HIIT is a popular workout with a punchy name that’s designed as a killer session in minimal time, but is there a chance we’re overdoing it?
Short for high-intensity interval training, HIIT classes involve intense bursts of exercise alternated with recovery periods. For Sean Johnson, regional fitness manager of Orangetheory Fitness, it’s understandable why they’re so ‘tempting’.
For people short on time, a hard session like HIIT where you’re working out above 85% of your maximum heart rate can be seen as a ‘quick fix’. However, experts say there are downsides to trying to squeeze every bit out of our workouts.
“A lot of people are pressed for time and seek a ‘quick fix’. To many people, the assumption is ‘no pain, no gain’ and so therefore seek out a hard-hitting, pulse-shattering workout to undo the unhealthy habits they may have gotten themselves into,” Johnson says.
“A hard workout can feel very rewarding when you move fast and blast around for a short time.”
Plus, there are benefits to HIIT training, with Johnson saying: “A shorter, more intense workout does have the ability to elicit a longer afterburn compared to a less intense longer workout.”
But is there a chance we’re overdoing it, in a bid to ‘get the most’ out of our workouts? There’s a growing trend for lower intensity exercise – often using a heart rate monitor so you can track where you’re at – which might provide a whole host of benefits, without making you feel a bit sick.
Signs you might be overdoing it
Working out too hard can cause dizziness, nausea and a disincentive for you to keep exercising.
Francesca Sills, exercise physiologist at Pure Sports Medicine, suggests: “Working at a maximal heart rate can sometimes cause people to feel lightheaded, dizzy, faint and nauseous. This isn’t very fun and can also deter people from coming back.”
Johnson agrees: “Working out for too long at an intensity that is too high can put numerous stresses on the body such as fainting, vomiting and even serious cardiovascular and respiratory health issues.”
A heart rate monitor can help you track how hard you’re pushing yourself, but if you don’t have one, Johnson recommends going by “feeling”.
Orangetheory uses three terms to define your perceived exertion: “Base pace is a ‘challenging, but doable’ feeling, push pace is an ‘uncomfortable feeling’ and all out is an ‘empty the tank feeling’,” Johnson explains.
He doesn’t recommend spending more than a minute in the ‘all out’ section, and other signs you might be overdoing it include “fatiguing earlier than you normally do, dizziness, light headed, you get injured or have joint and muscle pain regularly”.
Downsides to HIIT?
Sills points out there are “things to be wary of” with HIIT that are not necessarily downsides to the exercise format.
She says: “If you’re working very hard for a long time or for longer than you are used to, it’s possible that you’ll finish the session feeling unwell rather than energised.”
According to Johnson, there is the risk of overtraining with regular HIIT classes. “In the shorter term, working out at an intensity too high can stress your adrenal glands and stimulate the release of cortisol (the stress hormone). In turn, this can have numerous side effects such as increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, encourage fatigue and ultimately hinder recovery.
“If your body cannot recover properly, you will find it hard to get into a regular routine with your fitness and will see a lack of results.”
The benefits of slowing down
Lower-intensity exercise can improve your everyday life, according to Johnson, and you can still burn calories while reaping the health benefits.
“Doing workouts that don’t raise your heart rate to the extremes can help reduce the risk of injury (and risk of falls and trips), reduce fatigue and pain, elevate your mood, improve sleep quality, while still helping to burn calories,” he says.
There is a ‘hot topic’ in the fitness world about ‘zone two’ workouts — low-intensity, sustained exercise where you’re working at around 65-75% of your maximum — for example, going for a gentle jog where you can still hold a conversation.
She says these types of workouts are gaining popularity because of the “large amount of benefit it brings to the health and efficiency of your cardiovascular and metabolic systems”.
If you’re used to leaving it all on the floor with an intense workout every time you hit the gym, it can be tricky to know how to slow down. Johnson recommends using the ‘FITT principle’ to adjust your exercise routine:
- Frequency: Instead of doing your four workouts next week try doing only three
- Intensity: Do your normal four workouts, but take it down a notch in each one.
- Time: Instead of doing four x 90 minute workouts next week, maybe try doing four x one hour workouts.
- Type: Switch it up and use different equipment or style of workout.
Johnson adds: “Having slower days will enable you to focus more on the form and technique, which transfers over to the high intensity days as well.”
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Doing HIIT safely
While it’s a good idea to mix up your workouts with different intensities, there are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t overdo it in HIIT.
Sills recommends ensuring “you are eating well to fuel your body for performance”, and “get on top of your sleep routine to allow your body to rest and repair”.
If you’re a newbie to exercise, she wouldn’t necessarily recommend a HIIT class immediately: “If you haven’t done much training before, it’s important to learn how to do things right and build a good base level of strength and fitness before going in and smashing yourself. If you aren’t sure how to perform exercises well when you’re fresh, you aren’t setting yourself up for success when you’re fatigued.”
And finally, she says: “It’s important to work within your own limits. Often these classes are busy, loud and intense and people can be encouraged to continue to do more weight, more reps, etc. Issues arise when people push too far beyond what they can manage. Instead of working at a 10/10 all the time, drop it back to an eight to nine.”
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