This piece probably should have been written three months ago, just as the weather began to turn wet, not while we’re in the middle of the winter. Despite that, the information here might still be valuable, and there’s nothing to say that interval training isn’t useful in the summer months as well.
Consider your average 5km run on the trails behind Quest: you know your loop well, the elevation gain/loss is fairly minimal, and you can cruise it in between 20 and 35 minutes. Maybe you’ve started to get complacent, and what was once hard when you started running is now second nature. While it is good to see progression, that progression might have plateaued, and you don’t feel like you’re getting out of the run what you used to. Moreover, it’s cold, wet, and slippery: far from prime jogging conditions.
One way crush this plateau might be to turn to high intensity interval training, or HIIT for short. The framework for HIIT is simple, and the benefits of consistent practice have immense potential. Brief, all-out work periods are followed by a briefer rest, repeated for 5-10 minutes. That’s it. Compared to a 30 minute 5km, interval training appears more efficient. But what exactly is happening during HIIT training, and what benefits come from it?
HIIT functions differently from a conventional cardio workout in that you are performing short sprints versus a longer, sustained level of energy output (steady state training). Anyone who says a series of short sprints is easier than a long run is either lying to you or hasn’t done them before.
The benefits of HIIT was first brought to light in the 1970’s by athletics coach Peter Coe, but was not made popular until the results of a 1996 study run by sports physiologist Izumi Tabata. He conducted his experiment on Olympic speed skaters. In the results, the subjects who underwent HIIT saw a greater increase in their V02 max capacity (the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual has available to them during intense exercise) compared to the control group who underwent traditional, steady state training over a 6 week period. This protocol has been aptly named the Tabata Protocol. The protocol follows:
You will perform the routine 4x/week. It will be performed on a stationary bike.
- Warm-up 2-3 minutes at a comfortable pace.
- Work: crank up the resistance to a challenging range – between 11 and 14, and cycle above 85RPM for 20 seconds.
- Rest: reduce resistance or intensity, and cycle for 10 seconds.
- Repeat the work/rest cycle for 7 more reps.
- Cool down
That’s it. 10 minutes and you’re done. Simple on paper, nasty to get through in practice. At no point should this protocol feel easy. If you don’t feel completely gassed by the 8th rep, you probably sandbagged it.
Beyond the V02 max increase reported by the Tabata study, other benefits of HIIT include improved cardiovascular fitness, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lowering of insulin resistance and decreased blood-glucose levels.
Although the benefits of Tabata training are numerous, critics have pointed out that the regimen is psychologically demanding, and may not be viable for the average person to undertake rigorously. It is hard getting on the bike day after day, knowing how badly you’re about to suffer. Those who can stick to the program, however, will likely notice a difference in their aerobic capacity after 6 weeks time.
HIIT training is an efficient way to train hard, while staying warm and dry. The next time you’ve got 20 minutes to kill, throw some shorts on and go look for a bike. It will suck in the moment, but will pay dividends in the long-run.