What’s the best cardio for roller derby?

Posted on: June 15th 2017

best cardio for roller derby

Cardio. You either love it, or you loathe it.

Either way, jammer or blocker, you probably ought to be doing some form of cardiovascular exercise in addition to roller derby practice – especially if you’re trying to level up, improve your endurance quickly, or just want to avoid that horrible “dead-legs-burning-lungs” feeling at the end of a two minute jam!

But there are lots of options out there for you – which should you choose? I’m going to rate and rank some of the most common exercise options out there, and show you which ones will give you the best cardio for roller derby.

But first I need to make three things clear:

1. All exercise is good exercise. If you’re out there doing something to improve your health, then you’re already lapping everyone who’s still on the couch. That being said though, some efforts are going to be more productive than others if your goal is to improve on the track for roller derby.

2.  All efforts can produce great or minimal results, depending on how you approach them. Running 10 miles at a 10 minute per mile pace is going to produce a different result than doing 20 minutes of hill sprints. In simple terms, if our time is limited then we should be training in a way that replicates the high intensity interval style of the game, for best results.

3. No cardio program will produce results worth bragging about if you’re not pushing yourself at least some of the time. “Running to stand still” is a common phenomenon for those who just go through the motions in their cardio efforts.

So what is the best kind of cardio workout for roller derby? I’ve ranked the options for you here, from least effective to most effective.

#6 – Elliptical Machine

Pros: Easy to do, low impact (usually good for rehabbing knee or ankle injuries).

Cons: Too easy, minimal application to roller derby.

Walk in to any big gym and you’ll see dozens of people watching the TV or reading a magazine and putting in some time in a bank of ellipticals. The machine makes it easy – just punch in your weight and select your pre-baked workout routine, and you can completely zone out. The problem is, it’s really easy to just put in the time without pushing yourself. The no-impact design of the elliptical removes a lot of the challenge for the body to stabilize, resist, and grow muscle. There’s very little power output since the machines tend to move themselves to a degree.

How to make the most of it: If the elliptical is your jam, do shorter workouts of 1 to 2 minute hard intervals with 30-60s light recovery intervals. Ensure you’re pushing yourself hard during the work intervals.

#5 – Zumba / Cardio KickBox / Body Pump and other gym classes

Pros: The group setting might push you harder than you would push yourself; you might really enjoy yourself!

Cons: Dubious application to roller derby; happens on someone else’s schedule.

For some, attending a fun or energetic class at the gym is the only way they can mentally power through their cardio workout – in which case, these classes are great! On the flip side though, in terms of direct benefit to your game, these classes may have only a nominal effect on your game day endurance and skating power.

How to maximize it: Choose a class that uses high intensity intervals, has the words “sports” or “conditioning” in the title, or uses weights.

#4 – Running / jogging

Pros: minimal equipment, do it anywhere, uncomplicated, easy to challenge yourself.

Cons: Not super applicable to roller derby; the muscle mechanics of running don’t help build power for skating.

Moderate pace running, such as you tend to use for 10km or longer road running/racing does not really put you into the same kind of cardiovascular stress that roller derby does, with its shorter bursts of high intensity effort.

How to maximize it: Do long, slow “steady state” workouts at a lower heart rate / rate of perceived exertion for 40 minutes or longer to build up your aerobic capacity, particularly if you feel your cardio is a weak spot for you. If your moderate effort cardio is OK, but you get gassed in a jam or have a hard time recovering soon enough for your next jam, then stick with intervals of 1-2 minutes at high intensity, with shorter “recovery” intervals in between. Total high intensity time shouldn’t exceed 20 minutes in a workout like this. Choose hill sprints to help build more power.

#3 – Rowing Machine, aka Ergometer

Pros: Develops power, very applicable to roller derby

Cons: Requires good user technique; requires gym access

The flywheel on an erg (as those in the know call them) allows you to pull as hard as you can to make “the boat” go farther. Contrary to common misconception, the exercise is driven from the legs (not the upper body), making it a great developer of power in your lower body, which can translate to a stronger stride in your skates.

That being said, if done incorrectly the erg can have even less benefit than some of my lower-ranked cardio options. You’ve probably seen folks zooming around on these machines, sliding back and forth at a blistering pace, back hunched. They’re honestly achieving very little for all their flailing. In a rowing shell, a slow but powerful stroke moves the boat fastest – the same applies to the erg.

How to maximize it: Watch this video for the proper technique. Make “coming up the slide” (sliding your butt towards your feet for the next stroke) take twice as long as your stroke itself. Let me repeat that: count one for your stroke, and count two, three, as you slowly come up the slide. Aim to keep your stroke rate between 18 to 26 strokes per minute for most workouts. Initiate each stroke from your legs (imagine stomping on the foot pads and standing up out of them). Do timed intervals of harder rowing and lighter recovery rowing to replicate the game of roller derby.

#2 – Cycling or Spin Class

Pros: Excellent cross-over application to improving power for skating. Stationary bikes are readily available. Easily modify any indoor bike workout to suit roller derby-specific cardiovascular training.

Cons: Requires a bike or a trip to the gym. Limited effectiveness if you don’t push yourself.

There’s a reason the two sports with the most crossover athletes from Summer to Winter Olympics are cycling sports and speed skating!! Cycling builds power in your legs that will directly translate to a more powerful stride in your skates. And that’s pretty great!

The caveat though, is that (as with any exercise) if you never really push yourself on the bike, then you’ll never see those results. If you’re reading a fashion magazine on the bike in the cardio corral at the gym, following one of the goofy pre-programmed workouts (“hill climb!” “Fat burner!”), and mostly staying in your comfort zone, then you might as well just go for a walk or do something you enjoy more instead, because these are so-called “junk miles” that provide little benefit to derby endurance or leg power.

How to maximize it: Do high intensity intervals on the bike, or participate in a spin class and be sure to really push yourself in the climbs.

#1 – Bodyweight HIIT Workouts

Pros: Excellent application to roller derby; requires minimal equipment; workouts are short but intense.

Cons: When tired, your form may suffer to a point that could cause injury.

Bodyweight HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workouts are fantastic cardio for roller derby, because you can develop strength, power, and muscular endurance at the same time as you’re improving your cardiovascular endurance. You basically get a two-for-one deal, maximizing your time. When properly designed (in other words, the exercises are selected to be relevant to derby movements), this is the best bang for your cardio buck.

What to watch out for: letting your form fall apart in the later stages of a workout. Particularly if you’re newer to this type of workout, go for quality reps over quantity. Ensure your core stays engaged throughout any kind of jumping exercises to protect your back.

How to maximize it: Ensure that the intensity is actually high – the benefit of HIIT is scientifically shown to occur when you’re working close to your maximum intensity output. For this reason, workouts should be short – 20 minutes of cumulative high intensity time would be a maximum for an advanced athlete.

You can find dozens of HIIT style workouts right here at Roller Derby Athletics in the Workouts area (use the checkboxes to filter the workouts by “endurance”). All-Star and MVP Members here get new exclusive workouts every week, and many of those are HIIT style workouts.


The best kind of cardio, without a doubt, is the kind that YOU will actually DO. So if you can’t stand cycling, or you loathe running, then pick something different that you can enjoy! Just make sure you’re actually pushing yourself at least some of the time, and you will see the results on the track.

What’s your favourite cardio activity? Let me know in the comments below!

One thought on “What’s the best cardio for roller derby?

  1. What are your thoughts on stair climbers?

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