Making HIIT a Hit Part I/II: The Quest for the Optimal Interval to Rest Ratio for Your Type & Goals - Warming up: Selected Studies + Individual Take Home Messages to Set the Scene

This series will not readdress the "HIIT and/or LISS debate", but simply try to do what the title says: Help you to determine the "ideal" form of HIIT for your type & goals.
After posting yet another article about the benefits of high intensity interval training (HIIT) training on Wednesday, I thought it may be a good idea to take a look at the pertinent literature to get a better grasp of what exactly high intensity interval training actually is... "What it is? What do you mean?" While almost everyone appears to recommend you do at least some amount of high intensity interval training, these days, the definition of both the "high intensity" and the "intervals" which are more than just eponymous of this type of training are usually pretty wooly. The two questions this article is supposed to answer are therefore: How long should the intervals and rest periods be and at which intensity should they be performed.
Attention, this article turned into a two part series: I must warn you, this "quest" turned out to be hell lot of work and way more than I had expected. So I will have to split it up into a two-part series. With today's first part discussing exemplary "success stories" and the subsequent follow up on next Sunday providing a more comprehensive overview and general conclusions one may draw based on the picture that emerges.

Part I: Success stories - learning from the "best"

I decided that it may be a good idea to initially compile some examples of which you could say that they are examples of a successfully implementation of high intensity interval training. In that, I will put an emphasis on "old" studies that have not yet been discussed on the SuppVersity. This means, if you want more examples before next week's 2nd installment with a more general overview, you can simply click through the archive of articles that are marked with the keyword HIIT - either as HTML or RSS (I recommend the latter if you do not intend to read all of them anyway; opens in all good browsers without a reader).

Untrained participants and non-athletes
  • 5min on, 2min off HIIT to increase fitness (VO2max) alternated with 40 min steady state cardio for 4 + 5 weeks (Hickson. 1981) -- Hard to believe but it's more than 30(!) years ago that Hickson, Hagberg and Ehsani were able to show that a combination of high intensity interval training with 6x5min cycling at 90-100% of the VO2max and 2-min at 30%-50% active rest between intervals on day one and 40 min of steady state "cardio" on a treadmill on day 2 (6 workouts per week) yielded profound increases in VO2max:
    Figure 1: Adaptation to combined HIIT + steady state protocol in "occasionally active" but not "regularly" trained men (n=8) and women (n=1) in the Hickson study (Hickson. 1982).
    For our purpose, the most significant finding of this study may however be that the t1/2, i.e. the amount of time it takes for 50% of the adaptations to take place is only 10 days (on this intense protocol).

    Take home message: If VO2Max and overall conditioning is your goal you should up the intensity every three weeks, to make sure you continue to make progress. If you go by VO2max, this would be an increase in the speed you run or bike - not (!) the duration of the intervals and / or their number.

  • 2 series of 5s sprint cycling (8-13x) with 55s of active rest increase force production and rids subjects of "useless" type IIb fibers (Linossier. 1993) -- The 10 students (8 men, 2 women; age 22y; VO2max = 51.2ml/kg/min, everything below 55 is still considered ) in the Linossier study performed 4 HIIT only workouts consisting of 5s all-out sprints on a cycle ergometer interspersed by 55s of active rest cycling at a heart rate of 130-140bpm per week. The number of sprints in each of the two sessions on a single training day (15 min of rest between) were increased from 8 to 13 sprints over the 7-week study period. The main results were improvements in both peak performances +25%  and in the 30-s total work +16%.

    Figure 2: Unexpected shift in muscle fiber type distribution (Linossier. 1993)
    What's also relevant, though not directly performance related is the 19% increase in phosphofructokinase and a 20% increase in lactate dehydrogenase, both are glycolytic enzymes and are indicative of improvements in the glycolytic pathway, which goes to show you that you don't have to be afraid of the fiber type changes hampering either your ability to handle glucose or your strength - I mean +29% in maximal force production in the sprint tests are everything else but "weak".

