Are you a Tortoise or a Hare?


Over the years, I have noticed there are two major groups that frequent local gyms: Tortoises and Hares.  The Tortoises amble from station to station and machine to machine, happy to take time to discuss the day’s events or last night’s TV with whomever will listen.  They can also be found on the treadmill or exercise bike moving at the same lack luster pace. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you will find the Hares.  These people work at a frenetic pace no matter what they are doing.  They impatiently race through their workouts or miles, sacrificing form and function just to get to the next item on their agenda.  Although I have been guilty of playing both of these roles over the years, it seems that recent research suggests that a combination of the two may be best. 

No matter which group you fall into now, it would be safe to say that in this economic climate, everyone, including the endurance athlete, is looking for the most bang for their buck.  Whether you are wheeling and dealing on a pair of used race wheels, finding a deal on a wetsuit, or finding a better, more time efficient way to train, getting the most for your time and effort is critical. 

I may not be able to help you with the wheels or wetsuit, but when it comes to time- efficient, effective workouts, I have just what the doctor ordered: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT.)

Before we get into what HIIT can and can’t do for you, let’s define what it is.  HIIT is a specialized form of interval training that involves short intervals of maximum intensity exercise separated by longer intervals of low to moderate intensity exercise. Usually these periods are timed and specific.  The key element that makes HIIT training so effective is the maximal effort during the high intensity intervals and not just training at a higher heart rate. 


Because this type of training involves briefly pushing yourself beyond the upper end of your aerobic exercise zone, it offers several advantages that traditional steady-state exercise can’t provide.  Let’s look at each one individually.


HIIT trains and conditions both your anaerobic and aerobic energy systems. Short maximal efforts train your anaerobic system and mimic the work and feeling you might get climbing a hill, sprinting for the finish line, or running from a sibling after... The overall effect is an increase in aerobic capacity and VO2. 


HIIT increases the amount of calories burned during and after an exercise session.  Although traditional cardio may burn a significant number of calories while exercising, the effects of HIIT are much more far-reaching.  HIIT training can elevate your metabolism for up to 48 hours after the workout is complete. 


HIIT causes metabolic adaptations that enable you to use more fat as fuel under a variety of conditions. This reason alone is enough for anyone to become a believer, but for the endurance athlete, it is especially important.  The ability to metabolize fat for fuel and conserve glucose can be the difference between finishing with a PR and struggling through to the end.


HIIT appears to limit muscle loss that can occur with weight loss, in comparison to traditional steady-state cardio exercise of longer duration. Once again, this is especially important for endurance athletes.  The effects of training combined with a long summer season can mean the loss of ten or more pounds for some athletes.  With the addition of HIIT, one may be able to curb muscle loss, therefore maintaining performance longer into the season.


As you can see, there are quite a few benefits of training with HIIT.   So what is the down side?  As I mentioned before, this type of training requires bouts of supra-maximal efforts.  This can be challenging at best and downright miserable at its worst.  In addition, because of the super high intensity, it can be difficult motivating to perform this type of training. 


Nevertheless, if you are willing to put in the effort and work, the payoff will more than make up for the pain.  So, are you a tortoise or a hare?  It seems in the case of HIIT, it doesn’t matter.  Slow and steady may win the race, but when it comes to this type of training, a healthy dose of both animals is the key to success.