Too many people continue to be caught in the belief that performing long durations (>30Min) of steady state exercise is smart and beneficial for your overall well-being. Whether you enjoy running, bicycling, rowing, or walking; the notion is that the more volume you perform will result in greater weight loss, better conditioning, and/or improved health. This perspective has since been deemed by a vast amount of research to be completely false, and is no longer recommended and for good reason. However, it is mind boggling how I still encounter so many people day in and day out that refuse to accept this. At the same time, they are willing to quickly adapt new information on diet fads, but fail to compliment their new eating regimens with the correct and proper training methods.
Now for the alternatives: circuit and interval training. Collectively the term commonly being thrown around these days is “HIIT”, or High Intensity Internal Training. HIIT is a short period of vigorous, all-out effort activity, followed by a period of rest. Interval training should not extend any longer than 20 minutes (8-15 min is an average length of time for one session). You can perform HIIT on a treadmill, cycle, elliptical or outdoors, and you can even use equipment such as battle ropes, kettle bells, sleds, barbells, jump ropes, or just your own bodyweight.
OK now let’s quickly review some research. A recent study, done in Canada at McMaster University and often referred to as the Gibala Study after lead researcher Martin Gibala, compared 20 minutes of high intensity interval training, consisting of a 30 second sprint followed by a four minute rest, with 90 to 120 minutes in the target heart rate zone. The result was amazing. Subjects got the same improvement in oxygen utilization from both programs. What is more amazing is that the 20 minute program only requires about two minutes and 30 seconds of actual work.
A second study that has become known as the Tabata study again shows the extreme benefits of interval training. Tabata compared moderate intensity endurance training at about 70 percent of VO2 max to high intensity intervals done at 170 percent of VO2 max. Tabata used a unique protocol of 20 seconds work to 10 seconds rest done in seven to eight bouts. This was basically a series of 20 second intervals performed during a four minute span. Again, the results were nothing short of remarkable. The 20/10 protocol improved the VO2 max and the anaerobic capabilities more than the steady state program.
Prolonged steady state exercise can have a positive effect on resting heart rate, blood pressure, and other cardiovascular markers. However, it also exposes you to unnecessary cardiovascular stress, and sure this stress can be actually good for you but only up to a certain point. Excessive amounts of it can keep your body in this “stressed-out” state for too long which can hinder fat loss, as well as promote muscle catabolism (breakdown of muscle tissue). In addition, performing too large of an amount of steady state exercise puts you at a significantly higher risk for overuse and repetitive use injuries.
In contrast, with HIIT you are still able to attain the same positive cardiovascular effects, but over shorter periods of time as documented in the research studies previously mentioned. In addition, you enter “EPOC”, or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption which means after you stop working out, your body is still burning through calories while you go about your daily routine. Not to mention, your resting metabolism increases, and your body becomes more efficient at using fat for fuel. This is something not attainable at the intensity levels of most joggers and cyclists.
With all that being said, stay active people. Whether it is going for a long run or maybe beginning to supplement some circuit training into your daily regimen, the biggest mistake you can make is to stop moving….