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Is High-Intensity Interval Training Really A Hit For Runners?

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Jul. 10, 2013
  • Updated Jul. 10, 2013 at 1:29 PM UTC
Throwing some intervals into your training — even once a week — will make you a better and faster runner. Photo: www.shutterstock.com


The current mania for high-intensity interval training has some runners wondering if they’re wasting their time “jogging.”

The fields of personal training and strength and conditioning coaching are dominated by men and women with backgrounds in bodybuilding and team sports. The typical personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach has little knowledge of or appreciation for endurance sports. That’s not to say these fields are not influenced by endurance training methods, however

High-intensity interval training is a method that was developed originally by swimmers and was then adopted by runners, cyclists and every other kind of endurance athlete. Interval training is now universally practiced by competitive athletes because it is a very powerful fitness builder. However, its optimal role in the training of true endurance athletes is limited.

Swimmers can perform high-intensity intervals until they’re blue in the face, in part because they are really sprinters and in part because high-intensity intervals are physiologically much less stressful in the pool than they are on the bike or in running shoes. Runners and cyclists seem to perform best when they limit their interval training to one or two sessions per week and put these in the context of a high-volume training regimen that is dominated by moderate-intensity work.

RELATED: All About HIIT

Personal trainers and strength coaches were late to adopt the use of high-intensity interval training with their clients, but they have since fallen madly in love with it, to the point of declaring it “superior” to steady-state aerobic training — full stop, no qualifications — and scorning those, including endurance athletes, who continue to practice the latter. The trainers’ declaration of the superiority of HIIT (as they have renamed interval training, perhaps to disguise its origins in endurance sports) is based on a bunch of impressive studies showing that overweight and sedentary individuals shed body fat and gain aerobic fitness much faster through HIIT than they do through steady-state aerobic training.

These studies are interesting and valid, but they do not support the conclusion that HIIT is just plain superior to steady-state aerobic training, full stop, no qualifications. Let’s explore the reasons why.

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