High-Intensity Interval Training

Photo: Scott Draper/Competitor

Benefits of HIIT

High-intensity interval training can yield huge results in a short amount of time by greatly taxing the body’s aerobic system and requiring more physical and mental focus than typical steady-state runs or even traditional speed or tempo workouts.

By incorporating this new, highly intense stimulus into training, runners open themselves up to becoming stronger, leaner and faster, says Todd Codish, a certified triathlon and running coach based in Dallas.

“Adding the high-intensity training is going to change your body’s ability to handle the high effort levels,” Codish says. “If you do the same thing all the time at the same heart rate or effort level, you aren’t going to make any gains.”

A direct result from the increased intensity and effort of HIIT is an increase in a runner’s VO2 max, or the rate at which the body can efficiently process oxygen. And the more efficiently a runner can process oxygen, the better their endurance is going to be, which, of course, improves their ability to run goal race pace for a prolonged period of time.

“The more we can train the body to saturate the blood with oxygen, and the heart can transport it, the more efficient we become and the more efficient we’re able to run,” says Guy Andrews, a certified strength and conditioning specialist from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Across the board, in speed and duration, performance will increase.”

Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist and American Council on Exercise fitness specialist from San Diego, is a believer. He thinks it can create healthier runners.

“Why do we have runners running themselves into the ground when running shorter distances at higher intensity can provide just as good results?” he questions. When implemented properly, HIIT appears to be an optimal training tool for any runner, he says.

Although it has gained momentum recently among runners, HIIT isn’t new. Izumi Tabata, an exercise physiologist at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University was one of the first to develop a high-intensity program in the mid-1990s. Athletes who followed his Tabata Protocol, which calls for 20 seconds of all-out work on a stationary bike and 10 seconds of rest for a total of four minutes, increased their VO2max by an average of about 9 percent.

Translated to running, the workout can be replicated by performing 20-second runs at a runner’s fastest sustainable speed with 10 seconds recovery for four to 10 minutes. Running at your fastest sustainable speed – and not an all-out sprint– is key to running with good form and avoiding injury.

The entire working time of a typical Tabata-type workout for a runner—some- thing close to 8 x 125m reps at a hard effort interspersed with limited rest intervals— is less than four minutes. Even with a 10-minute warmup run and dynamic drills beforehand and a 10-minute cooldown and light stretching afterward, the entire workout can be completed in about 30 minutes.

“It works very well when you have someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to get a lot of work in,” Sherry says. “If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, I think it’s a valuable tool.”

The hard work necessary to execute HIIT can also benefit a runners’ mental game and ability to perform on race day. HIIT teaches the mind to endure physical pain so runners mentally learn to push through the discomfort of racing. “You learn to hurt,” Daniels says. “So when you get in a race you’re used to hurting and can run a better time.”

Currently still under debate is whether higher intensity workouts, such as HIIT, are more effective in burning fat and calories than long workouts. Nonetheless, McLaurin has watched many of his athletes’ physiques benefit from HIIT. “Their clothes are fitting better and they’re running faster because they are leaner,” he says.

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