Should new runners do high-intensity interval training (HIIT)?
April 19, 2023|By K. Aleisha Fetters
You don't have to spend much time in the running community before hearing about high-intensity interval training (HIIT). But as a new runner, should you really push yourself by incorporating HIIT into your routine? In most cases, the answer is yes — as long as you're thoughtful about it.
What is high-intensity interval training?
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is any workout that toggles back and forth between "hard" and "easy." Maybe you sprint for 10, 20, or 30 seconds, then you walk it out, catch your breath, and do it again. Or you do some strength moves that really get your heart rate up, rest, and then repeat.
The key to HIIT is your heart rate.
With high-intensity exercise, your heart works hard. Generally, if you're doing anything that has your heart working over 85% of its max rate, you're doing high-intensity exercise. (To estimate your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Then, multiply it by 0.85 to see how fast your heart likely beats during intense exercise.)
But HIIT also involves low-intensity exercise. As we trainers like to say, "intensity predicts duration." Translation: The human body can't work out at a high intensity for very long. So if you're doing high-intensity work, you need to sprinkle in some low-intensity time to recover. With low-intensity exercise, your heart rate is usually under 70% of its max. Think: (220 – your age) x 0.70.
Fortunately, even if you don't have a heart rate monitor, you don't need to do a ton of math to hit your heart-rate zones. Instead, simply pay attention to how hard your heart and lungs are working. If you can't say more than a few words at a time, you're getting into a high-intensity zone. If you can easily carry on a conversation, and maybe even sing, you're in a low-intensity zone. Simple as that.
By alternating between these zones, you train your heart to pump more blood with each beat, your body's energy systems to better fuel your muscles, and you build strength and power. You can also get in more overall cardio benefits than you would with a longer steady-state (aka evenly paced) workout.
The right way to add HIIT to your running routine
High-intensity interval training looks a little bit different for every runner. It's all about your body and how it's working. A speed or incline that might be really challenging to one person might be moderate to someone else. So resist the urge to compare your HIIT times or distances with others.
No matter the HIIT workout you choose (we've got some great ones below), the most important part of doing HIIT both effectively and with the lowest risk of injury is to listen to your body.
That goes for both your intervals and how they fit into your overall routine. After all, HIIT workouts are hard — and it takes your body time to recover at a cellular level. Generally, runners want to cap these sessions at about three per week. But when you're just getting started, just one or two HIIT workouts per week may be a better fit.
Between hard workouts, you can stay moving with low- to moderate-intensity workouts. So, if you do a HIIT sprint workout one day, maybe you do some light yoga flows the next. Or if you hit it hard with the weights, you could plan a long, easy recovery run for the following day. Setting things up this way can reduce your risk of pushing too hard and getting hurt — and can actually help your body better recover from HIIT sessions.
Focus your HIIT workouts on days that you feel well-rested, well-fueled, and have a good amount of energy in the tank. If you have a HIIT workout planned and end up not feeling great that day, go ahead and switch your scheduled workout for a lower-intensity session. Dragging through HIIT can be a crumby experience, and when your energy levels are low, you're more likely to let your form falter, which can up your risk of injury.
5 HIIT workouts new runners should try
1. Timed sprints
Run as fast as you possibly can for 10 seconds, then slowly jog or fast walk for two minutes. Start with four rounds, and increase the number as you feel comfortable.
This can work as an entire workout, but you can also try it between your running warmup and a low- to moderate-intensity run.
2. Cardio intervals
Run at a hard pace for 30–60 seconds — at the end of the minute, you should feel like you need a break but not be totally wiped out. Then, jog at an easy pace until you feel like you could easily talk to a running buddy or sing along with your earbuds. That should take roughly two to five minutes. Rinse and repeat.
3. Hill repeats
Pick a gentle hill near you or set the incline on your treadmill to 10–20%. Sprint up the hill, then slowly walk back down, and repeat. Start with four rounds, and increase the number as you feel comfortable.
Inclined running like this builds power while really honing in on your glutes and calves. If you've never done any hill running, get some practice tackling them at a slow speed before trying them with sprints.
Despite the funny name (fartlek is a Swedish term meaning "speed play"), this exercise is no joke. When you're out on a regular run, pick a random landmark (a tree, fire hydrant, etc.) ahead of you and sprint until you reach it. Slow things down. Then, once you feel up to another run, pick another landmark to dart to.
5. Total body strength
Do 10 jumping jacks, 10 mountain climbers, and 10 reverse lunges as quickly as you can with solid form. Rest for 60–90 seconds, then repeat for a total of three to four rounds.
This strength circuit makes a great standalone workout for your legs, core, and hips — all valuable running muscles. But you can also try it out after your warmup on easy run days.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
I'm a quirky (aka nerdy) strength coach with a passion for science and sweat. I love to help people meet their body goals, but it's their mental and emotional gains that make me do a happy dance. My flirtation with running includes two half marathons and, someday, I will run 26.2.