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

It’s Possible To Go Fast And Long

A few years ago, I visited a friend who works in the strength and conditioning world. He took me to his gym for a workout. I hopped on a treadmill and ran while he lifted weights. An hour after we had started our respective workouts, he came to the cardio room to fetch me. I stepped off the treadmill and announced, “I just burned 1,200 calories. Let’s eat!” His jaw dropped.

Most trainers and strength coaches have no idea how many calories well-trained endurance athletes are able to burn in their workouts, because they assume that all steady-state aerobic workouts are low-intensity workouts. They make this assumption for two reasons. First, the research on HIIT trains them to think this way, as it always compares very high-intensity intervals to pitifully low-intensity steady-state aerobic training, as if going both fast and far is not an option. Second, most trainers and strength coaches have very low aerobic fitness levels and cannot themselves go both fast and far, so how are they supposed to know others can?

Competitive endurance athletes routinely perform workouts that entail prolonged work at high intensities — tempo runs, lactate intervals, etc. A well-trained runner can sustain a work output level for 40 straight minutes in a hard tempo run that is only marginally lower than the intensity level he could sustain in a set of 1-minute intervals and is in many cases higher than the intensity level that your typical gym exerciser could sustain in a set of 1-minute intervals.

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To cite a research example, a study required elite rugby players (who are strength/speed/power athletes, obviously) to cycle at 90 percent of VO2max for as long as they could. They lasted 12 minutes, on average. A well-trained runner can last five times that long at that same intensity. The more aerobically fit you get, the longer you can go fast and the faster you can go long, and it’s traditional endurance training that maximizes aerobic fitness and the calorie-burning capacity that comes with it, not all-HIIT programs.

To give an example involving myself, in training for the Boston Marathon a few years back I performed a peak tempo run consisting of 10 miles at 5:41 per mile. That works out to 85 seconds per 400 meters, which is not a hell of a lot slower than the pace I was running in my interval workouts at that time. What the trainers and strength coaches don’t understand is that well-trained endurance athletes really don’t have to slow down much as they increase the duration of their efforts.

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