ll talk about agility training and the nuances of training that bridge the gap from girl-who-kind-of-likes-to-skate to athlete.

Diary of a Redliner: Breathing hard isn’t just for the bedroom anymore.