HIIT vs Endurance Training: which is better?

With the significant rise in popularity of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), Matt Ham asks “is the importance of endurance training being neglected?”

A while ago I wrote a blog on the rise of CrossFit, 24/7 fitness facilities and places like F45. And as you may already be aware I am not a big fan of their business models, well morally anyway. While they might absolutely kill it financially, I couldn’t sleep at night if I ran our business in a similar fashion. I digress, surprisingly I am not here to bash other businesses and rant on about how boutique facilities like Hammer Athletic are better. What I actually want to touch on is the significant rise in popularity of HIIT and Energy System Training (EST) at most fitness centres. At Hammer, our coaches are massive advocates of these forms of training. So much so that our training calendar revolves around these methods as they are one of the most effective ways for our clients to get fit, lose some body fat and reduce the likelihood of injury.

Why is HIIT so great?

Well, working at a higher training intensity over a shorter time period (30-45min) produces a higher Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). The EPOC is a response to intense training, the result of which is caused by physiological adaptations by way of a significant increase in metabolic processes which allow the human body to prepare for similar training intensities in the future. Consequently, the body will burn more calories at rest which will allow the human body to function better.

So, if HIIT is so intense how does it reduce the likelihood of injury?

This is a loaded question, as not all HIIT sessions are created equal and aren’t always completely safe (see previous blogs for my thoughts on CrossFit). However, the reason why HIIT is a safer modality is because most of the time you spend less time on your feet. The less time we are pounding the pavement, the less likelihood we develop an overuse injury; when we consider that longer bouts of exercise incur fatigue and fatigue often yields poor motor patterns which often lead to poor decision-making and underlying consequences.

So HIIT gives you the best results, right?

Well yes and no. The case for yes as outlined above seems compelling; however, the rise in fitness facilities specialising in these modalities has seen a dramatic reduction in steady state aerobic or endurance training. Most of us are familiar with the notion that walking or slow jogging burns fat and we have to stay in the ‘fat burning zone.’ Like any novel concept within the fitness industry, this was flogged worse than the proverbial and that overexposure relegated aerobic training to the sole domain of triathletes and endurance based sporting enthusiasts. For years I have had to convince clients that you have to ‘mix it up’ with interval training if you want to get anywhere. Now, lo and behold, the industry has torn off in the other direction, seemingly outlawing long aerobic training and promoting HIIT as the magic tonic to remedy the perils of a time-poor society.

As is the case with weight training you cannot put all your eggs in one basket, you have to approach every performance goal with a mixed method approach to attain the best results possible. Sure, there is a need for specificity but specificity through variety will always yield better results than just purely focusing on one modality. I know many clients who have absolutely smashed HIIT for long periods and lost shitloads of body fat and looked unbelievable. I’m not asking those clients to stop what they’re doing but rather to consider mixing up your regular HIIT sessions with some good ‘old fashioned’ aerobic training.

But why is endurance training important?

The aerobic system is the very foundation of your recovery processes and without a good foundation, the ability to perform regular sessions day in-day out will be compromised. Aerobic exercise initiates similar physiological responses to HIIT, but it simply takes a fraction longer to work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as getting runs on the board (whatever mode of training you perform) allows the body not only to adapt to the mental aspect of endurance performance but also enhances the body’s ability to perform work more efficiently at constant training intensities. If the effort and exertion is matching the demands placed on the body; whatever energy is expended is being replaced and used efficiently. These types of physiological and metabolic processes increase the body’s ability to expel free radicals and waste, allowing the body to become a better, more durable machine which results in an increased capacity to recover between subsequent bouts of exercise.

So which one is better, HIIT or endurance training?

Neither mode of training is better than the other. The primary goals of endurance exercise programs are to improve cardiovascular, metabolic, and skeletal muscle function in the human body. In the past, continuous aerobic exercise has been the chosen method to achieve these goals, however, recent research has shown that HIIT provides similar, if not better improvements in some physiological markers in a shorter time period. Therefore, performing HIIT (at an appropriate training intensity and frequency) as your form of conditioning is a very effective method of training. In today’s modern society we are often very time poor and therefore HIIT is the preferred option for most because it is the most time effective mode of training. However, given both HIIT and aerobic training improve both physiological and metabolic functions in the body, by simply implementing a balance of both forms of training is clearly a ‘win-win’ approach for further improvements of the cardiovascular system. Adding that little bit of variety into your training by having at least one longer aerobic training session (45-60min) a week (i.e. running, riding or swimming) that gets the heart rate up (but at a constant level) for an extended period will have you reaping the rewards with your aerobic capacity and enhance your ability to recover between subsequent training sessions.

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