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The Senseless Debate – Endurance Training Versus Interval Training

Every morning when I first come into the office I browse through the RSS feeds to stay informed with the latest in research studies on exercise science, nutrition, and other related news.

If you follow the in’s and out’s of this industry closely, you’ll find it’s no different than politics in a lot of ways.

You’ve got individual camps touting their personal beliefs, often with blowhard mannerisms, and looking for any shred of research or findings to confirm those beliefs or negate the other sides argument.

There’s a perpetual spin on numbers and always some intellectual rationale provided when holes are shot in their argument or the other side actually makes a valid point. Sound familiar?

We’re a nation divided on many levels. In the arena of fitness training you’ll find a similar divide between those promoting high intensity interval training and those promoting endurance training for weight loss.

It’s a senseless debate and I’ll tell you why.

More after the jump…

Just last week researchers from Colorado State University presented some interesting new data on the on-going controversial topic of post-exercise calorie burn. In this latest study, the researchers locked volunteers in a metabolic chamber for two 24 hour periods.

During one of those days they had the volunteers do high intensity interval training on a stationary bike: 5 intervals of 30 seconds with all-out effort and 4:00 of recovery between intervals with easy pedaling.

The result: the participants burned and extra 200 calories over the course of the day, not including the calories burned during the workout.

What’s really interesting, the results are almost IDENTICAL to what researchers at Appalachian State University found in a similar experiment, where the exercise session included 45 minutes of pedaling at 70% of VO2 max.

The result: in this experiment, the participants burned an extra 190 calories during the day following the workout.

Stepping back for a second, here are a few ways we can interpret these results depending on where you stand:

1. Interval training and sustained endurance training produce basically the same post-workout calorie burn, so there’s little difference between the workouts in effectiveness.

2. Interval training is the superior choice because you can produce the same caloric expenditure in half the time.

3. Sustained endurance training is the superior choice because you can produce the same caloric expenditure without the intense discomfort of high intensity interval training. Yes, anyone who’s done HIIT can testify that the workouts are challenging to say the least, when done correctly that is.

So which side really is the winner?

I say that depends on what the desired end objective is in the first place coupled with availability of time for exercise, preference of activities with the exerciser, and willingness (or non-willingness) to go hard.

Personally, from everything I’ve gathered in the research along with real world experience in the trenches over the years, I’d say it’s hard to argue that either method can’t be effective at producing body composition change.

The fact of the matter is the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. As much of a proponent for high intensity interval training that I am, there’s much to be said about variety in any fitness routine.

HIIT, while highly effective at producing body composition change, isn’t something to be done every day. The intensity is simply to high for most exercisers (especially middle age adults, the population that I specialize in coaching) for these workouts to be done more than 2-3 days per week.

There needs to be adequate time for recovery plain and simple. Combining HIIT with low-moderate intensity aerobic training on other days can in essence provide the best of both worlds.

Do you “need” to do endurance type aerobic training on the “off” days? Experience would tell me not necessarily. Doing 2-3 days of weight training, especially burst training, can be a perfect combination with HIIT.

The incorporation of resistance training, which is arguably more significant for body composition change, is something that’s often left out of this cardio debate.

And let’s not even get into the role of diet, which trumps everything in the hierarchy of importance for fat loss.

Truth be told, with the right diet and resistance training regiment, EITHER means of cardiovascular exercise can be effective at producing body composition change.

Once again we’re back at the intangibles with how much time is available for working out, are there any limitations with exercise, what form of exercise is preferred, etc?

Getting past the math and speculative research…

Having said all of that, I think a lot of times people tend to get bogged down in the numbers and research. Kind of like not seeing the forest through the trees.

What works best for you from personal experience? Perhaps even a more meaningful question is what method may NOT be working so hot for you?

If you’re logging hours on the pavement or treadmill each week, but not seeing the results you want, perhaps it’s time to take a different approach.

Sometimes more of the same isn’t such a smart idea. We all know the definition of insanity. Doing the same things over and over and expecting a different outcome.

Since we’re on the subject of using your intuition and some good old fashioned common sense, how about taking clues from observational experience.

What do you really want to accomplish? What do you want your body to look like, in essence what’s important to you?

Do you want to be lean and toned or just skinny lean? Do you want to increase lean muscle, be strong, etc?

These are all up to you, but I’d suggest taking a look around at what the people are doing who have the type of body you desire.

Are they lifting weights, are they sprinting, are they distance running, etc?

From a purely observational viewpoint, the individuals who regularly perform resistance training in conjunction with interval or burst principals, tend to be both lean and muscular.

Those who do more endurance cardio work and omit or minimize resistance training and HIIT work, tend to have less muscle definition and strength.

It’s simply a reflection of what activities and methods are chosen for fitness training. Granted there are always exceptions to the rule, but this is a pretty fair generalization based on observation.

What often doesn’t get factored into the equation with burst or interval training…

Yeah, I’m more of a proponent of burst training and interval training and make no bones about it. Doesn’t mean I negate the effectiveness of other forms of fitness training, this is simply what I personally choose to do and advocate more of as a coach.

But why? This isn’t a choice I made blindly or just woke up one morning and decided to be an advocate in favor of.

