Is High-Intensity Exercise Good for Runners?

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High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has pretty much taken over the health and fitness world over the past few years. In fact, according to the American Council on Exercise, the training method was barely even a noteworthy trend in 2013. The next year, however, saw HIIT suddenly jump into the top slot where it hovered for the next few years.

And really, this makes a ton of sense. After all, HIIT promises a hugely effective workout in a fraction of the time. For runners, HIIT is typically heralded as a fast and effective way to increase your power, speed and even endurance. Again, these all-out bouts of activity claim to be able to accomplish all of this in less time then your standard workout.

But, does HIIT really live up to the hype? Is it actually an effective, useful training method? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is actually pretty difficult to suss out and depends heavily on several factors.

All In The Name

The first thing to think about when examining whether or not HIIT would be useful for you might seem pretty obvious. Still, it’s important. Remember, HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. By nature, these workouts as extremely challenging.

While there are innumerable styles of HIIT out there – including Tabata, Fartlek and even CrossFit – the basic idea remains the same. These workouts will always require you to perform at your maximum effort for some length of time. For runners, this will mean high-impact training that can place an enormous amount of stress on your muscles and joints.

If you have joint problems or are recovering from an injury, HIIT is not a great choice. Similarly, HIIT will likely be too taxing for new or out-of-practice athletes. Despite it’s effectiveness, HIIT does carry a higher risk of pain and injury – particularly in new runners.

Enjoyment and Sustainability

Healthy living and effective training, ultimately, is about building habits. In order make noticeable progress, your diet and exercise routine must be consistent. And that won’t happen if you hate all those healthy decisions. Granted, some aspects of healthy living are an acquired taste. Still, your success rate will be much higher if you like what you’re doing.

Unfortunately, HIIT presents a pretty powerful challenge in this respect. First off, those extremely challenging workouts – and the pain  that results – can be both frustrating and discouraging. This reaction, though, seems to run a little deeper than personal preference.

According to a 2017 study out of Finland, the often acclaimed endorphin-boosting benefits of HIIT are actually your brain’s attempt at masking just how awful it thinks that workout is. As mentioned, HIIT tends to increase feelings of pain which can also cause negative feelings and overall displeasure with preceding workout.

Based on that experience, individuals who do not have an established training routine are much less likely to continue running. In fact, this same effect even happens over the course of a single workout. For example, a 2016 Iowa State University study found that individuals who started their cycling workout at a low intensity and ramped up to a vigorous one, felt that the workout was less enjoyable than those who did things in the opposite order. More importantly, the subjects remembered how that workout design made them feel – for better or worse – up to a week later, impacting their views on future workouts.

What Is Your Quest?

Finally, the efficacy of any training program will depend to a large extend on how you measure success. What are you expecting out of HIIT?

Remember, the entire structure of HIIT is based on short bursts of intense activity broken up by easier stretches to provide you with active recovery. Because of their challenging nature, though, HIIT workouts are usually only about 20 to 30 minutes long.

HIIT, then, will primarily focus on your ability to produce impressive amounts of force in short periods. For a runner, this translates pretty directly to speed. Unfortunately, HIIT won’t do much to increase your endurance for longer races simply because you just aren’t running for long enough. Of course, HIIT will help you maintain higher speeds for longer stretches but when it comes to maintaining a solid pace for many miles, this just isn’t the most effective way to do it.

Bottom Line

So, is HIIT an effective and useful training method? Maybe.

A definitive answer, though, is completely dependent on you and your goals. If you’re looking for a fast way to make rapid gains in your speed and power, HIIT can most definitely help. However, new athletes or those recovering from an injury will probably do more harm than good if they immediately jump to using HIIT in their routine.

Similarly, since HIIT isn’t usually recognized as a “pleasant” workout, it could actually make it difficult for you to build lasting healthy habits.

Sources

  1. Thompson, Walter R. Ph.D., FACSM, WORLDWIDE SURVEY OF FITNESS TRENDS FOR 2017, Journal,
  2. Tiina Saanijoki, Lauri Tuominen, Jetro J Tuulari, Lauri Nummenmaa, Eveliina Arponen, Kari Kalliokoski and Jussi Hirvonen, Opioid Release after High-Intensity Interval Training in Healthy Human Subjects, Journal,
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