Better Adventure Racing, Part 4 – High Intensity Intervals

Remember how everybody went totally nuts for Sriracha for a while? And then we went nuts for everything with bacon on it? Or the whole artisan donuts phase? I freaking love Sriracha and bacon and donuts. But we humans have the tendency to take great things and overdo it, ending up ruining the thing we once loved by overdosing on it. We forget that Sriracha, bacon, and donuts are great because they are so uniquely satisfying and by using them too much, they lose their uniqueness. Observe some monstrosities born of our hubris:

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To quote Dr. Ian Malcom from the movie Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Just where on earth am I going with this? I’m reminding all of us of the dangers of going too far with something we love because that’s exactly what we’ve done with the trend of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

HIIT came onto the scene with the rise of Crossfit. While Crossfit popularized their “metcons”, which were intense circuits of weight training, gymnastics, and conditioning, and one of their most popular workouts was “Tabata Something Else”. Named after Dr. Tabata, the Japanese research scientist who invented the precise training method used in the workout, Tabata Something Else was the application of the Tabata Method through a couple bodyweight exercises. The Tabata Method is 20 seconds of an exercise at the highest possible intensity, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and then repeated 5-7 more times. The Tabata Method spread like wildfire, with strength coaches throwing Tabata Method programming into everything. I remember one particularly gruesome workout was the Tabata Method with barbell front squats. The experience was…devastating. The Tabata workouts weren’t just impressive in their brutality, they were also impressive in their ability to elicit improvement. The Tabata Method was hailed as the cure-all for just about everything an athlete might want. Need to shed those stubborn last 5 lbs? Tabata kettlebell swings! Need to improve your top-end speed? Tabata sprints! Hate yourself and want to die? Tabata burpees! The Tabata Method was supposed to be the end game, no new discoveries in sports science needed. And then we went overboard. Tabata for everything, all the time. And we broke ourselves.

HIIT carries with it a heavy price tag. The Tabata method calls for every round of 20 seconds to be conducted at maximal effort. That means “pedal-to-the-floor, turn it up to 11” type of exertion. The kind of output that human beings simply cannot reproduce. And as readers know from my previous articles, that requires writing a very big check with the hopes that your body can cash it. If you do HIIT frequently, you won’t be able to pay up. HIIT is extremely taxing on the body’s musculature and energy systems. We simply aren’t designed to go at 100 mph day after day. We’re endurance athletes by nature, which means our bodies are built for cruise control. Even the best anaerobic athletes spend only a limited amount of their training efforts in the max anaerobic zone because they know that a little goes a long way and a lot takes you out of the game. Exhausted muscles are more easily injured, take longer to recover, and spike your body’s hormonal response. These are in direct opposition to what we need to do as adventure racers. We need to train frequently at low intensity, pushing ourselves only moderately so that workouts are 1-4% more challenging than the last time. HIIT workouts demand a lot of us, and to make gains through HIIT workouts, you have to spend a LOT of time recovering, which is time spent NOT training.

To keep with our analogy of bacon, Sriracha, and donuts (is anyone else starting to drool?), HIIT can get addictive. There’s a powerful rush of endorphins released after a strenuous workout, that great feeling you get when you’re dripping with sweat and can barely catch your breath, but man, you feel so ALIVE. That rush is so sweet because all your senses are screaming at you, telling you that you just accomplished something significant. Contrast that to yet another long, slow run at your MAF threshold, and HIIT starts to look like not just a cure-all for your physical efforts, but a cure-all for the mind too.

Now, you may think at this point that I’m totally opposed to HIIT. Not at all, I think there are a number of great benefits that HIIT brings to a well thought out AR training program.

  1. It trains your body to have gears. Plodding along at the same speed week in and week out can be detrimental and is one of the pitfalls found in the base endurance training if you aren’t diligent and tracking your progress. But if a set of high-intensity hill sprints are mixed into the program every now and then, you not only break the monotony, you also shock your body a bit and prevent it from settling on a single, default speed. Forcing yourself to run as fast a possible for 10-20 seconds up a hill sends a very powerful signal to the cardiovascular and muscular systems that they can’t get complacent and it teaches them how to rapidly recruit additional motor units when necessary. Sometimes during a race, you’ll find yourself in need of a quick, hard push, whether is the final sprint to the finish line, a neck-and-neck race to a CP or you’re pushing 2 bikes up a hill because your teammate is about to collapse. HIIT serves as a useful method to prepare for those “known unknowns” that always appear in adventure racing.
  2. The psychological benefit of “maxing out”. HIIT exposes you to the pain cave, no doubt about it. Normally, that’s something you want to avoid, but as any seasoned adventure racer will tell you, the pain cave is where you’ll end up sooner or later. It’s best to know what you’re capable of doing so that when it comes time to give everything thing you got, your body and mind aren’t screaming in rebellion. HIIT helps you find out what you’re made of in a short period of time. A workout that consists of 100 burpees for time is a quick way to measure your grit.
  3. Great physiological benefits. HIIT, when properly conducted, can trigger a number of excellent physiological responses from the body. HIIT workouts are great fat burners, as the high intensity of the exercise sends signals to your body to burn tons of calories as you’re 100% in fight or flight mode. It sends a cascading set of signals to the thyroid and other hormone-producing organs, raising testosterone and dopamine. To be frank, it’s a GREAT workout.
  4. It’s short. When you have only 20 minutes to spare, you can spend 10 minutes warming up to make sure you’re limber, your muscles are warmed up and your heart rate is elevated, then launch into a 5-10 minute HIIT workout that will clean your clock. And then boom, you’re done. Training effect achieved, wrap it up and hit the showers.

