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Are High Intensity Workouts Better Than Running?

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High intensity workouts may make for a more effective workout, but should not replace running altogether.

Steady outdoor running has long been my go-to exercise of choice. It’s straightforward, therapeutic, mindless cardio that helps me maintain my weight and keep my energy levels high and my body lean and healthy. Or so I thought. When it comes to steady-state cardio, such as running, there are convincing arguments as to why you should reduce how often or how long you hit the ground, well, running.

Before I go into why steady-state cardio – running in particular – has been proven to not to burn as much fat or improve health to the extent popularly believed, I want to focus on why running may no longer be right for you.

Running can be like a drug to some people. The “runner’s high” is a real thing, but if you begin to run too much and start to wear down your adrenals, becoming sore and tired, then running will no longer be the joy it once was. Instead, it will drain your energy and become an exercise that you loathe. I’m not talking about the lazy kind of loathing that is solved with mere self-will – I’m talking about the dread that results from a genuinely tired, exhausted body that starts to affect your happiness. If you get to this place, somewhere I’ve surely been, then it’s time to take a break and reevaluate why you run and if it’s worth it.

As you’ll learn, running is not the best workout, so if your reasons are for weight loss or building muscle, then you are misguided – there’s a better way! Also, if you ever begin to dread running, it doesn’t mean you have to quit it cold turkey, or at all. Instead, try reducing your running distance and frequency and complement it with other exercises. Not only will you enjoy working out again but will also see more impressive results in your body.

Running should complement your life, not own it. Now, emotional attachments to running aside, here’s the proof as to why you are better off with less of it.

Running Is Not the Cure All

Steady-state cardio, like running, is not the panacea to all your health and physical woes. Mentally, it is a gratifying feeling to have finished a few-mile run, but the satisfaction may stop in the brain. Steady-state cardio does not burn fat and improve health as well or as definitively as you imagined. In fact, there are more effective ways to work out.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been emerging as a popular exercise over the past few years, touted as the more effective replacement of traditional steady cardio, such as long-distance running. This form of high intensity workouts involves intense cardiovascular movement for 20-40 (or so) seconds followed by a period of rest. This intermittent intensity repeats several times. The result is a shorter, more varied workout that challenges the heart and different muscle groups. When compared to low to moderate intensity exercises, a HIIT program has proven to burn fat more efficiently. With regular aerobic exercise often having a negligible affect on body fat, HIIT has shown to increase both aerobic and anaerobic fitness, raise VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can process), lower insulin resistance and reduce abdominal body fat more so than any other type of exercise.

Beyond a low baseline level, steady-state running won’t help you build optimal power, strength and muscle. And, contrary to popular belief, running won’t help you burn an increased amount of fat. Once you begin a running routine for the first time, you will most certainly see results, but the results wane in significance over time. In a 2009 study conducted by researchers at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, exercisers engaged in steady-state cardio five times a week for 12 weeks and lost only 7 pounds on average —nearly half of them lost less than 2 pounds. Steady-state cardio is repetitive and can be as groundbreaking to some people as it is boring to others.

Meanwhile, if you run on the treadmill or always on the same outdoor trek at a steady pace, you are essentially utilizing the same muscles day after day. Engaging in a variety of high intensity workouts manages to target all muscle groups and help you rediscover muscles you never knew existed.

However, this is not to say that HIIT is better than running. With all this buzz surrounding HIIT, it’s hard to see where its blind spots are. HIIT may be a more effective and efficient exercise, but it is also quite challenging and can lead to injury. In the long run, it also may be difficult to maintain regularly. Furthermore, HIIT depends on a strong aerobic system to work properly. Steady-state cardio is an aerobic activity that strengthens the foundation upon which an effective HIIT workout depends. If you don’t engage in any steady-state cardio, a HIIT workout will burn you out quicker, regardless of how fast and strong you are. Aerobic fitness builds endurance and is a necessary component to any workout regimen.

So, in the end, steady-state running is not where you should focus all your attention – don’t let the amount of time you run or the amount you sweat be the judge. HIIT is proven to burn more fat and reap greater health results in a shorter amount of time. However, HIIT should not be the prime focus either, as it is supported by steady-state cardio, like running. Pair the two together, and you’ll have the recipe for a kick-ass body with less fat and more muscle.

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Photo Credit: kris krüg

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