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HIIT the track: high intensity interval training

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Train the right way with high intensity intervals

By Hilary Stellingwerff

Short, fast and big bang for your buck – there’s nothing new about this type of training for elite athletes. The bonus is that hiit– High Intensity Interval Training – actually works and is a training method that athletes have been using for decades, perhaps even a century.

Despite hiit training being the popular go-to workout as of late, it is definitely not new. In the 1920s, nine-time Finnish Olympic gold medallist Paavo Nurmi was known to run high mileage weeks that also included short pure speed intervals. Roger Bannister claimed his success as the first man under the 4-minute mile was thanks to almost exclusively doing interval training. More recently, it is no secret that American Olympic silver medallist Galen Rupp often undergoes interval training immediately after his track races. Ask any elite athlete if they include hiit in their program and you’d be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t.

To gain the most benefit from hiit, studies have shown that you should generally focus on two types of intervals: shorter intervals (10 to 30 seconds) that target neuromuscular overload and longer intervals (4 to 6 minutes) that aim for a cardiovascular overload – two different ends of the training spectrum.

Neuromuscular intervals are very short maximal speed bursts between 10 and 30 seconds, putting limited stress on your aerobic system, yet can be extremely taxing on your muscles, targeting power and speed. In order to maximize this short-end training, you must take adequate rest between intervals in the range of 75 seconds and up to two minutes for the 30-second bursts. An example of this type of workout would be 4–10 times 15 second hills with 75 seconds rest between each, which might be done after an easy run or light tempo run.

On the other end of the training continuum, intervals that place cardiovascular overload on your body, help stress and improve your VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen you can deliver to working muscles. VO2 max training has been proven to have a major impact on endurance. These intervals last between four and six minutes and should be run close to your 5k race pace. A classic VO2 max workout is 4 x 1 mile with equal work to rest. For example, if you run your mile repeats in seven minutes, you will need about seven minutes of rest. Too many people make the mistake of taking less rest and then they are not truly able to reach their VO2 max and get the intensity they need from this type of workout. Since it is hard for most people to reach this intensity and hold it for four to six minutes, I would recommend starting on with four minutes the first couple of times you attempt these types of workouts.


So, how often can you overload these two systems? Not often. Both of the described types of training are extremely demanding. Although they can offer major training effects, they also require significant recovery time. Neuromuscular training can be done every five to seven days, where benefits can be seen in just a few sessions. V02 max-type workouts take longer to adapt to and recover from so they should only be done every 10 to 14 days. These longer intervals are great for preparing you for the racing season. Add four to five VO2 workouts into your training, once a week for the six weeks leading into a goal race, but make sure the last one is done no closer than 10 days before the race.

So, if you are looking for ways to maximize your training and workouts, try adding in these two types of hiit and reap the same benefits elite athletes have been enjoying for decades.

Examples of HIIT workouts


4–10 x 15–20 second hill sprints with 90 seconds rest

4–10 x 100 m–150 m sprints with two minutes rest

4–10 x 30 second sprint surges with two minutes rest


4–5 x 1 mile with equivalent rest to running time per interval

5–6 x 1K with equivalent rest to running time per interval

5–6 x 4 minutes hard with 4 minutes easy