Is it possible to become a better distance runner by running fewer miles and putting more reliance on short bursts of fast-paced running?
Running traditionalists who follow the Arthur Lydiard concept of high-mileage training may scoff at the rising trend of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that emphasizes less is more, but recent studies and many coaches say it’s one of the most effective training techniques for recreational runners.
Calling for relatively short, intermit- tent bursts of running at very hard efforts, followed by short periods of recovery, proponents say HIIT knocks down training time while significantly increasing gains in maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 Max) and your ability to deal with the discomfort of racing.
In recent years, studies have shown HIIT can be as effective as traditional high-volume training based on steady-state running. By replacing moderate-paced and traditional speed work with one or two HIIT workouts per week, supporters say it can be a great training tool for time-crunched runners and those who can’t endure the rigors of high-mileage programs. But they believe it can also help lower PRs, make a runner stronger and potentially less injury-prone while also burning fat more efficiently.
In some ways, HIIT goes completely outside the box of how distance training is viewed, which is one of the reasons there is so much debate about it within the running community. But it also shares similarities to traditional interval training in that it engages the aerobic system at a more intense level than the slow- to moderate-paced distance running that is the staple of most recreational runners’ weekly regimens.
In that way, it’s especially beneficial to newer or undertrained runners who find themselves typically doing most of their running at the same, relatively slow pace.
“A lot of my runners have done traditional high-mileage plans and then after adding in HIIT, 90 percent of them PR’ed or did better than they projected,” says Thad McLaurin a certified personal trainer and RRCA- and USATF-certified running coach based in Greensboro, N.C.
Contrary to popular misconception, HIIT workouts do not entail all-out sprinting efforts. Instead, they’re meant to be hard but controlled efforts that can be consistently sustained for the duration of a workout.
“What bothers me more than anything else is the term ‘high-intensity interval training,’” says legendary American distance running coach Jack Daniels. “It sounds like you have to work as hard as you can, and that’s not right.”
Although Daniels believes in high-mileage training and tempo running, he prescribes various HIIT workouts to some of the runners he guides in the Run SMART Project, an online coaching program offering personalized training plans handwritten by Daniels and other high-level coaches around the U.S.
Daniels is quick to point out that the impacts of HIIT are different for every runner and must be implemented into a well-rounded training plan with a specific intent and purpose in order to achieve success.
“Training is a very individual thing and each person has to be treated as an individual person,” Daniels says. More so, he says, HIIT is just one building block of many in creating a stronger, faster and more injury-resistant runner. “There must be some other types of training.”
A relatively new and oft-debated training tool for all types of athletes, HIIT has become an undefined conglomerate of running short, fast intervals with little rest. The name and defining parameters of HIIT are a bit ambiguous, which is one of the reasons HIIT is such a controversial and oft-negated topic among those who have previously followed more traditional running programs.
“I’ve approached a cross country team before and asked three of the runners what HIIT is and I got three different answers,” Daniels says. “Then I went to their coach and got another answer.”
Consensus among most of the coaches interviewed for this article was that the bouts of faster running involved in HIIT are roughly equivalent to the pace required for a sustained 1-1/2- to 2-mile race effort. That’s considerably faster and harder than most half-marathon and marathon programs prescribe.
Breaking that fast pace into short, intense intervals with little rest allows maximum training uptake without the debilitating effects a sustained effort at near race-pace would produce.
While some HIIT coaches prescribe lower-volume training plans, HIIT runners, by design, do less overall mileage during any given week because the duration of hard workouts result in only a fraction of the mileage compared to more traditional training programs.
“When you add in those quality workouts once or twice a week the mileage may not be more than a mile and a half or two miles; it’s a really compact intense work- out,” McLaurin says. “You really get a lot of benefit in that time, but it’s going to pull down your weekly mileage.”
That runs counterintuitive to traditional thinking, but there are studies to back it up. For example, a 2010 McMaster University study showed that doing intervals on a stationary bike at 95 percent of maximum heart rate produces the same physical benefits as conventional long-duration endurance training despite taking much less time. The study suggests HIIT stimulates many of the same cellular pathways that are responsible for the beneficial effects we associate with endurance training.
“We have shown that interval training does not have to be ‘all-out’ in order to be effective,” says Martin Gibala, Ph.D., who led the study. “Doing 10 one-minute sprints on a standard stationary bike with about one minute of rest in between, three times a week, works as well as many hours of conventional long-term biking less strenuously.”
