There is a debate that ripples back and forth between cardio junkies and hight intensity interval (HIIT) advocates about which type of exercise produces the best results. Because the bodies of athletes reflect their training, events like the 2012 Olympics give us a chance to put our petty arguments aside and compare results.
The Argument for Long-Distance Training
Traditionally, weight-loss and fitness advice has been largely cardio driven. The idea is that burning more calories than you consume will help you to burn through body fat and get in-shape. Cardio junkies argue that HIIT training isn’t long enough to inspire enough change and that consistently training at high intensities will burn off too much sugar, causing the body to store fat and eat through muscle tissue.
Claire Hallissey Ph.D., is the Olympic long-distance runner pictured below.
The Argument for HIIT Training
High intensity lovers say that high energy requirements of maximal-intensity exercise will make the body use more fuel after you’re done exercising and inspire a hormonal response that builds tissue and burns fat. They argue that long-distance training is not as time-efficient as HIIT and produces overall weakness. They also argue that long bouts of cardio will burn through muscle tissue and cause overall weakness and injuries to joints from overly repetitious motions.
Jess Ennis is the heptathlete pictured below.
Her program consists of short sprints, long sprints, box jumps, medicine ball throws and weights.
What does the science say?
Studies are showing that strength and sprint style training increases overall power, type II muscle fibers and control much better than endurance training. Additionally, it works faster. One study even showed that participants on a 7 week sprinting protocol improved their maximal ability more than participants who ran three 8 km runs a week. Another 2011 study showed the stress hormone cortisol to be much higher in endurance athletes than non. An elevated cortisol level is believed by many experts to be the cause of excess belly fat gain, sugar regulation and general fatigue.
What do I do now?
Choose a path for your own fitness. If you want to follow the long-distance route, work your way up to 3 to 6 days of 60 minutes of cardio a day. If you want to follow the HIIT group, start out with sprints consisting of 20 seconds of an all-out intensity followed by 10 seconds of rest. Repeat this four times and slowly move your way up to twelve.
Karavirta, L., Hakkinen, A., et al. Effects of Combined Endurance and Strength Training on Muscle Strength, Power, and Hypertrophy in 40-67 Year-Old Men. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2011. 21, 402-411.
Macpherson, R., Hazell, T., et al. Run Sprint Interval Training Improves Aerobic Performance but Not Maximal Cardiac Output. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2011. 43(1), 115-121.
Bangsbo, J., Gunnarsson, T. The 10-20-30 Training Concept Improves Performance and Health Profile in Moderately Trained Runners. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.
Skoluda, N., et al., Elevated hair cortisol concentrations in endurance athletes. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2011), doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.09.001