Is High Intensity Interval Exercise Right For Endurance Athletes?

Jul 15, 2019, 15:27 PM by

High intensity interval training (or HIIT) has gained a lot of popularity over the last few years. HIIT in its simplest form is an exercise or workout done at a high intensity (you are so out of breath you can’t talk well) followed by a period of very light exercise or complete rest. The duration of the exercise or workout and rest periods can be changed based on your goals and ability levels. 

“But I am an endurance athlete,” you say. “I don’t need high intensity exercise. I never compete at that level.” 

This is a common thing heard in the fitness community from folks who engage in more endurance-type activities (think long distance runners, cyclists and swimmers). While that may be true, high intensity interval type training has many benefits to endurance athletes. 

Multiple studies have shown the amazing benefits of this type of training for endurance athletes. One study showed that HIIT training increased VO2 Max (your body’s ability to transport oxygen, a marker of cardiovascular health) 15 percent versus only 9 percent in a traditional endurance training protocol. 

Another study showed that participants who completed four to six 30-second sprints on a stationary bike with a 4.5-minute rest three days a week showed an increase in mitochondrial density (the energy factory of a cell). They also saw increases in three separate enzymes responsible for greater oxidative (endurance energy) output compared to a group that ran for 40 to 60 minutes five days a week. 

That is a maximum of 9 minutes of total exercise a week versus 5 hours a week. Sign me up!

One more benefit that high intensity style exercise has for the endurance athlete is its ability to shift your body’s preferred fuel source during exercise. 

Why is that important, you ask? 

Well, have you ever “hit the wall” during an event or a race? That is the moment when your body cannot keep up with the oxygen demands of the exercise and tries to switch from using fat for fuel to carbohydrates for fuel causing a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles. Research has shown that fat oxidation, or fat burning, was significantly higher and carbohydrate oxidation (burning) significantly lower after six weeks of interval training. 

This means that your body is better able to use your fat stores (an almost limitless amount of energy) more efficiently and for longer; therefore, it keeps you away from that dreaded wall.

With high intensity interval style training, you are able to make greater increases in your ability to transport and utilize oxygen as well as increase the amount of energy your body can use as well as lengthen the time before you “hit the wall” all while drastically cutting down on the amount of time you have to train. 

That sounds like a win-win to me. Maybe it’s time to start second guessing your dislike for HIIT-style training and add it into your routine. 

Martin Kretz, MS, CSCS, ISSN-SN, is a trainer at the YMCA of Northern Colorado who has been working with clients of all ages and ability levels for 10 years. He is a prospective PhD student in the integrative physiology program at CU Boulder. 

Not sure how to add HIIT style training to your current routine? Set up a session with one of our qualified personal trainers today Or find our HIIT or Cycle HIIT classes on our schedules page