A few years ago, two friends of mine and I decided to run the local Tough Mudder for grins and giggles. Even though this annual 11-mile obstacle race in Beaver Creek isn’t a timed competition, we decided to run in the first wave of 500 participants to see how many other “mudders” might cross the line before us. If we had gone in later waves, we wouldn’t have known our actual performance as hundreds of others would’ve presumably already crossed the finish from various waves, rendering our actual performance ranking unknown.
To our surprise we crossed the line sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively, according to the race officials and the spectators who confirmed our finish in just over two hours.
High-intensity interval training
We didn’t decide to run the race until 12 weeks prior to the event. Even though I am a firm believer in specificity, there wasn’t time to develop aerobic fitness suitable to running a medium distance race. Given the relatively short period of time for preparation, we needed to develop aerobic work capacity quickly. In order to do so we implemented high-intensity interval training. High-intensity interval training is loosely defined as work performed at a very high heart rate for a relatively short period of time (seconds to a few minutes), followed by a rest period of very low intensity and heart rate spread out over several intervals.
This method is often found to be beneficial for developing aerobic and anaerobic fitness in a very minimal training time and within a few weeks. Scientific evidence and experience suggests the adaptations to aerobic exercise are cellular (not mechanical) that produce mechanisms for increased oxygen delivery. And high-intensity interval training provides a potent stressor for these adaptations to occur quickly.
In a study by Martin J. Gibala at the American College of Sports Medicine, one of the most remarkable findings was the dramatic improvement in exercise performance during tasks that rely mainly on aerobic energy metabolism, despite the very low training volume. In the initial study, subjects doubled the length of time that exercise could be maintained at a fixed submaximal workload from approximately 26 to 51 minutes during cycling at 80 percent of pre-training VO2 peak after only 6 high-intensity interval training sessions over two weeks. Furthermore, it has been established that aerobic fitness can quickly deteriorate from a short layoff of a few weeks.
Assuredly, when high-intensity interval training is implemented properly, the exerciser can obtain very high levels of aerobic fitness quickly (12 weeks in our case). Why then do active individuals in Vail often focus on aerobic training as a cornerstone in their routine when there is substantial evidence that aerobic/anaerobic fitness is quickly achieved and rather fleeting as well? What’s the point to overly, chronically stressing the aerobic system when most don’t need a high level of aerobic fitness to begin with, and even if they do it can be developed quickly and disappear even quicker?
ASK YOURSELF WHAT YOUR GOALS ARE
The take home message is that most exercisers who choose to participate in chronic aerobic exercise should ask why they are doing it. For better heart health? To lose weight? Are you a competitive endurance athlete? For a competitive endurance athlete, it clearly makes sense to predominately train aerobically around the entire year as this meets the demand for specificity. For others that are interested in general health, aerobic training is great for burning calories and assisting with weight loss, but there are other factors such as diet, sleep, muscle mass, etc., that I believe are more important than chronic aerobic training to achieve hearty health markers.
All too common is the idea that by burning calories through aerobic training that magically this will enable people to eat what they want and lose weight. Or that somehow self-control in the kitchen will supersede the metabolic damage incurred by heavy doses of running; maybe she will skip the donut in the office after her sludge on the treadmill earlier this morning. This rarely seems to occur. Chronic aerobic training makes the exerciser hungry. Infrequently do people replace the calories burned; usually it’s calories burned and then some. Why is it that some of the most overweight exercisers are also the ones that predominately train aerobically? While this is speculative, I have seen it time and again and many of my colleagues have witnessed this as well.
Seriously though, despite the large pendulum swing that has brought high-intensity interval training and aggressive strength training to the forefront, the mainstream fitness culture has a long way to go.
There is a large percentage of the population that continues to prescribe to chronic, daily aerobic training that often lead to underdeveloped fitness opportunities despite the overwhelmingly evidence in favor of other modalities including high-intensity interval training.
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at www.r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.