So at this point, you’re probably totally confused as to whether or not HIIT belongs in your adventure racing training program. I’m here to emphatically say that it does belong. For the reasons listed above, a nice sprinkling of HIIT workouts across your program will accelerate growth and provide much-needed variety. The trick is making the inclusion of HIIT actually benefit your overall training goals. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Respect HIIT: If a HIIT workout is in your program, treat it with the respect it deserves. You don’t just make it up what you’re going to
    effective HIIT demands you crank it up to 11

    do the morning of. You don’t place it the day after a strenuous resistance or endurance workout. Recognize the amount of stress you’re going to introduce on your body and make sure you’re prepared for the task.

  2. Do it Right: A correctly executed HIIT workout should provide a massive stimulus to the body to grow, so long as it’s done correctly. That means you go into the workout ready (fully warmed up, not nursing any lingering injuries). You make sure the workout is going to actually benefit your training goals. Hill sprints are always great. Assault Bike for 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. Ski or Rowing erg Tabata. Kettlebell circuits. 10 minutes of sandbag getups. These are examples of HIIT workouts that directly support making you a better adventure racer. 30 barbell power snatches for time does not, unless you’ve got evidence that your local RD is planning some REALLY weird mystery events at the next race. Phil Maffetone, endurance coach and exercise physiologist extraordinaire, states that high-intensity efforts don’t give any benefit once they exceed 90% off max heart rate. While he may be correct from a purely physiological perspective, I think the added benefit of pushing to 100% comes in the form of the psychological training. Whether to hit 90% or 100%, the point is you need to hit the red line, and then immediately back off.
  3. Do it Hard: A real HIIT workout turns it up to 11. If you go out to do 6 hill sprints and only turn it up to 7, you not only failed to achieve the maximal training effect you could have, you actually hurt your overall effort by just mucking about in the gray zone of mildly anaerobic. Always remember – Minimum Effective Dose. Just because you’re going hard as you can don’t mean that you keep going until you throw up or pass out. That doesn’t train you for anything and just teaches your body to shut down. HIIT workouts are brutal, which means by their nature, they HAVE to be short. If you’re on your 10th hill sprint, there’s absolutely no way you did the last 9 sprints as hard as you should have.
  4. Recover: The day after a HIIT workout should be a total rest/recovery day. And no, not a “recovery day” where you go out on a 10-mile “recovery run”. A recovery like restorative yoga (the nice and easy stuff), a leisurely walk with the dogs and kids, or lazy swim. If you truly turned it up to 11, you’ll want this day to be off. If you’re itching to train the day after a HIIT day, you didn’t achieve the training effect you should have.

We need to bring HIIT back to correct balance in our programs. What does this look like? For the first 5 months of the AR season (generally October through February), there’s no reason for HIIT. Your focus is 1) Base Endurance and 2) Maximal Strength. Once you make the transition to relative strength training around February, you can start to sprinkle in some HIIT. This takes the form of some hill sprints or similar workout every other week. Make certain you re-position your other training efforts around the HIIT day. The preceding day should be an easy day, usually in the form of a base endurance, “slow ‘n steady” workout, and the day afterward should be total rest. Make absolutely sure you aren’t doing anything hard the day before a HIIT workout or you’ll never reach the intensity of the training you want, and be sure to rest the day afterward so you actual absorb all the training you just went through. Don’t do a HIIT workout the week of a race either, it’s too draining.

Like Sriracha, artisan donuts, and bacon, HIIT is a wonderful enhancer to an already well-rounded endurance training protocol. Just don’t go overboard, programming in HIIT because you can’t think of anything else or have gotten addicted to the rush it provides. Remember the pitfalls of too much of a good thing. We don’t want HIIT to be like Sriracha lip balm or bacon-flavored Diet Coke.

just sprinkle a dash of HIIT into your training program and it’ll be wonderful