Health & Fitness

High intensity interval training: Into the red zone and back again

Katie Thompson catches her breath during repetitions of sit-ups in high intensity interval training, also known as HIIT, at HIIT Fitness in East Sacramento on Monday.
Katie Thompson catches her breath during repetitions of sit-ups in high intensity interval training, also known as HIIT, at HIIT Fitness in East Sacramento on Monday. jvillegas@sacbee.com

One of the most popular spots for recreational runners in Sacramento is McKinley Park. If you stand nearby and watch for a while as dozens of folks run laps, you’ll soon realize that almost everyone is running at a steady pace – not too hard, not too fast.

There’s a gathering place like this for fitness buffs in nearly every city in America.

While that kind of exercise will help people get fit – or keep them fit – experts say it will never allow them to reach their potential unless they push themselves out of their comfort zones and perform short, periodic spurts of effort at a higher intensity.

That’s right, whether you’re a cyclist or a runner or you practice some other rigorous activity, you’ll never get faster unless you do shorter segments at a higher pace – even if it’s for mere seconds, initially.

In exercise physiology circles, it’s called HIIT, short for high intensity interval training, and it’s one of the hottest – and hardest – trends in fitness. If you haven’t heard of it, your workouts may not be as productive as they could be.

HIIT can work wonders for your fitness. Used properly, it can help you get back in shape or get in better shape. You can burn more calories, make your workouts shorter and more efficient, and, by focusing on intensity, get stronger and faster than you were before.

“The body adapts to everything you place on it,” said Michael Ortega, owner of HIIT Fitness, 5141 Folsom Blvd. in East Sacramento. “Your lactate threshold is the burning sensation, that fatigue you get, when you’re exercising. If you get to that threshold faster and push yourself a little bit past, you’ll force adaptation.”

If that sounds daunting, it is. “High intensity” is a fancy term for hard work. The idea is to go into your own personal red zone, suffer a little, recover and then come back stronger. While high-level athletes have always trained this way, it entered the mainstream only in recent years. Intervals can be performed by all ages and fitness levels, though newcomers are urged to increase the intensity little by little. The more you challenge yourself, the more your body will adapt to higher performance levels.

One of the biggest advocates of HIIT is retired sports medicine doctor and Florida-based radio host Gabe Mirkin, whose free online newsletter continues to urge people to try the exercise technique. To subscribe, visit www.drmirkin.com/. Mirkin is an avid cyclist who often writes about his workouts.

“I’m doing intervals four days a week with incredible results,” Mirkin said by telephone. “I’m 81 and I’m riding faster than I have for at least a dozen years.”

The straight-talking doctor advises people “to get into the burn and then get the hell out of it. You just get short of breath and then slow down and recover.”

What’s an interval? They come in all forms and formats, but it’s helpful to think of boxers in a ring. They’re some of the best-conditioned athletes going, and for good reason. They go flat out for three minutes, rest for a minute in their corner, then go again. They often train that way, too. If they go 10 rounds, they’ve done 10 intense intervals and, as you might imagine, by the end they are exhausted.

When Ortega, a former professional boxer, opened a fitness center in East Sacramento, he knew intervals would be a focus, replicating much of what he learned in boxing, which he started when he was 13. Coming up with a name was easy.

“HIIT has been a big part of my whole career,” Ortega said.

He says HIIT is now widely considered to be the most effective way of triggering significant fitness gains. You can do it with weights, machines, on a bike or by doing calisthenics such as burpees or deep knee bends.

Much of the popularity of HIIT can be traced to CrossFit, which combines Olympic lifting, calisthenics and other kinds of movements with high intensity intervals.

The most common interval pattern in CrossFit is known as the Tabata protocol, named for Japanese sports trainer Izumi Tabata, who reported on the major improvements in speed skaters performing intense intervals. On paper, it seemed simple. Each interval is 20 seconds at maximum effort – if you’re running, that would be a full sprint – followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is repeated eight times.

“When you talk about interval training, you’re talking about intense bursts of energy over a short period of time,” said Jaime Llopis, owner of CrossFit Sacramento. “You want to train the body to do high intensity, but what you’re really doing is training it to recover.”

Tabata workouts can be brutal. Running or riding flat-out for 20 seconds is one thing. But doing it again and again will soon have you gasping for air. Your muscles will burn and start to rebel. That’s the difference between aerobic (strained breathing) and anaerobic training (absolutely gasping).

To stay on top of timing as you perform the intervals, which can get confusing when you’re going hard, there are Tabata phone apps available. The most basic ones are free.

Despite his belief in high intensity, Llopis said beginners need to be realistic. Those max-effort intervals should not be so hard in the early going.

“You have to ramp them up very slowly so high intensity interval training is not killing them and they don’t want to do it,” he said.

Intervals don’t have to include stopwatches and specific times. For beginning runners, for example, Llopis says the easiest way to incorporate intervals is to pick out a landmark in the distance, then run hard to the landmark, then walk to the next landmark as you catch your breath.

“Pick a high level of intensity you can handle, then get back to the state you were in before you sprinted,” he said.

Mirkin, the sports doctor, insists using a stopwatch is unnecessary.

“Your brain is better than any machine on earth,” he said.

Still striving to improve his performance in his 80s, Mirkin says HIIT will continue to revolutionize running, cycling and other endurance activities.

“The limiting factor for how fast you can move over a given distance is the time it takes oxygen to move into your muscles. That’s called VO2 Max. Intervals will raise your VO2 Max,” he said. “The improvement I’ve made is incredible.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

High intensity interval training

High intensity interval training (HIIT) can be performed in various ways. Here are a couple of examples:

▪  1. Perform bodyweight squats, or deep knee bends, for one minute. Then rest one minute. Repeat for 10 intervals. When that becomes manageable after a period of days or weeks, add a jump into each squat movement. To progress further, turn the squat and jump into a burpee, by doing a pushup each time.

▪  2. Tabata intervals: On an exercise bike or elliptical machine, go all out for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat for eight intervals. This kind of intensity has been shown to improve your VO2 Max, which translates to better times running, cycling or doing any other endurance activity.

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