    Take home message: Shorter sprints appear to be a valid means to hammer and improve the glycolytic pathway and get rid of the useless type IIb fibers, of which not endurance athletes, but bodybuilders have the lowest amount and sedentary controls the most (cf. figure 1 in the overview of the Intermittent Thoughts on Building Muscle). To actually build muscle the 1% increase in muscle weight the scientists observed, is yet not sufficient enough.

  • 7 sessions of 10x4 min cycling at 90% with 2 min rest ramp up skeletal muscle fat metabolism in young women (Talanian. 2006) -- The 8 healthy recreationally active women (22 yr old, 65.0 kg body wt) who had previously engaged in 2-3 just-for-fun sessions of various activities from weight lifting, soccer and cycling to swimming, or walking, participated in no more than 7 HIIT sessions within 2 weeks (1 day on, 1 day off) which consisted of 10x 4min sprints at 90% of their individual VO2max with two minutes of rest in between.

    Figure 3. Changes in substrate utilization during standardized 60 min LISS test at 60% of the VO2Max (Talanian. 2006)
    Contrary to the previously discussed studies, the scientists were in this case less interested in the performance than in the metabolic benefits, which were - as the data in figure 1 show - surprisingly significant given the short duration of the study. The increases in fat oxidation and decreases in the respiratory ratio (the ratio of glucose to fatty acid oxidation) during a standardized 60min light intensity (60% VO2max) test that was performed at the beginning and end of the study, were a consequence of increases in citrate synthase and beta-hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydrogenase (beta -HAD) activity.

    Take home message: In view of the important contribution of beta-HAD to the beta oxidation of (esp. medium-chain) fatty acids, the fact that an upregulation of this enzyme has been observed in response to the long duration intervals, but neither light intensitsy exercise (even w/ 2h per day, 5-6 times per week; cf. Phillipps. 1996), nor during a similar 2-week sprint training protocol (30s all-out on cycle ergometer, 4 min rest; cf. Burgomaster. 2005) points towards "long" duration intervals when mitochondrial adaptations that favor fatty oxidation and thus subsequent increases in fat loss with light activity are concerned. 

Highly trained participants and pro-athletes

  • 3 sessions of 10 intervals at 96% VO2Max with 60-180s rest increase running economy and relative fatty oxidation during subsequent steady state exercise test (Zavorsky. 1998) -- Twelve highly trained endurance athletes volunteered for this study, four of them qualified for the 1996 Canadian Olympic Trials, and one subject was a Canadian record holder in triathlon. On three different occasions the subject ran 10 x 400-m sprints with active recovery periods of 60, 120, 180s (randomly assigned). 10 min before and afterwards standardized running economy tests were performed.

    Figure 4: Respiratory exchange ratio in RE test before and after the sprinting protocol (Zavorsky. 1998)
    During these running economy tests, which consisted of 2 x 5 min running on a treadmill at 12km/h or 16km/h (5 min total rest in between), the subjects exhibited, much contrary to the research hypothesis, by the way, an increase in the running economy (RE, a measure of how efficiently a person uses oxygen while running at a given pace) and - probably of greater interest for most of you an increase in fatty acid oxidation, as evidenced by the reduced respiratory exchange ratio (RER, figure 4). The latter was particularly pronounced in the "low intensity" RE test at 12km/h.

    As far as the differential effects of the rest intervals is concerned, significant effects were observed for the rates of perceived exertion (60s: 17.7; 120s: 16.1; 180s: 14.4), but not for the performance related measurements velocity, and the time it took the athletes to run the 400m sprints (actually the latter should be self-evident with identical velocities).

    Take home message: Doing ten short sprints (if you are not an athlete, shorter ones will suffice) before you go jogging (or do any other type of steady state cardio) won't hamper your running economy. And since the study at hand suggests that the relative increase in fatty acid oxidation is specifically pronounced in the lower intensities (this is supposedly even more the case if you jog at 10km/h), the combination of sprints + steady state cardio appears to be an ideal "cardio" only day, when you are trying to lose body fat.

