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What Cardio Workouts Are Worth Learning a Special Skill For?

Should I hit the books and then hit the slopes? Or should I be figuring out how not to thrash around the pool instead?

I’ve always had a lot of respect for the sports that involve skills that I don’t possess. Almost all major sports require a staggering amount of athleticism to play well, even at the high school level, but most people with two functioning legs can get out on a soccer field or a basketball court and technically play those sports, if horrendously. I mean, who hasn’t accidentally stumbled upon a game of Olympic handball and said, “I could totally play this game”? 

Other sports, however, are completely different. They necessitate a special skill set simply in order to move — or in some cases, to survive. These major barriers to entry typically result in relatively low participation, which is disappointing from a fitness standpoint because it results in many people missing out on the oft-matchless benefits these sports provide. With enough time and dedication, though, such skills can be acquired. To that end, here are three cardio workouts that are totally worth learning something new for (no matter how hard it might be)… 


There’s a very good reason that most swim clubs require even their youngest swimmers to be able to swim 25 unaided yards before they’ll officially accept them into the team’s ranks. That’s because no coach wants to interrupt a swim practice — let alone a swim meet — to hop in and retrieve a swimmer who’s at risk of possible death if no one intercedes on their behalf. This isn’t a matter of being able to walk a marathon if you can’t run it. If you dive into the pool and you can’t swim, you’re literally sunk. 

To that end, barely half of Americans are capable of swimming well enough to save their own lives. Which is both tragic and undeniably sad since swimming workouts necessitate the training of all major muscle groups in a cardiovascular sense. Moreover, swimmers develop superior lung capacity relative to trainees in other sports, which is more than likely owed to the fact that swimmers are frequently trained to minimize breathing for the sake of limiting surface friction, and maintaining optimal angles for efficient forward movement. 

Obviously, you should learn to swim for its life-saving benefits, but once you’ve amassed those essential skills, learn to master them so that you can achieve total body fitness quickly and also make use of the club’s pool when all of the treadmills and ellipticals are being monopolized. 


I’ve absolutely never been able to skate competently on any surface at all. My parents even went as far as to sign me up for figure-skating lessons when I was seven, and it still didn’t improve my on-ice oafishness one bit. I also missed out entirely on the inline skating boom of the 1990s and all the horrors that accompanied it. Thus, speed skating and ice hockey were out of the question, as was any chance of impressing any onlookers whatsoever at the Northland Roller Rink.

What did this cost me from a fitness standpoint? Only access to one of the best leg exercises and butt builders imaginable. More specifically, the side-to-side propulsion required by skating makes it a phenomenal backside building exercise. In fact, a study conducted at McGill University in Montreal found that almost all of the power involved in the skating patterns of hockey players was provided by the glutes. 

So if you’re the type of person who is only interested in leg day solely because you’re looking for a great butt, learning to skate may permit you to skip leg day indefinitely.


As bad as I was at ice skating, I was somehow even worse with skis attached to my feet. I’m not talking about the downhill, put-yourself-at risk-of-paralysis-with-every-descent type of skiing either. I’m talking about what’s supposed to be the easy stuff, like taking a cross-country jaunt with the family while exploring nature, staring at wildlife and pretending like what you’re doing is completely safe. If we came upon even a modest slope over the course of our cross-country skiing activities — whether I needed to ski uphill or downhill — I was taking a tumble… period. 

Unfortunately for me, there seems to be some degree of interconnectedness between sucking at cross-country skiing and sucking at everything that approximates it. My one attempt at staying upright on a NordicTrack Classic Pro Skier ended in disaster, and I’ve smashed my knees on elliptical machines more times than I care to admit. 

My referencing these cross country skiing facsimiles isn’t intended to further my own embarrassment, but instead, it’s to underscore the recognized advantages to cross-country skiing. Namely, it’s low-impact with respect to your joints, although if you lack coordination, you may be making plenty of impact with the snow-covered ground.  Aside from that, skiing ranks with swimming among the best total-body conditioning opportunities for cardiovascular health. Learning to ski will have the additional benefit of enabling you to spend your vacation in a snowy, cold-weather locale like Alaska without feeling like you’ve wasted time and money that was better spent sipping Mai Tais on a Tahitian beach.

Finally, you don’t necessarily need snow in order to ski, because you can always take up roller skiing if you’re willing to absorb your fair share of derisive looks while you jam the bike lane. Besides, you’re still likely to garner more respect than those who train on StreetStriders.