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Are you exercising like a workhorse or a thoroughbred racehorse?

Are you exercising like a workhorse or a thoroughbred racehorse?

Tuesday 5th February 2019
Alex Pedley

You've just finished a workout session where you've pushed yourself to the very limit of your capacity. You feel great straight after but for how long? The endorphin release often referred to as the 'runner's high' is short lived, only to be replaced by fatigue and a foggy brain.
Welcome to the world of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

HIIT is a form of fitness training that involves periods of intense effort followed by a short recovery. A perfect model for someone who wants to work out, but is short of time.

The world of a busy executive is often filled with meetings, lunches and events, not forgetting family time and socialising. Finding time to work out can be tough and hard to prioritise. This is where the draw of HIIT workouts can be too much to turn down - get to the gym, work hard and leave.

HIIT is known to increase excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), also known as the after-burn, a state of increased calorie expenditure after exercise. Think of the heat that continues to come from a radiator after it has been switched off. This after-burn effect can last for up to 48 hours after the session has ended. HIIT is also shown to increase VO2 max, the amount of oxygen your body can take in and use per minute, as well as other seemingly positive effects. All sounds good, right?

The problem is that people often take a one-size-fits-all approach to exercise: if it's good for them, it must be good for me. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

HIIT, although having many benefits, also comes with its drawbacks. This type of training input is extremely demanding and requires longer periods to recover. It also causes a big stress response, often loading more stress on stress. Think of your tolerance to stress in the same context as your capacity to handle work; to do a good job you are able to take on a certain amount before you become overloaded; keep adding more jobs and the quality will reduce. Keep this going for a long period and in the end you will not be able to sustain the effort and everything will fall apart. The same can be said about your capacity to handle stress - load too much on yourself for a sustained period of time and you edge slowly but surely towards burnout.

You are bombarded by stressful situations all day long; think work meetings, deadlines, family issues and any other remotely challenging situations that you encounter. They will all place more demands on you. Adding an extremely intensive style of training could be the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Bad choice of words, perhaps, but you get the picture.

If you are taking part in HIIT for the good of your health then this could be a bad choice. If you're doing it for weight loss the news doesn't get any better. The initial stress reaction often referred to as the fight or flight response involves a plethora of physiological reactions including the release of cortisol and glucose. High levels of glucose in your blood over a sustained period of time can lead to reductions in insulin sensitivity, a leading cause of weight gain and type 2 diabetes. High levels of insulin in your blood make it harder to access your stored fat supplies, but much easier to store it. To find out more about this, take a read of my article on insulin sensitivity.

The second issue to consider is your training age.

Your training age refers to the amount of time spent doing a certain activity or type of training. If you have been running regularly for 15 years then you will have a training age of 15, but if you are new to weight training then you will have a training age closer to 0. Your training age will have a significant effect on how much stress you are able to tolerate from a given input. You will obviously have a much higher capacity to handle a 5-mile run if you regularly jog, but a much lower one if you never run at all.

This is important when you consider that if you are doing a high intensity weights workout and you are new to resistance training, it will take a lot less input to get a result. The basic concept of progressive overload is to gradually increase the stress that you place onto your body to make it adapt and improve. If you want to get better at running, gradually increase the distance you run - don't start out by trying to run a marathon. If you are new to training, or a certain type of training, don't go too hard too soon. If you are highly stressed then do not choose a workout that adds more stress to your body.

So am I saying don't train hard? No - I am simply suggesting that you choose the right exercise to match your current state. If you are having a really challenging day and feeling pretty stressed out then select a type of exercise that allows you to unwind, such as going for a walk, doing a light resistance or mobility session. If you are having a less demanding day or week and feel good then go for a harder workout.

When you are just starting out, don't push yourself to the limit. Train to a point where you know that you have worked out but still feel good. Progressively increase the intensity as you adapt to the stimulus. Not only will you get a great result, but it will also be achievable and enjoyable.
You are your greatest asset and your main objective is to keep improving. Don't treat yourself like a workhorse - all this will lead to is substandard results and burnout. Instead, look at yourself as a thoroughbred racehorse that needs to be nurtured so that you are prepared for the important upcoming events. Exercise is there to improve your performance, not to wipe you out. Be smart with your exercise selection and it will pay dividends in the long run.