HIIT – Training for runners

HIIT training

What is HIIT? How does this type of training transfer to running

At Advance Performance when we carry out a gait analysis for a customer, part of our process involves asking the customer for details of other activities that they are currently doing.

Increasingly, the reply to this question has included the term ‘HIIT Training’, or to give it it’s full name High Intensity Interval Training. The basic premise of HIIT is high intensity work interspersed with periods of lower intensity work. HIIT training doesn’t conform to any one particular activity i.e. running, cycling or circuit training but rather can be applied to any type of exercise.

The structure of the session varies as well, the most commonly known format is probably the Tabata protocol. However, nowadays, it is used as a general term for HIIT sessions that don’t in fact follow the test criteria laid down by Professor Izumi Tabata in his original research in 1991.

HIIT protocols have always been set by the original researcher or coach who carried out the testing, with a view to achieving different test criteria in the search for differing results. Some of those criteria can be seen in the table below.

Type of HIITWarm UpWork Time or DistanceIntensityRest TimeRepeatCool DownNotes
Peter Coe?200mSprint30 secsIndividual?Father of Seb Coe, running based
Tabata20 secs170% VO2 Max10 secs8 cycles
Gibala3 mins60 secs95% VO2 Max75 secs8-125 mins
Gibala 23 mins60 secs80-90% HR Reserve60 secs105 minsLess intense protocal for sedentary people
Zuniga30 secs90% Max Power Output30 secs
Vollard10 mins100% EffortEasy pedaling for 10 mins2 x 20 secs

So what does it do?

The one thing that all of those criteria have in common is the results they found at the end.

When compared to steady state cardiovascular training carried out over an identical timeframe, HIIT protocols saw larger increases in VO2 max. In other words, from a cardiovascular point of view the test subjects got fitter, faster.

Weight loss was also greater, and due to the high intensity nature of the exercise, anaerobic fitness benefits were recorded, including sustained high power outputs for longer periods of time. The real benefits of HIIT for the runner though lays in the training effect it has upon the heart and lungs. A heart that can pump more blood around the body is one that can operate at lower speeds (less beats per minute), while still meeting the demand that the muscles are placing upon it.

HIIT training is high in intensity and therefore spikes the heart rate up to between 90% and 100% of it’s maximum. If you’re a runner that is looking to improve their times, then leaving your comfortable 70% to 80% heart rate zone run behind may be the only way you’re going to achieve this.

The body adapts to the demands being placed upon it but this also means that it can plateau if you’re not varying the way you’re training. Using running for HIIT sessions is a great place to start.

What format does it take?

Where people go wrong with HIIT is to make the intervals too long, effectively they are doing a long distance run with changes in tempo as opposed to a HIIT session.

In running terms a HIIT session is best structured at a location where you have set distances. A running track is ideal but lamp posts can also work. It’s entirely up to you how you structure the session (bearing in mind the different options listed above) but the key is to ensure you are running at an intensity high enough to spike your heart rate up to around 90% to 100% of it’s maximum.

All of the protocols above show a set amount of time for recovery for various different reasons but you can also use your heart rate. The benefit to using your heart rate is that the rest period you use is specific to your current level of fitness. A fitter person’s heart rate will recover faster, returning to a resting state sooner, therefore, it prevents you starting your next interval earlier than you should as the rest is specific to you and isn’t relying on an arbitrary timed rest.

Using a heart rate monitor, warm up for a good ten minute period, gradually raising your heart rate to around 70% of it’s max. Then run 300 meters (for example) as hard as possible. Your rest period is determined by the amount of time it takes for your heart rate to return to 70% of it’s max, remain in motion (jogging or walking), then sprint 300m again.

How many times you repeat this will be determined by your current fitness levels but as the fatigue sets in it will become harder and harder to maintain your speed throughout the rounds of running. As a rule of thumb it will be between 6 and 10 ‘efforts’.

Should you do it?

In short, yes. Especially if you’re trying to run faster, however, it isn’t for beginners. HIIT is, as the name suggests, high in intensity and can create an awful lot of stress, even bordering on dangerous levels, on an out of shape cardiovascular system. Like any training, if you’re a fit runner and want to give it a go then build up the intervals gradually.

For example, start with one HIIT session a week with 6 effort laps and add another effort lap into your session every two weeks. After six weeks of training, look at maybe adding another HIIT session in place of one of your other running sessions.

This will be a bit controversial to some, as you may have a training distance you want to achieve each week, and this will eat into that, but, if you work hard to improve your cardiovascular system then you will reap the rewards in your remaining longer steady state runs. In other words, your running may be negatively impacted by your cardiovascular system but improving it may unlock those personal best’s you’re looking for.

Don’t forget that the cardiovascular system responds to the demand being placed upon it by the muscular system, your running muscles need oxygen to function and the harder you work the more oxygen they need. Blood demand increases (as it transports oxygen in the red blood cells) and your heart rate increases. Stronger legs will demand less blood and you can maintain a given level of work more easily.


HIIT training is a very powerful tool that can be used to develop your cardiovascular and anaerobic fitness.

If you’re a relatively fit or experienced runner then dropping a single HIIT session into your training each week might make the difference to your time you’re looking for.

Enjoy your training and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

Blog by – Matt Jeffery

Synergy Physical Training @ Advance Performance

About the author; Matt Jeffery is Advance Performance’s strength and conditioning specialist, he’s a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist with the National Academy of Sports Medicine and runs a strength and conditioning company called Synergy Physical Training