If you're an endurance athlete like me, you've probably found solace in your training comfort zone, where you can hold your speed for miles and miles, and then finish up with a satisfying shower. I know what you're thinking: "I don't want to over train" and "I need to build my base!" 

These are some of the excuses I have used to justify avoiding the horrendously painful 4-minute or less intervals that make up high intensity workouts. The truth is, I just don’t like how they feel, so my incentive is low to go out and reduce my training volume to do something that gives me little immediate gratification. Well, it's time to stop making excuses!

Here is why you and I should start incorporating high intensity intervals into our workouts:

1. Increased Oxygen Delivery

You’ve probably heard of the VO2 Max, which is the maximum volume of oxygen your body can take in and utilize to make energy. An important component determining your aerobic capacity is how much lactic acid your body can clear before it accumulates -- ultimately limiting your performance. Oxygen is everything for an endurance athlete, so it behooves you to increase your body’s capacity to get oxygen to the muscles you’re using.

High intensity training causes your body to adapt to extreme energy expenditure by increasing the:

  • amount of oxygen the lungs take in

  • volume of blood in the body

  • volume of blood the heart is capable of pumping

  • number of red blood cells (oxygen transporters) in the blood

  • ability of muscle’s efficiency in diffusing oxygen

By stressing your anaerobic energy systems with short, intense efforts, your body is forced to adapt to the adverse conditions.

2. Increased Resting Metabolic Rate

High intensity training has shown to increase the baseline amount of calories the body uses during the day in order to adapt to the deficit it experiences from anaerobic exercise. Studies have shown that just 2.5 hours of this style of training can be as effective as 10 hours of steady state training.

3. Increased Mental Capabilities

Just the way your body makes physical adaptations to high intensity training, your mind adapts as well. Over time, you become used to the discomfort and it becomes easier.

4. Increased Baseline Abilities

The benefits of high intensity training are most notable in the long-term rise in the baseline abilities of an athlete. As the body improves its ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles, benefits across all energy systems can be found. Your comfort zone output, as well as high intensity ability increases, allowing you to take steps towards faster times and bigger goals.

High Intensity Interval Workouts You Can & Should Do

Now that you have good incentive to incorporate high intensity training into your workout regime, you should start doing it! Here are a few examples of high intensity workouts you can use:

  • Do 4 sets of Tabatas. These are 3 or 4 sets of 20 second intervals where you're working at your maximum capability (what I call "full gas"), with a 10 second rest period for 4 minutes elapsed time. Take 4 minutes off in between sets.

  • Do 4 sets of 4 by 30 seconds at full gas, 30 seconds off, and 5 minutes off in between sets.

  • Do 3 sets of 4 by 1 minute all-out, 30 seconds off, 5 minutes off in between sets.

  • Do 4 sets of 3 by 2 minutes all-out, 1 minute off, 5 minutes off in between sets.

  • Do 3 sets of 3 by 3 minutes all-out, 1.5 minutes off, 5 minutes off in between sets.
As you can see in the examples above, the main structure of high intensity interval training is made up of a short, all-out effort followed by equal or half time rest in small sets, separated by greater rest periods.

These efforts should be book-ended by a quality 30-minute warm up and a 30-minute cool down (if you're using a heart rate monitor, you should be in your zone 2 -- the recovery zone for progressing athletes). The total duration of actual intensity typically adds up to a maximum of 25 to 27 minutes of all-out efforts, but most of the time, these workouts look more similar to the first two examples, with a total of less than 12 minutes exercising at full gas.

During a normal training week you want to come into high intensity workouts with proper rest, so it’s good to do them on the first day of a block, with a good day of training in zone 2 and 3 the day after. As you can see, the total time of high intensity interval workouts ranges from 1 to 2.5 hours with a bit more time allocated to training in zone 2. Anything more than that is unnecessary. This type of training is all about going hard and going home. Get out there and start your high intensity interval regime!

By Jim Stemper

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