High Intensity vs. Aerobic Training

High Intensity training seems to be quite the buzz word these days. It’s everywhere and seems to be all the rage. Largely popularized by CrossFit and the explosion of the CrossFit games you now see high intensity interval training taking over the market for all types of fitness from bootcamp to spin classes. While it seems to be relatively new, it has been around for a long time and it’s not going anywhere. So what’s the hype about? 

Let’s look at the benefits first. If you want results and you want them fast, high intensity is the way to go. Performing repeated bouts of exercises at higher intensities over shorter periods of time will improve your conditioning significantly. It also means you won’t have to spend hours being bored on the stair master because these styles of workouts are shorter in overall duration.

Believe it or not performing high intensity exercises will improve both your aerobic and anaerobic systems. You have to remember that our aerobic system is always working. Whether walking, jogging or sprinting your aerobic systems is involved in some way. Our energy systems are constantly working together. It’s not like one system shuts off completely so the other can become in use.

Last but not least, high intensity training makes us feel good. Okay, maybe not during the workout itself but when it’s all said and done we feel great. The endorphins released are like a high and there is no better sense of accomplishment than when you workout so hard you fall to the floor to perform the infamous “bacon sizzle”. We feel accomplished both mentally and physically. We worked hard, got better and forgot about what life has thrown at us for the duration of the workout.

If you are still with me thus far you are probably thinking okay cool Taylor, but tell me something I don’t already know. Well the questions we have to ask ourselves is this sustainable for long term and continual growth? Anyone who has done something like CrossFit has assuredly seen great results. Pushing your limits will get you results- but for how long?

As a coach my goal for people is to have sustainable progress for the long haul. We are shooting for a low trajectory on a distant horizon. I want them to become fitter 5 years from now, not just 5 months from now. Of course along the way we want to see progress, but the question becomes at what cost? 

One thing we don’t know is what the long term effects of high intensity training are to our body. I am specifically talking about those performing workouts max effort 5+ days a week. While we already talked about the benefit of these workouts you also have to realize they can be very stressful to our body and CNS. Without proper recovery and dosing this can create several health issues. If you have been going “hard in the paint” day in and day out for a few months and start to feel sluggish with a lack of motivation this could be you.

Aside from doing too much intensity work it’s like we have forgotten how great Aerobic training is for us! My favorite analogy is comparing the development of the aerobic system to a bowl. Think about your aerobic development as the base for all conditioning work.  The more developed your aerobic base the greater your foundation. The bigger the bowl the bigger the base.

This foundation has obvious implications if you are an endurance athlete competing in marathons, triathlons or the weekend 5K.  It’s also crucial if you do CrossFit, play football, or like to hike. Speed and power sports benefit from the aerobic system in several ways. It improves your ability to perform repeated efforts of maximal effort within a session or game, and it improves your ability to recover from maximal effort exercise, and it aids in your recovery.

The aerobic system is the foundation for everything. As I mentioned earlier things like sitting, walking, and running long distance involve the aerobic system. In terms of fitness having a big aerobic base will help you with your “Fran” time and help you perform more reps of high intensity intervals. It will also help you recover better between workout sessions. It should be the starting point for fitness, but that doesn’t mean we ever outgrow its use.

Lately I have seen a division between two camps: the high intensity side and those who criticize high intensity and swing too far to the side of low intensity work only. The truth is both camps are half right.

If I could give you a short synopsis it would be to blend the two. Understand that you can’t go balls to the wall all day everyday. Instead you should be very focused. When you go hard you better go hard, and leave nothing left in the tank. Just don’t do this everyday. Then there should be days where you throttle back a little bit and you have got to learn to be okay with a workout almost feeling “easy”. Just because you are not on the floor, does not mean you didn’t improve.

So what does this look like in application? Well it might mean doing Health one day instead of Fitness so you can focus on moving at a steady pace rather than hitting singles on the barbell. This also could mean taking a day off and substituting a 45 minute walk for your regular workout.

Also keep in mind that intensity is relative. The time domain will tell you a lot about the intent of the workout. Any time you see 21-15-9 with two movements you know you’re going to have to empty the tank. On the other side if it’s a 20 minute workout then start out slow and steady and pick a pace you can maintain.

And if you want more help building an aerobic base outside the gym then add in one of your favorite outdoor activities like hiking, biking or running and work at a conversational pace for 30 minutes or more.

If you’ve got more questions about your individual goals around conditioning send me a message!

Coach Taylor


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