The debate over cardio vs. high-intensity interval training (HIIT) usually assumes that the issue is an either/or choice. In that debate, HIIT is usually compared to absurdly low levels of cardio exercise – not to the kinds of classes ICI-PRO instructors probably teach.
This post explores the evolutionary value of combining cardio and HIIT.
In his book Born To Run, Christopher McDougall reveals the blend of morphology, paleontology, anthropology, physics, and math that led to understanding how humans became the greatest distance runners in the animal kingdom.
There’s no way this short article could do justice to McDougall’s fascinating and detailed description of the emergence of homo sapiens over Neanderthals (they were parallel species), and the evolution of humans as supreme hunters – hundreds of thousands of years before the creation of the tools we associate with hunting (spearheads, bows and arrows).
A few of the evolutionary changes include:
• upright posture to allow deeper breathing and limit retention of sun heat
• the ability to release body heat through sweat, rather than panting like other mammals until they must rest or die of hyperthermia
• the ability to accelerate when the pursued animal has been run to exhaustion.
So human “persistence hunting” combined endurance running primarily, with some sprints. Humans evolved to run in conditions that no other animals can match, and it’s easier for us.
Good At Endurance, and For a Long Time
Endurance athletes can typically continue into what would be considered old age in other sports. In many cases, such as distance running, they can still out-perform teenagers or 20-year-olds until their mid-60s.
At his first double-marathon, the most notable thing my then-35-year-old coach, Jim Karanas, saw was the age of most of the runners, who were 45 to 55. He said it told him immediately that the ultra-run was more of a mental than a physical challenge.
When workouts are always high-intensity, over-training is likely. So are failure to recover fully and a high incidence of injury.
It’s also likely that someone will burn out after constant high-intensity work, making it feel like drudgery, instead of something to look forward to each day. Why not work out in a way that you’d enjoy making part of your schedule long-term? Why not create classes like that to bring your participants back over and over again?
Matt Fitzgerald, noted marathon runner and author, suggests endurance training primarily with 2 to 3 high-intensity trainings per week.
McDougall quotes researcher Dr. Dennis Bramble, who said, “If you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.”
But let’s not limit this to running. Endurance athletes of other types display similar results. Countless stories describe master’s cyclists in their 50s and up outperforming younger cyclists.
In his 50s, my coach raced against the cyclists in the 30-year-old category – because he found he could perform better against them than against the experienced racers his own age! Those guys kicked his butt when he was first starting to race.
He was also one of the few (and the oldest that weekend) to ride the notorious Furnace Creek 508 fast enough to qualify for RAAM.
So the choice isn’t really between short, intense intervals and long, slow cardio with a magazine. The right kind of training is not either/or, but both.
(The cardio, of course, should be hard enough to cause a training effect, not help you catch up on your reading.)
This perfect combination is effective, enjoyable, sustainable over the long haul, and entirely in sync with our evolutionary nature.
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