October in the northeast is a bittersweet time. On one hand, we can admire nature shedding her green coat and adorning red, yellow, and orange accessories in the arboretum. It’s time for fireplaces, blankets, and that coziness that can only come from liquor gently warming our insides. The downside? Colder temperatures and less daylight. A combination of these conditions make it much harder to go outside and pound out 4 miles. If only there were a way to get an effective running workout compressed into a short amount of time (without relegating oneself to the drudgery of treadmills and ellipticals).
Enter high-intensity interval training, otherwise known as HIIT. It was first pitched to me while training for rugby some years ago. It continues to grow in popularity, and can transform your current workout, yield some benefits that long aerobic runs will not, and help you scale over fitness plateaus you are currently stuck on.
The premise of HIIT is an intense, short burst of exercise followed by an “active rest” period. Sprint at 95% of your top speed for 30 seconds, then do a very light jog for 30 seconds. Repeat. It’s that simple. Depending on your current fitness level, you can perform many of these intervals, or, if you are just starting out, use longer rest periods in between your sprints. A good start would be 4 intervals, 3 times a week, and then moving up to 5 or 6 the next week, increasing the duration of the entire workout based on your ability.
5 minute warm up jog
Sprint 30 s
Jog 30 s
Repeat X times
5 minute cool down
1. Increased resting metabolic rate (RMR) – The anaerobic stress that sprinting puts on your muscles translates to your body working overtime, long after your workout. In the evening (and for the next 24 hours), when you are enjoying a white russian by the fire, put your mind at ease. You can afford it, as your body is burning more calories per hour due to the nature of this workout. Aerobic exercise, while burning many calories during the workout itself does not have the benefit of an increased RMR. While some studies are finding it might yield a slight improvement, HIIT definitely wins in this respect.
2. Equal biochemical muscle changes in a fraction of the time – A 1996 flagship study showed that you can achieve nearly the same biochemical muscle changes in about one quarter of the time using HIIT. Why run in the dark and cold for those extra hours each week when you can push yourself harder and faster for a shorter period? This evidence in this study has been affirmed by other recent studies. Email me if you want the links.
3. Increased aerobic capacity (VO2max) – You might have seen the term VO2max in Men’s/Women’s Health and wondered exactly what it meant. VO2max is used as a benchmark for an individual’s fitness level, and translates into the amount of oxygen your body can transport and utilize in a given amount of time. Studies indicate that VO2max increases are greater with HIIT than with standard aerobic running. HIIT allows you to do a better job at training your body to be efficient, and producing the greatest athletic output.
4. Stave off Type-2 Diabetes – A 2009 study has shown that HIIT can improve insulin function in young healthy males. As the rate of diabetes grows at 3 times the rate of population growth, this will be a major concern some years down the road. Underneath the study is the basic idea that exercise will make you healthier, something we all knew anyway. But the fact that HIIT can have a direct effect on insulin function is good news nonetheless.
If you are going out and running 10 miles because you relish the hardcore feeling of being out there, alone with the world, in the dark at 5 AM, then by all means, go out and do it. HIIT won’t bring you to far away places the same way a marathon will. If you want to stop using the excuse of being too short on time to workout, then put your shoes on and go sprint. The lack of oxygen in your brain will make you feel dizzy and funny, but in a good way. Decide what your goals are, how much time you’ve got, and build/plan a workout from there.
Hit the track, and enjoy the weekend.