Updated: Aug 28
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has gained popularity as an effective and time-efficient workout method. It can be particularly beneficial for runners (or cyclists or swimmers) aiming to improve their performance. Although once embraced as a way to dramatically boost caloric burn after the HIIT trainings session, later studies found the effect to be much smaller than touted. Notwtihstanding, HIIT can be used as an effective tool to increase fitness and to combat hypertension, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
This article provides an overview of the benefits of HIIT training, targeted at runners. We will also look at the basic level of fitness required before starting and present a sample HIIT protocol to help you get on your journey towards becoming stronger runner and healthier. I will share some of my personal experience with HIIT training but please note that whilst I am a keen runner I am not a running coach. And secondly, if you have any concerns about your health or are under treatment, please talk to your doctor or medical practitioner most familiar with your medical history before implementing any changes in diet, exercise or lifestyle.
HIIT involves working the cardiovascular system at a hard or very hard effort, 85% (or higher) of max heart rate. If you run using your heart rate this falls into Zone 5 or above lactate threshold. HIIT training improves the rate at which the body can use oxygen, it increases your VO2 max. Apart from being an indicator of fitness, a high VO2 max is directly linked to longevity - those with a higher VO2 max - have a much better chance of living healthier and longer than those who do little exercise.
HIIT training offers several advantages that can directly enhance a runner's, or anyone’s for that matter, health and performance
Increased Cardiovascular Fitness. HIIT workouts involve bursts of hard effort followed by recovery periods. This repeated cycle challenges the cardiovascular system, improving aerobic capacity and enhancing the body's ability to transport oxygen efficiently
Improved Speed and Endurance. By incorporating high-intensity intervals into your training, you can increase your anaerobic threshold, allowing you to maintain a faster pace for longer periods. This can directly translate into improved race times and overall endurance.
Fat Loss and Metabolic Benefits. HIIT workouts are known to be effective for burning calories and promoting fat loss. The intense nature of HIIT stimulates the metabolism, leading to an increased calorie burn even after the workout is completed.
Time Efficiency. HIIT workouts can be completed in a shorter amount of time compared to traditional steady-state cardio exercises. This makes it ideal for busy people who want to maximise their training sessions within a limited schedule. The workout I share below takes about 40 minutes (for me at least!) to complete.
Build a Base of Fitness First
Before starting HIIT training, it is essential to have a basic level of fitness and running experience. This ensures that you can handle the demands of high-intensity intervals without putting yourself at risk of injury. Consider the following prerequisites:
Establish a Running Base. Before diving into HIIT, it is advisable to have a foundation of consistent running. Gradually build up your endurance by incorporating regular aerobic runs into your routine. If you are regularly and comfortably running 5 to 8km (3 to 5 miles) then consider starting HIIT.
Injury-Free. Ensure that you are injury-free and have no underlying medical conditions that may be aggravated by intense exercise. If you have any concerns, consult with a healthcare professional or a running coach before starting HIIT training.
Gradual Progression. Start with shorter, less intense intervals and gradually increase the duration and intensity over time. This allows your body to adapt and reduces the risk of injury, overexertion and burnout.
HIIT Running Protocol
There are various protocols to achieve the necessary stimulus, from repeated short duration sprints to longer efforts. A 4x4 minute (hard/easy) protocol provides an excellent, proven, boost to VO2max. On the ground I adapt this to 4x800m intervals. There are other protocols that also provide results and could be better for you. I like this version because it works for me.
"I always feel a little apprehension before a HIIT workout; I know that it's going to be hard."
The 800m (approx 4 minute) repeat allows me to run to by distance (easier for me to see and feel) than keep track of time, a harder measurement to gauge without constantly looking at my watch. I find that 4 sets are easy to mentally manage and train to, rather than higher numbers of sets. If you have a GPS enabled watch / heart rate monitor, programming and conducting the session becomes much easier. The running still remains hard!
Warm Up. Conduct a full dynamic warm-up before commencing the session, followed by a warm-up run. I like to run 2.4km (1.5 miles) starting easy, adding strides and including some higher paced efforts to fully warm-up.
Intervals. 4 sets of “800m hard, 400m easy". Total distance 4.8km (3 miles)
Hard effort is about 8.5 or 9/10, a pace that you can maintain - without slowing - for 800m. This is not a 10/10 flat out sprint but it is very hard. It can take some time to learn what this pace is and to dial it in over 800m. That is why the progression work-outs, before commencing HIIT, are so useful. Note that it takes most people about 2 minutes for their heart rate to get to VO2 max from 'rested'.
Recover before starting the next interval, slow jog (3/10) or walk if necessary. Make full use of the recovery period, then go again.
Cool-down. 1.6km (1 mile) easy run, or whatever works for you.
I have enjoyed interval training as part of my running habit. However, when I started to focus specifically specifically on HIIT I trained up for it, gradually, over the course of multiple running sessions. Why? Because I know that it is better for me to take a cautious (injury averse) approach than to dive straight in. I incorporate a both a HIIT session and a tempo session into my running programme within a 9 day cycle, this allows me enough time to recover! Younger, or fitter, people can do more.
With hard training also comes a requirement to hydrate and eat properly. An hour session will not deplete body’s stores of energy but proper nutrition supports recovery and progress. As does a good night’s sleep which, incidentally, HIIT training also helps to improve. And, to balance running or cardio exercise, we should all try to fit in some strength training - especially as we get to 40 and beyond.
Incorporating HIIT training into your running routine can be a powerful tool to boost performance, increase endurance, and enhance overall fitness. However, in order to avoid injury it is crucial to have a basic level of fitness and running experience before starting HIIT. Always listen to your body, gradually progress the intensity and duration of intervals and prioritise proper warm-up and cool-down routines. With consistency and proper implementation, HIIT can take your running, and health, to the next level.
If you are new to running or have yet to take the first steps, take it easy. Don't rush into hard workouts, build a base of fitness first and enjoy the process.,
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