Daniels says HIIT training should only be added to a training schedule after building a proper aerobic base from six to eight weeks of consistent running. Once that basic fitness is achieved, Daniels says his rule of thumb is to never allow the working mileage of HIIT to exceed the lesser of 8 percent of the runner’s weekly mileage or 10K. Whether those miles are broken up into one or two workouts is less important than the overall mileage.
For example, a well-seasoned runner who is running up to 80 miles a week should never run more than a 10K or 6.2 high-intensity miles a week since that amount is less than 8 percent of her weekly mileage. For a casual runner logging 20 miles a week, that would mean capping high-intensity mileage at 1.6 miles.
Workouts are personalized by ensuring the intervals are run at a perceived pace a runner can withstand for 10 to 12 minutes based on their individual fitness. For example, Runner A is a 3:10 marathoner and the fastest pace she can hold for 10 minutes is a 5:40 pace. Runner B is a 4:15 marathoner and the quickest pace he can hold for 10 minutes is a 7:40 pace.
“If you’re running an interval for two minutes and you don’t think you can go a minute longer, you’re going too fast,” Daniels says.
Vince Sherry, a Flagstaff, Ariz.-based head coach with the Run SMART Project agrees. “At no point do you want to be fading from your effort,” he says. “If anything you want your last interval to be the strongest.”
As with any hard workout, Daniels says HIIT days should always be bookended with rest or active recovery days. Scheduling HIIT to follow and precede easy days allows tired muscles to recuperate and ensures the workouts aren’t run on tired legs or are putting a runner in position to run with bad form and become more susceptible to injury.
One HIIT workout McLaurin has many of his athletes do is a modified version of a traditional fartlek workout. Named after four-time Australian Olympian and 2:08 marathoner Steve Moneghetti, the “Mona Farlek” is a version of HIIT that calls for random distances of short, fast work from 15 to 90 seconds, run at a runner’s near- max pace, followed by equal periods of recovery, which can be a slow jog or walk— whichever the runner needs to recover enough to complete the remainder of the workout with proper form.
As with traditional fartlek workouts, McLaurin says his version can be done anywhere—you don’t need a track, a common misconception of speed work—and it can be more productive than traditional track-based speed sessions for distance runners because it is centered around perception of effort rather than being tied to specific splits.
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.
High-intensity interval training can also be a valuable training tool for injured runners, or runners coming back from injury. Instead of running, many injured runners can complete HIIT on a stationary bike or water running in a pool, which allows those among the running wounded to maintain fitness before they return to running on a road, track or trail without adding any additional stress to ligaments, tendons and joints.
“Training on the bike provides a unique, good setting to work hard and push hard without worrying about the adverse effects,” says Todd Weisse, head coach of the Williamsburg Track Club in New York.
Weisse says training at a high intensity on the bike or in the pool allows runners with some injuries—such as shin splints, plantar fasciitis and certain muscles strains—to stay fit and avoid restlessness. It’s important for an injured runner to work with a physical therapist or coach to determine if this kind of training is appropriate, Weisse says.
“In an injury period, the message is to lay off and relax, but that really is counterintuitive for competitive types who want to work out and maintain their fitness,” he says. “Their bodies can tolerate the bike, and psychologically it has them working hard.”
Kari Smith of New York knows first-hand how efficient HIIT on the bike can be after getting sidelined with severe shin splints just a few weeks into her training for the Berlin Marathon in 2009, rendering her unable to do almost any run training. “It was the first time I had ever experimented with this training and I asked my coach, ‘Are you crazy? What do you think I’m going to accomplish?’” Smith admits.
Nonetheless, Smith implemented HIIT about three weeks into her 14-week marathon program, doing almost all of her speed work and long base-sustaining efforts on a bike. By the end of training she was injury-free and wound up running a new five-minute PR—3:10:25.
“My body responded to the time on the bike,” she says. “My body responds better to high-intensity workouts more than logging all those miles.”
“Everyone loves the idea of a single silver bullet solution, but it’s not that easy,” Sherry says.
Supporters of traditional high-volume run training are understandably skeptical about HIIT. High-volume running has been the training cornerstone of millions of runners since Lydiard developed it and turned a group of New Zealand runners into world-beating superstars in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“The first response [from HIIT proponents] is it makes you run faster but what does it possibly do negatively?” questions Daniels. Unfortunately, there can be too much of a good thing and there are drawbacks of HIIT, particularly the potential for injury, he says.
Out-of-shape runners looking for a short workout that also offers high gains would be especially drawn to HIIT; however, they are not the ideal HIIT candidates in the same way that barefoot running isn’t appropriate for new runners or those who have been wearing substantially cushioned shoes for years.