The reality is it works best for me, fits into my lifestyle better due to time constraints, is more enjoyable to do, and provides more physiological benefits over endurance exercise that I’m well aware of.

Let’s get away from the time argument for a second, although this is an important factor. If you only have so much time to exercise during the week, who wouldn’t want to see the same or better benefits in half the time?

My lifestyle is very similar to the majority of middle age adults who train at my personal training studio. Quite simply, we’re busy and have hectic schedules that don’t make long periods of exercise feasible.

There’s room to block out 30-45 minutes each day during the week for training, but not necessarily 90 minutes or more.

What’s the trade-off for the shorter workouts?

Yeah, you’ve got to work hard and push yourself on some days with burst training or interval training sessions. Not every day mind you, as some days can be low-moderate intensity cardio, stretching, yoga, functional exercise, etc.

But the reality is if you’re going to roll with 30-45 minute workouts and you want to be lean and muscular, you’ve got to commit to working harder than the average individual at the local health club gabbing at the water cooler, watching TV between sets, and checking out members of the opposite sex.

Bottom line is you’ve got to “train” and not just “exercise.” This is more my style anyways, and for those who may not be as self-motivated, having a coach to guide and push them through workouts makes a lot of sense. Hence, the service we provide at Shaping Concepts.

But let’s step outside of that for a second. What makes burst and interval training quite possibly more effective at producing body composition change than other forms of exercise?

While experience tells me this is so, there’s rationale that I don’t know gets enough attention in the debates.

It’s all goes back to the physiological responses to various forms of exercise. In other words, what happens to your body when you do interval training compared to endurance training?

If you dig into the exercise science and physiology you’ll see there are stark differences.

For starters, look at the energy systems being used or conditioned in both forms of training.

Endurance training primarily involves the aerobic energy pathway. Fat can be used as an energy substrate in the Krebs cycle  following approximately 20 minutes of sustained activity. This is why you’ll often see low-moderate intensity cardio referred to as being in the “fat burning” state.

On paper this is true and there’s no denying fat being used for energy production in sustained aerobic activity.

However, let’s look at high-intensity interval training. While the aerobic energy system is being used in ALL forms of exercise to some degree, the higher intensity demands of short bursts of effort call for the glycolitic and anaerobic energy systems to be used.

This is simply because there’s not enough readily available oxygen to be used in the Krebs cycle. The trade off is that glucose and the resynthesis of lactic acid must be used for immediate energy demands. Not much fat being burned DURING the workout, but after is a different story.

Reasons why I believe higher intensity exercise tends to produce a more favorable condition for body composition change.

- High intensity exercise creates an overload stimulus to the central nervous system, thereby triggering the adrenal glands to secrete catecholamines like adrenaline and nor-adrenaline, which are powerful fat burning synergist hormones.

- High intensity exercise can stimulate the secretion of growth hormone, which can positively impact lean body composition.

- High intensity exercise, especially sprinting or weight training, improves protein synthesis in the muscles. This helps to promote lean muscle recovery and development.

- High intensity exercise recruits more fast twitch muscle fibers which have better efficiency with fat oxidation than slow twitch muscle fibers.

- High intensity exercise may very well produce more caloric expenditure when calorimetry is factored for BOTH aerobic and anaerobic pathways.

In short, these are all benefits for middle age adults who have to deal with the following:

- Hormone attenuation across the board (natural decrease in hormone production due to aging process)

- Decrease in cell receptor affinity

- Decrease in muscle protein synthesis

- Decrease in metabolic rate

- Decrease in insulin sensitivity

- Increase in loss of lean muscle mass due to hormonal changes (unless resistance training is incorporated…yes this is the most important form of exercise for older adults).

For all the reasons I just mentioned, which each subject could entail a discussion all by itself, I believe that HIIT and burst training provides physiological benefits that aerobic exercise alone simply cannot.

The big picture is you have to step outside of the realm of simply looking at caloric expenditure with exercise. Sure it’s a component, but it’s certainly not the ONLY component.

When the debate over which form of exercise is better for body composition change is solely looked at in terms of calories burned during or after the workout, there are a lot of variables being left off the table.

Variables that most people don’t know all that much about or care to for that matter. I’m a nerd when it comes to this stuff, but I can tell you personal experience and observation will provide you with all the clues you need.

Just know that the game certainly changes when you get older. This is the niche that I’ve chosen to speak on and coach. What worked well in your twenties may not work so hot in your forties and beyond. If you dig deep enough you can find the logical explanations.

Is interval training and burst training superior to endurance training and other forms of exercise? Not necessarily.

But what if we rephrased the question…

Is interval training and burst training superior to endurance training and other forms of exercise for middle aged adults who want to produce a change in body composition and don’t have hours upon hours to exercise each week?

If we’re looking at it that way the answer is unequivocally YES!

Doesn’t mean you have to hang up your running shoes if you enjoy doing longer duration aerobic work. There’s always a place for aerobic based exercise.

What it does mean however, is that you may be sorely disappointed if you rely on endurance work as the primary means of producing body composition change over the age of 40.

For best results, mix it up, but any way you go about don’t neglect resistance training as the “concern for muscle” is of principal importance for all middle age and older adults.

Tis my two cents for what it’s worth.

As always feel free to provide your comments or questions.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides fitness consulting in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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