HIIT for the long road


IN THE MIX HIIT training involves short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by a shorter or similar-length rest interval.

The benefits of high-intensity interval training for endurance athletes

Paul O'Brien

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is here to stay. A generation ago, no one had heard of it. If you’re a recreational or competitive endurance athlete, you most likely have. But what’s all the fuss about? Can HIIT training, which involves short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by a shorter or similar-length rest interval, really have a place in training for a long-distance event such as a marathon, adventure race or triathlon?

The early years
HIIT was officially developed after a Japanese speed-skating coach examined the reasons for the performance success of their national team at the 1992 Olympic Games. Though high-intensity training protocol had been around for years beforehand, low-intensity training had been the protocol of choice for endurance events. Those looking to complete a marathon had miles and hours of pounding the tarmac to look forward to. Long and slow were the buzz words that still inform the bulk of most endurance training programmes.

What the science says
Post 1992, the science of HIIT ramped up quite a few notches. The results seemed promising at first, then definitive. HIIT had significant positive effects on the physiology of endurance athletes. These included an increased ability to take up and use oxygen efficiently (VO2max), improved cellular function, delayed time to fatigue through increased motor-neurone activity (train the brain) and increased muscular function (strength and elasticity). These effects together add up to a significant performance improvement – a finding that should make endurance athletes sit up.

The HIIT/LIT balance
HIIT can help improve your performance. The bulk of your training will still probably consist of lower-intensity training (LIT) sessions. This has been the tried-and-tested way of things for decades. LIT still has pride of place, as these sessions help to train your aerobic energy system, help with recovery due to lower intensity and prepare you psychologically for an event that could last anywhere from two to 12 hours or more.
However, placing a little more emphasis on HIIT can also improve your performance by helping you to improve your ability to delay fatigue (by improving your other, anaerobic energy systems), increasing the amount of muscle fibres you develop and promote greater motor-unit recruitment. The bottom line here is that you have more available to you in terms of energy production, muscle recruitment and oxygen delivery to working muscles.

The application
It’s worth considering the inclusion of both HIIT and LIT into your endurance training programmes. A further benefit of adding HIIT to your routine is the time factor. HIIT training sessions are far shorter than their sister LIT sessions, so for the time-deficient, they allow you to maximise your training without causing undue stress on the rest of your schedule. HIIT can be used in both cardio and resistance training sessions.
Starting off with HIIT can be daunting. Less is better if you’re new to it. The original protocol still bears the name of that Japanese coach who developed it – Tabata training – and it’s the one I would recommend to beginners.

Absorbing the HIIT

A sample Tabata session and weekly training schedule for a runner training for a 10km road race

Tabata Session

  • Warm-up jog of five minutes
  • Then 20 seconds of running at 90 percent of your capacity, followed by 10 seconds of rest – do these eight times (four minutes)

Weekly training session

  • Monday – Tempo Run (race pace)
  • Tuesday – HIIT weights session & light swim
  • Wednesday – Interval Runs
  • Thursday – Rest
  • Friday – HIIT weights session
  • Saturday – Long run
  • Sunday - Rest

Paul O’Brien is a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise since 2007 and a qualified Life, Health & Nutrition Coach. He is co-owner of Republic of Fitness in Westport. He can be contacted on 086 1674515 or rofstudio@gmail.com.


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