“The bad thing about high-intensity work for someone who is deconditioned is they might injure themselves,” Codish says. This can be remedied easily with a more gradual approach that begins with lower-intensity workouts and graduates over time to adding in more intensity.
“I don’t think pitchers are throwing 100 mile-per-hour fastballs on the first day of spring training,” Daniels says. “I assume they’re throwing fairly comfortably and build up to the faster stuff. It’s the same for running. You can’t start doing fast stuff on the first day of practice.”
The same approach works for even the most conditioned athlete. A fit runner may easily handle slow miles; however, adding in a new stress such as HIIT is strain on the body and can result in injury. Gradually adding HIIT workouts into training over several weeks helps the body to adjust and become comfortable with the new training stimulus.
Adding HIIT to a training program can also put a mental strain on many runners. After decreasing his runners’ mileage to accommodate the added stress of HIIT, not all of McLaurin’s runners were thrilled.
“It plays with their minds when they see their weekly mileage go down a little bit,” McLaurin says. “But they need to understand that lower mileage doesn’t mean lack of effort.”
A Better Way?
Proponents of traditional high-mileage training programs shun HIIT’s “get-fit quick” approach, while advocates of HIIT cite the monotony and injury risk associated with volume-based programs as reasons for adopting a philosophy emphasizing high-quality over high quantity. So who’s right?
The answer is: both.
While HIIT challenges the basic tenets of a moderate-intensity, high-mileage training plan, it should be pointed out that Lydiard, too, went against common convention when he began experimenting with high-volume training in the 1950s. The bottom line is that not every runner can endure the consistent rigors of high-mileage running, nor can they expect to run their best over longer distances on high-intensity interval work alone. The two schools of thought must co-exist and complement one another to some degree. The key is finding the right balance.
“Both [high-volume running and HIIT] are necessary over certain points in training to have a successful program,” Sherry explains. “And that balance runs much deeper than trading out some long runs for HIIT workouts. You’ve got to bring in all the other factors.”
3 Variations of HIIT Workouts
Substitute these workouts in place of traditional speed work in a typical run training plan, but reduce or avoid the workouts during a pre-race taper period.
1. TABATA FOR RUNNERS
[ 1 ] COINED BY JAPANESE EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGIST IZUMI TABATA, THIS HIIT WORKOUT IS TRADITIONALLY DONE ON A BIKE, BUT CAN BE EASILY REPLICATED ON THE RUN.
* 10-minute easy warmup run
*20-second hard effort at a runner’s fastest pace he or she can maintain for 10-12 minutes, followed by 10 seconds rest (walking or recovery-paced jogging) that allows the runner to perform the remain- der of the workout at the suggested pace without sacrificing form.
* Repeat eight times
* 10-minute cooldown run
MODIFIED “MONA FARTLEK”
[ 2 ] FOUR-TIME AUSTRALIAN OLYMPIAN AND 2:08 MARATHONER STEVE MONEGHE-TTI COINED THE “MONA FARTLEK” FOR A WORKOUT HE USED IN HIS MARATHON TRAINING IN THE 1990S, AND USATF-CERTIFIED RUNNING COACH THAD MCLAURIN HAS PUT HIS SPIN ON IT FOR A QUICK AND BENEFICIAL HIGH-INTENSITY RUN.
* 10-minute easy warmup run
* 15-second fast run at a runner’s fastest pace he or she can maintain for 10-12 minutes, followed by a 15-second recovery run or walk that allows the runner to perform the remainder of the workout.
* 30-second fast effort, followed by a 30-second recovery jog
* 60-second fast run followed by 60-second recovery run
* 90-second fast run followed by 90-second recovery run
* Repeat intervals three times
* 10-minute cooldown run
STAGGERED HILL REPEATS
[ 3 ] COMPLETING THIS KIND OF WORKOUT ON A HILL INSTEAD OF ON FLAT GROUND HELPS BUILD MORE LEG STRENGTH AND POWER, MCLAURIN SAYS.
* 10-minute easy warmup run
* On a moderate hill that’s at least a half-mile long, run up the incline for 30 seconds at a pace you could maintain for 10-12 minutes on flat ground.
* Walk back down for 30 seconds for a recovery interval, noting that you won’t get all the way back to your original starting point nor will you recover completely.
* Repeat this process until you get to the top of the hill—you will have completed nearly a full mile after 8-12 uphill reps.
* Jog or walk back down to the original starting area and repeat two or three more times depending on fitness level, or for as many times as you can complete each interval at the same pace.
* 10-minute cooldown run
This piece first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.