Intermittent Cardio – HIIT Running Strategies

Runner doing some HIIT cardio trainingIf you have spent any time at all in the Paleo / Primal ecosystem you have likely come across the term Chronic Cardio along with a general dislike of everything cardio. Whether it is Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson or another one of the Paleo stalwarts it would seem the dislike of cardio is well established.

This is seemingly with good reason as too much cardio does not fit into the health and longevity bias that we all have in the ancestral health movement. But, this poses the question: what if you like running, swimming, biking or some other cardio heavy sport? Is it possible to enjoy your sport without negative health implications?

Running yourself into an early grave?

The science is pretty clear on this and pushing yourself for over an hour at a time is not doing you any favours. Sustained bouts of cardio at 60 minutes plus where your heart rate is at 80% or more will increase inflammation in the body, mess with the immune system, raise cortisol (which messes with your sleep, hence recovery), increase oxidation in the body (not good if you’re eating bad fats or even too much omega 3) and it will even prevent the body taking energy from fat!

Running yourself fit or running yourself fat?

Run, Walk and Lift

If your focus is purely health and fitness and you have no specific training goals then exercise really can be pretty simple: run, walk and do some kind of strength work.

You need to to do plenty of really low intensity stuff like walking so walk the dog, walk to work, take the stairs, walk to the shops, get of the bus a stop earlier, go for a walk at lunch time – whatever you do just walk and try to get 30 mins or so in a day.

You also need to stay strong and do some age and fitness level appropriate strength work. Whether that is a simple bodyweight workout, some weight machines at your local gym or ideally a structured lifting program like Starting Strength just do it two to three times a week and be consistent.

Beyond that, you will want some high intensity work to really get your heart pumping but the great thing is, this needs to be a short, sharp shock rather than any painful, sustained process. Think doing some sprints in a tabata protocol (4 mins total – 20 second sprint, 10 second total rest x 8).If you want to really push things take this up to around 12 minutes with three individual tabata sprints with a 60 second rest between sets – but remember the magic dose here is around the 12 minute mark so don’t overdo it!

But, what if you like to run?

This clever exercise thing is all fine and dandy but what if you like to run? I like to run. My wife likes to run. Before the spectre of Multiple Sclerosis entered our lives and we dived into the Paleo / Primal / Ancestral Health Movement we were training for the Edinburgh Marathon (which we completed). As it goes, 4 years later and being in better health than ever (no drugs) my wife is now training to do the London Marathon for an MS Charity so it’s safe to say, she really likes to run.

So, what to do? Obviously, having an autoimmune disease and the increased oxidative damage, inflammation and everything else which goes with this is not good. I originally set out with the idea of looking at using HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and approaches like Crossfit Endurance (CFE) to train with less total time spent running  (hence inflamed . The goal was to try and find a way to devise a training plan that utilised short bouts of high intensity exercise to cut down on the overall time spent exercising. I dug into Crossfit Endurance thinking that was the answer but it seems to require a really solid grounding in Crossfit and really, neither of us have that so as time went on, we ended up following a traditional training program.

Crossfit itself is also not without problems and whilst these brutal metcons (metabolic conditioning) have benefits, there are many voices now talking on the problems with the ‘sport of fitness’. The general gist seems to be how the focus on doing things for time, the lack correct form for many exercises and pushing yourself so hard for 30 minutes (remember that 12 minute sweet spot I mentioned earlier) is just not helping and we are back in the same problem zone as Chronic Cardio (ChronicMetCon?).

Racing without running

So, I figure, I like two things about running most

  1. I like to get out to nature and my runs were always in the park – I miss that
  2. I enjoy the events themselves

Well, the first one can easily be traded for walks with my family, no problem but replacing the actual events themselves is not so easy. I enjoy the community aspect of the events and whilst I am not trying to compete, I do enjoy taking part and that is somewhat lacking from my time spent in my dingy gym lifting heavy weights.

So, I figure I need to go back to the drawing board and try to produce a program that is inspired by HIIT & Crossfit Endurance yet does not have such strict requirements. A program that allows me to train for a short cardio event like a 10k but without having to spend hours pounding the street. I also have to test this on myself first as my wife is in the last six weeks of a marathon program so it needs to work kind of fast.

In simple terms we this is an attempt at designing some kind of High Intensity Interval Cardio Training (HIICT – not as catchy as HIIT but it will have to do) that can be used to train for events.

Smart Cardio

So, looking at Crossfit endurance it would seem you do the main site Crossfit WODs and the Crossfit endurance workouts that are specific to your sport.

The explanation from the CFE site is that an athlete will perform around six workouts per week with two of these being sport specific. We are only concerned with running here so we will work on say three running workouts to supplement an existing strength program (3 times weekly).

  • 1 x short intervals (100m – 200m)
  • 1 x medium to long intervals (200m – 800m)
  • 1 x sprints / hill runs (alternate weeks)

As best as I can tell from the CFE site this template applies to everything from a 5k to a 100 km ultramarathon so there is some flexibility in the durations of the short and long intervals.

