Not Such A HIIT

Posted by Filed Under: Training

A while ago, I became aware of a new buzzword doing the rounds on certain fitness web sites. These come and go, and I usually ignore them, but this one has stuck around for longer than usual.

It sounds great. HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is supposed to increase your fitness and burn your body fat faster than other fitness methods. For some reason, some of the proponents have started taking pot-shots at endurance athletes, especially runners, for how wrong their training is. What is in it?

HIIT works the following way: After a warm-up period, you perform a series of short sessions at maximum effort separated by moderate effort recovery periods. A typical workout would be 8-second stationary bike sprints followed by 12-second passive recoveries (those sessions can be done on various types of equipment, including running on the surface of your choice, of course). The main selling point of a program like this is that you keep burning extra calories even after the workout has ended, due to a phenomenon known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Your body will be at a higher level of metabolic rate for up to 24 hours after exercise, which can burn 6-15% additional calories. As an example, if you burn 500 calories during your workout, you can expect to burn up 75 calories in the hours following the exercise “for free”. A study conducted at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that women lost an average of 10.5 percent of their fat mass after 15 weeks on a three-times-a-week program.

Losing more than 10 percent of your body fat after exercising for only 20 minutes, 3 days a week sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, there are a few drawbacks.

You can’t just hop on a bike and start churning out maximum effort. A proper warm-up and cool-down session will increase your exercise time from 20 minutes to close to an hour—in which case, you don’t save any time compared to normal running training.

Even though 8 seconds-worth of high intensity exercise doesn’t sound like much, a 20-minute workout like this would include 60 all-out sprints, which makes this a very, very hard workout. The promise of “easy” fat-loss is false. You have to work very hard for your gains. People who are selling a program like this to a couch potato promising easy gains are basically lying through their teeth. Anyone not used to exercise will simply find the training too hard.

If you study the training of serious distance runners, you’ll see that they include interval workouts that can look very much like those HIIT sessions. All the way back in the ’50s, legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard prescribed his athletes workouts like a sequence of 50 meters sprint/50 meters float, which is remarkably similar to a 8 seconds/12 seconds HIIT workout. Lydiard called them “sharpeners”, and he used them to fine-tune his runners’ peak fitness—not as the basis for the training program. Maybe he should have thought of a snappier name and created an ad-laden website instead.

If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. You don’t turn into a super athlete by training for just 60 minutes per week. Hard training sessions like the ones prescribed by HIIT certainly have their place, such as in Lydiard’s program, and they do provide a very good stimulus to your body. However, the claim that they can replace any other form of training is simply false.

About Thomas Bubendorfer

I started running in 2004 with the goal to complete the Dublin marathon. After finishing a few minutes above 4 hours I got ambitious and decided to break the 4 hours barrier, which took two more marathons and a few painful experiences. By then I was fully hooked to running and decided to see how good a runner I could become. In the meantime I have managed to lower my best marathon time to 3:09, and I'm aiming for the sub-3 hours target. I have also fallen in love with ultra running, and despite an egregious lack of ultras in Ireland have plans for a few longer adventures over the next couple of years.

  1. Spartan7 on August 5th at 5:46 am

    I’ve often used HIIT training for myself and my troops but I have never heard of some of the “facts” that the article talks about.

    The way I learned and used HIIT training was in 45 second to 1 minute intervals of sprints and 1 to 1:30 minutes of high jogging recoveries. My baseline was 6 HIIT’s and I worked upto no more than 20 HIIT’s. Warm-up consited of a 1/2 mile to mile slow run and after the HIIT’s, I did 3 circuits of core and a cool down slow run of a 1/2 mile to 1 mile.

    I have never believed you could burn calories after the exercise, unless it’s just because you can’t get your heart rate down!

    Maybe I learned HIIT wrong, but after a minute long sprint, I don’t think I did.

    Spartan7s last blog post..Fitness Today

  2. easyrunning on August 5th at 7:52 am

    I think this is a pretty poor article. For weight loss I think a big advantage of HITT comes from it not leading one to get their body into a catabolic state. Long duration cardio does tend to lead to a breakdown of muscle. If you are someone who lifts weights and runs you know this (weight room performance tends to go down when mileage goes up)… When losing weight a huge problem is muscle loss, HIIT can help prevent this while still providing the benefits of cardio. The article indicates that one needs a 20 minute warmup and 20 minute cooldown and usues this as an attack against HIIT. This is a ludicrous attack against the program… Why don’t you add in the time it takes to change clothes before and after and shower too? How about the time to get to the place where you are going to workout? Working out takes commitment, and HIIT is no less a commitment then any other approach.

    Distance running is wonderful, but don’t be so in-love with one thing so much that you are unable to see the benefits of new ideas. If a HIIT approach helps people lose weight and get fit, and it CAN, then that is great.

  3. 21stCenturyMom on August 5th at 9:34 am

    I’m still trying to figure out how this is so revolutionary compared to say… a track workout. Is this not the exact same principle?

    Marketing hype around an acronym. So silly.

    21stCenturyMoms last blog post..That’s Just Mean

  4. easyrunning on August 5th at 10:07 am

    It’s not a big difference, but the difference is intensity. Most of the time, even track workouts don’t have us going 100%, this approach does. It’s shorter burts often with slower recovery.

  5. Run For Life on August 5th at 5:14 pm

    I did a HIIT workout for the first time today and I do find it similar to a medium/hard track workout. I liked it and think if you want a good workout when you’re pressed for time or can’t get to a track this is a great option.

    Run For Lifes last blog post..T minus 3 days!!!

  6. Christopher Kelsall on August 9th at 6:30 pm

    Regarding HIT training or whichever acronym you want to use, it’s flawed, flawed and flawed.

    For those who like very short workouts for general health…that’s your option however, if one wants to build a stronger cardio vascular system – a stronger aerobic engine to launch faster, harder workouts from, HIT is another in a long line of quackery like products.

    How does the HIT program fit in with the Lydiard method of training? I don’t see the connection. Please explain.

  7. Josh on August 17th at 10:19 pm

    Any time you change your training program you will see different results. Remember the “Super Slow” weight training popularized about 10 years ago?

    Any time you up the intensity, you will see results. You will also see longer/different recovery times. If your body isn’t used to recovering, it will take longer!

    I’ve always seen better results with higher intensity workouts, but they are not easy. And they can be easily overdone. As with anything, take it in moderation.

  8. Jon on November 21st at 2:08 pm

    A lot of endurance athletes incorporate some HIIT into their routines, and likewise, athletes in intensive sports do endurance training.

    I do not think that there is either a right way or a wrong way to do things. However, for the average person trying to lose some weight and get fit, HIIT can be worked into a busy schedule much easier.