The Queen City's clocks have yet to strike 6 a.m. on a recent weekday. But Brian Loeffler is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, setting out a maze of soccer balls and orange cones in the group fitness room at the OnTrack health and physical therapy center in Main Street Landing. I'm making my first foray into Cardio Sport, which Loeffler describes as "a really high-intensity cardio strength workout."
Michael Dabbs of Burlington has a different way of summing up the class that he's been attending regularly since it kicked off at OnTrack this winter. "It feels like being in PE," he says, "without the adolescent drama."
Gossiping may be out, but there's plenty of blood, sweat and tears as instructor Erika Ekstrom turns up the Offspring and leads a half-dozen of us through a "bear crawl" on all fours through the compact labyrinth. Just when I'm getting used to the movement, we switch to running, grapevining and executing jumping jacks with soccer balls in hand.
It's exactly what Loeffler has promised — "a lot of exercises you wouldn't do without someone standing there with a whistle." And that's precisely the point of Cardio Sport, a 55-minute workout born from soccer drills, sprints and the mind of an out-of-shape athlete named John Duffy.
Duffy devised Cardio Sport in Massachusetts in 2006, but it didn't become a national franchise until 2014, explains Hilary Hartman, the company's vice president of brand development. OnTrack is the first gym in Vermont to offer the classes, which are a mashup of sports-related compound movements designed to jack up the heart rate in a fun setting.
"This style is more complementary to sports and to real, day-to-day life activity than pushing weights back and forth and isolating individual muscle groups," explains Loeffler. As a physical therapist, he says, he was also drawn to the dynamic workouts' potential for preventing injury. "You need to be able to move laterally and backwards, and have balance and coordination; it's the first class that made me feel like I was back in high school training for a sport, not just training for the sake of training."
Coordination has never been my strong suit, and I'm certainly feeling as awkward as I did in high school as I attempt to mimic the patterns that Ekstrom is expertly leading all over the room. Part of Cardio Sport's premise is scalability; Hartman says that everyone from teenagers to septuagenarians can participate, given that regular pauses are not only permitted but encouraged.
"Look up, listen and listen to your body," Ekstrom reminds us. "Your heart rate will go up — be careful of that."
In Cardio Sport, über-fit athletes can opt to follow the instructor's every footstep, while off-the-couch potatoes can pause for a breath and a sip of water whenever they damn well please.
"I've taught nothing like this class!" Ekstrom tells me after our session. "Never in my years have I told people that they must step out and take 20 to 30 breaks because of the high pace. But everyone takes it at their own level; you're in competition with yourself, not the dude next to you."
The "dude" next to me happens to be Jessica Smith of Huntington, a 27-year-old whose bright-pink T-shirt has me seeing red as I frantically try to keep up. "I know it's working," she says later of Cardio Sport's fitness benefits. "My upper body is sore — and I think the class has gotten a little bit easier."
Fellow classmate Chantal Bonneau, 33, also says that her endurance has grown "drastically" since she started Cardio Sport, and that "each class gets easier and easier."
Ha! After trying to weave a soccer ball rapidly in and out of my legs, I find myself on the floor pumping my legs in a move known as "mountain climbers." Next I'm performing push-ups — on the damn soccer ball — and then holding a squat position for, oh, eternity while holding, you guessed it, that same soccer ball. The program we're following today is called Gridiron, one of a variety of Cardio Sport options.
The hardest part for me is trying to do "toe taps" on the soccer ball while imagining myself tumbling backward into strategically placed cones. "There are lots of times when cones are flying everywhere, or a ball goes out of control," Loeffler admits. "But that's all part of the class."
By the time we're doing "suicide relays" — sprinting back and forth and high-fiving each other for the entire three minutes of Green Day's "Basket Case" — my fear has turned into fun. I've forgotten about my innate inability to follow fancy footwork, and am actually happy to pick up the soccer ball for bouncing squats and "fast feet" shuffling set to "Africa" by Toto.
The workout is already getting easier, and it's equally easy to imagine how much more fun Cardio Sport would be outdoors, which Loeffler promises will happen come summertime. Right now, OnTrack offers Cardio Sport six times per week, with a $10 drop-in fee for nonmembers of the fitness facility.
"You don't need to prepare for this class," Loeffler says to the Cardio Sport curious. "Just bring a water bottle, running shoes or court shoes, and get ready to have some fun and really see a transformation in your fitness."
And maybe even a transformation in your feelings about PE class. Ekstrom reports that one class member describes the workout's awkward bear crawls using a more colorful metaphor from the education world — albeit after a few cocktails: "It reminds me of being on Church Street in college."
OnTrack, 1 Main Street, #102A, Burlington, 865-2226.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Gym Class Zero"