Tuesday, April 3, 2012

High Intensity Interval Training

Those of you that follow my blog know that I recently started a committment to a new cross training program known as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). I first became intrigued about HIIT by watching the popularity of CrossFit grow among my friends, including my sister and brother-in-law. And it worked incredibly well for both of them. Of course, the more I paid attention, the more I saw others doing the same thing. What's more, those people that participated took on a cult-like mentality, similar to runners. And I mean that in a good way. See, I figured that means that it is both working and enjoyable (as much as hard work can be enjoyable).

When I suffered my second "overuse" injury in two years from running, I started questioning some things. Injury always leads to a slew of comments like "listen to your body". What the hell does that really mean? I know I'm hurt. How do I get better? How do I avoid this in the future? Does two injuries in two years mean that I am, in fact, not Born to Run? Similar to Wyatt Hornsby, I began questioning the need to run endless miles in an effort train. Don't get me wrong, runners need to run in order to train properly. In particular, we need to run "specifically" for the type of goal race we are attempting. However, most of you reading this are non-elite runners that don't get paid to run for a living. Those of us in that group have limited time to train and recover. The reality is that a guy like Ryan Hall may run 70 - 100 miles a week, but he also spends significant amounts of time doing other things like strength training, physical therapy, stretching, etc.. And he has a staff of people that help him to keep his body and life in balance. The non-elite runner doesn't have those benefits. Instead, we must balance and prioritize and prioritize on our own.  We are left to interpret what it means to listen to our body.

The final piece of the puzzle was some experts from a book called the Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. An underlying principal in the book is that we should do the least amount of work to get the most benefit (the minimum effective dosage). Following that principal, Tim interviews a running coach that claims to build 100 mile runners on nothing but CrossFit and 30 miles of high intensity running (no runs longer than a half marathon). Not surprisingly, this did not end well for those that tried it. The obvious lesson learned was the need for the "specific" training I mentioned above. Nonetheless, I became intrigued by the idea of reducing training mileage -- particularly during non-peak periods of training -- in order to increase quality and total health.

Here is an example of why it intrigued me. I have had two overuse injuries in two years. Overuse is just as the term implies, overdoing it. Nothing serious, just your body's way of saying slow down and heal/recover. An efficient runner completes roughly 180 strides per minute (90 per leg). In an hour long workout that is 5400 repetitions per leg. And each one of those repetitions is performed using the same tendons and joints. That is a lot of repeated force on those joints and tendons. So what if I got rid of some "junk" miles in my training and replaced them with HIIT workouts that average 150 - 300 repetitions and distributed those repetitions among all the joints and tendons in my body? I would be replacing those miles with a workload that includes things I always know I should do like core training and strength training.

The program that I am following is based primarily (for now) on the book Cardio Strength Training. While I have not researched the entire history of this type of training, I am sure it is long. In talking with friends, it seems this type of training gained a ton of popularity with the movie "300" and the Spartan Warrior Workouts. And I would bet this is part of what has given rise to the popularity of CrossFit as well. Again, I have not done a ton of research behind the history of any of these training styles, and you have my apologies if I over simplified or missed important elements. The most important point that I am trying to make is that they all have similar elements to their training philosophies: the inclusion of intensity to traditional strength training and a focus more on functional/total body exercise.

In addition to the reduced load on your body, here are some benefits of HIIT:
  • Increased fat burning beyond your prescribed exercise period, serving to improve body composition (less fat, more lean muscle).  Studies show base metabolic rates stay increased for 24 hours after working out.
  • The sessions are short, typically taking less than a half hour to complete.
  • Studies showed that individuals performing interval training improved BOTH anaerobic and aerobic capacity.
  • Many of the movements are body weight only (no weights required)
  • The focal point is not to increase muscle mass, but to reduce fat (improved body composition)
  • Serves to improve strength in all the muscle groups in your body, improving muscle groups that are weak and/or ignored during running (until you are hurt of course!)
The idea of using intervals isn't all that foreign to advanced runners, most of us do "speed work" after all. Based on my current level of fitness, and the time I've spent interval running, I don't expect huge gains in my aerobic or anaerobic fitness. I do expect that I can maintain a high level when my running dips in between training cycles. And I am hopeful that a more balanced approach to training will minimize injuries and improve recovery times. Most importantly, I am hopeful that it will help me increase my race day performances when large muscle groups (like my quads!) take a continuous pounding.

One word of caution, keep any cross training in balance with your current training plans. Don't do maximial effort of HITT around maximal running effort or you may find yourself burned out. And plan for some soreness early on!

I admit that all of this is somewhat of an experiment -- one man's opinion on what it means to listen to his body. Stay tuned to see how it works for me. Or don't.

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