If you’ve ever pushed yourself during a hard training session you may have felt an intense burning feeling in your muscles and at the same time felt like your lungs were going to burst. Sound familiar? If so, you’ve reached what’s called in exercise physiology as lactate or anaerobic threshold.
While steady-state training is associated with endurance performance, the anaerobic threshold ultimately determines the capabilities of an athlete. The anaerobic threshold marks the work rate above which a substance called lactic acid accumulates in the muscles faster than it can be cleared and fatigue is inevitable. Exercise performed at anaerobic threshold intensity may be sustained for lengthy periods by highly trained athletes but for most of us, fatigue quickly sets in with the accumulation of acidity and metabolic by-products.
Steady-state training is usually spent below the anaerobic threshold and is an effective way to promote capillarization, enhancing the nutrient supply and waste removal processes for muscle cells. It is also important for long term skeletal muscle development and cardiovascular adaptations. If you are starting aerobic training or coming back after a break you should focus on long slow distance training to build up some initial endurance and minimise the risk of injury. Expect results but not immediately and the downside is that you risk reaching a plateau in your fitness with very little future improvement.
What are the benefits of steady-state training? Steady-state training has been shown to improve:
• aerobic capacity
• reduction in stress levels
• your fitness foundation
This type of training also lets you enjoy your surroundings more so that a mountain hike or beach run becomes a pleasurable experience, not a gut wrenching slog.
High intensity interval training or HIIT performed at or above the anaerobic threshold is an effective stimulus for improving the aerobic capacity. It is has rapidly gained popularity for its ability to deliver fast fitness adaptations. So although an important component of a training plan, it carries the risk of overtraining and overuse injuries. These complications can arise when high intensity training comprises most of your total training time, therefore, it’s advised to limit these types of training sessions to 3 or 4 per week. Additionally, HIIT will hurt once you go above your anaerobic threshold! One of the key benefits to this type of training is its efficiency. According to research published in the American College of Sports Medicine you can improve your aerobic capacity in only 2 weeks of high-intensity intervals compared to 6 to 8 weeks of endurance training.
What are the benefits of HIIT? HIIT training has been shown to improve:
• aerobic and anaerobic fitness
• cardiovascular health
• insulin sensitivity (which helps the exercising muscles more readily use glucose for fuel to make energy)
• increase in caloric burn post HIIT workout for 24 hours
• human growth hormone (HGH) stimulation leading to increases in metabolism.
Additionally, recent research has discovered that muscle mass and appetite regulation improves with HIIT training. (http://www.multibriefs.com/briefs/acsm/active121515.htm).
Steady-state training examples
Here are some examples of steady-state training which you can maintain for good lengths of time (below anaerobic threshold):
- 5km steady state beach run
- 10 km bike ride
- 60 minute step class
- 60 minutes stand up paddle (SUP)
- In fact anything that gets your heart rate up about 50-70% of your max heart rate that you can comfortably sustain (220 – age is an approximate maximum heart rate)
Here are some examples of anaerobic or interval style training (at or above anaerobic threshold):
- 30 minute Les Mills Grit cardio class
- F45 circuit class
- Tabata workouts (2 exercises, repeated intervals of 20 seconds work/10 seconds rest for 4 minutes, 2 minutes rest, repeat x 2 sets)
- Any activity with intense work periods that range from 5 seconds to 1 minute long, performed at 80% to 95% of your estimated maximal heart rate. The recovery periods can be as long as the work periods and are usually performed at 40% to 50% of your estimated maximal heart rate. The workout continues with the alternating work and rest periods totalling 20 to 30 minutes. Examples are: boxing with a friend, skipping, lunges/squat jumps, burpees/barbell rows, and sprints/walk recovery.
So which is better, HIIT or steady-state cardio? The truth is both HIIT and steady-state cardio are effective in their own ways. If you’re a beginner then steady-state training is your friend – it will be easier to stick to, you can enjoy outdoor training more, reduce stress and you’ll build a nice aerobic foundation. If you’re an experienced trainer and want results fast, then HIIT will deliver. The most important take home tip is that both training systems place different demands on the body so ‘periodise’ or switch your workouts on a regular basis. You’ll reduce your risk of injury, reduce boredom and fitness plateaus and stay lean and healthy!