  • 8x all-out (100% VO2max) 2.5min intervals with 4 min of active rest increase VO2Max, peak aerobic power and 5k time trial performance regardless rest between sessions (Gross. 2007) -- With the unique twist with respect to the training frequency this study is somewhat unique. While other studies report similar benefits in highly trained collegiate cyclists (13 men, 4 women; VO2Max at baseline 62ml/kg/min) or other endurance athletes, this is one of the few that investigates whether it makes a difference if the athletes implement the 3-days per week HIIT regimen as a block or interspersed by one day of rest into their regimen.

    Percent change in TT5k velocitym TT5k power output VO2peak, and peak aerobic power output in cyclists trainin on consecutive vs. non-consecutive days (Gross. 2007)
    Interestingly enough, neither the performance outcome on the pre- and post tests, i.e. increases in VO2Max (+5.7%), peak aerobic power (+7.2%), 5k time trial performance (+6.9%), nor the actual performance during each of the workouts the subjects performed in the course of the 3-week study period suffered from doing the HIIT sessions back to back. These results refute previous speculations that doing HIIT as a block would trigger greater metabolic adaptations, specifically in athletes (e.g. Padilla. 2000). Even more, though the changes were not statistically significant, the data in figure 5 shows that - with one for endurance athletes important exception, namely the VO2Max - training on non-consecutive days produced marginally better results.

    Take home message: While it appears as if it would not make a difference whether you perform your HIIT workouts blocked or within your training week. The non-significant differences in figure 5 could suggest that endurance athletes intending to improve their already high VO2Max even further would be better off with the blocked training. Everybody else has the choice and I would pick the interspersed variety, whenever my schedule allows me to do this - my personal experience told me that this works better for me... apropos, take another look at figure 5 you see the narrow bars indicating the standard deviations? This goes to tell you that it is very likely that not just the personal preferences, but also the actual outcome will vary from trainee to trainee, which supports the notion that you will have to experiment to find what works best for you.

That's it for the "success stories"! Don't forget to come back next Sunday for part II and in case you have not done so already, just browse the previous SuppVersity posts on this matter, either as HTML version, post by post, or from the RSS overview (works in every modern browser, yet not in Google spyware ;-). I know you are smart enough to draw your own conclusions. And what's more, this may yield some cognitive input for the comment area of this article, where you can post questions. I will try to tackle those I can answer in the next installment.

  • Burgomaster KA, Hughes SC, Heigenhauser GJF, Bradwell SN, Gibala MJ. Six sessions of sprint interval training increase muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2005; 98: 1985–1990.  
  • Gross M, Swensen T, King D. Nonconsecutive- versus consecutive-day high-intensity interval training in cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Sep;39(9):1666-71.
  • Hickson RC, Hagberg JM, Ehsani AA, et al. Time course of the adaptive responses of aerobic power and heart rate to training. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1981; 13: 17-20.
  • Linossier MT, Denis C, Dormois D, Geyssant A, Lacour JR. Ergometric and metabolic adaptation to a 5-s sprint training programme. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1993;67(5):408-14. 
  • Padilla S, Mujika I, OrbaƱanos J, Angulo F. Exercise intensity during competition time trials in professional road cycling. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Apr;32(4):850-6.
  • Phillips SM, Green HJ, Tarnopolsky MA, Heigenhauser GJ, Grant SM. Progressive effect of endurance training on metabolic adaptations in working skeletal muscle. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 1996: 270: E265– E272, 1996
  • Talanian JL, Galloway SD, Heigenhauser GJ, Bonen A, Spriet LL. Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. J Appl Physiol. 2007 Apr;102(4):1439-47. 
  • Zavorsky GS, Montgomery DL, Pearsall DJ. Effect of intense interval workouts on running economy using three recovery durations. Eur J Appl Physiol. 1998; 77: 224-30.
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