So, I also do a Starting Strength style linear progression weightlifting program that is getting kind of challenging now three times a week so this has to fit around that. This also replaces the standard Crossfit workouts for me in the template with something a little more measured and goal orientated (which is not kicking my ass so much).

10k Training Plan

To test this out I have signed up for a local cross country. It is a fairly tough race, 10k, hilly as hell and populated with lots of the cardio crowd. It is a run I have never managed to break 50 minutes on even when I trained a fair bit of cardio (albeit, never for speed). Recently I have done little to no running, maybe once a week for 3 miles max and many weeks I have not got out at all. I do get the odd tabata in although it is mainly on the punchbag so I have no kind of great base that will skew the results. That said, I do eat and sleep a whole lot better so… swings and roundabouts but certainly, I have not been doing any running.

Most people, myself included have no easy way to gauge distance so rather than doing based on time rather than distance. You can pick up a simple interval timer piece of software for your smartphone and I really like one called Impetus which you can get for Apple and Android. Alternatively, you can pick up a cheap interval timer online.

I have three weeks as of writing this so my plan is as follows:

Week 1

Tuesday Long Intervals – 6 x 90 seconds + 45 second rest
Wednesday AM Short Intervals – 8 x 30 seconds + 30 second rest
Saturday Strength – Hill Intervals – 8 x decreasing hill runs with approx 4 minute rest (run up, walk down)

Week 2

Tuesday Long Intervals – 6 x 120 seconds + 60 second rest
Wednesday PM Short Intervals – 9 x 30 seconds + 30 second rest
Saturday Strength – Hill Intervals – 10 x decreasing hill runs

Week 3

Tuesday Medium Intervals – 8 x 120 seconds + 60 second rest
Wednesday AM Short Intervals – 10 x 30 seconds + 30 second rest
Wednesday PM Tabata on Punchbag (or sprints)
Friday 3k walk
Saturday rest
Sunday Race Day – 10k

The road ahead

So, I have a plan, that is somewhat inspired by the running part of Crossfit endurance. I have tweaked it a little to be time rather than distance specified for now to make it more accessible for people.

I have not done this run for two years and have done little actual running in that time period so if I can come close to, or even beat my previous record of just over 50 minutes I will be pretty damn pleased with myself.

I also have  a very short amount of time to train so the four workouts + a tabata (4 mins) each week may be a bit much, but time will tell if we can further simplify this without adding further Crossfit style metcons as simplicity is our goal here.

Going further

I will follow up this post in three weeks with my experience here and to see if this is worthy of further experimentation. This is very much a beginner template for shorter distance but should things go to plan I have a 16km run in a few months and a 21km one before the end of the year so I will test this approach out with a 4 week plan for the 16km and a four week plan for the 21km.

Also, back in my crazy, pre paleo, running days I made apromise to wife, father and partner in crime on this site that we would run the New York Marathon in 2015 – if this goes to plan, I would certainly like to develop a plan and leading-up-to -the-plan plan that we could use to train for that event without beating ourselves up to much. I will be pushing 40 as will my wife and my father will be 65 so we could certainly all do without the chronic cardio so… watch this space.

Questions & Feedback?

I am no expert on Crossfit programming so would appreciate any feedback and if you have any questions, fire way. I will update this with my training log as well as I get stuck in.

About Marcus

Husband to an amazing wife who was diagnosed with MS nearly three years ago. Since then we have been fighting, and winning with the help of the Paleo diet and the ancestral health movement. Dedicated to sharing the lifestyle we use to keep beating MS and to helping others with the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol.

4 Responses to Intermittent Cardio – HIIT Running Strategies

  1. Marcus March 24, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    Annoyingly, the run was cancelled due to snow, which at least gives me a little longer to try this system out. I have also come up with some refinements based on workload as this was a little too much on top of a 3 x weekly strength routine.

    Will update later when I know the date the run is rescheduled for.

  2. Jane Ritchie March 29, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

    Have you tried Hashing? Very stop, start, intermittent, uneven ground and has a huge element of fun. Feel very primal while running the threw the woods shouting to my friends ( or pack) “on,on” finding the trail home. Only down side is the custom to drink beer afterwards but I get my with water just fine.


    • Marcus April 2, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

      Hmm, very cool. I have been playing with a few options like the approaches listed in this post + some more traditional HIIT with a 30 second blast and 4 minute full recovery. Also, a bit of fartlek style training where run hard till lose breathing control and then stop till regain control of breath.

      Going to have give this hashing a blast, sounds right up my street!

  3. Michelle Davis May 9, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    Hi, I’m following the autoimmune paleo plan to help with my M.E. I see you have a family. Do your kids follow a paleo diet or the autoimmune plan? I’ve been trying really hard to switch my kids over. The planning is the hardest aspect – being prepared!! I’m veering more towards primal for the kids – a bit of full fat dairy or cheese now and then. Nice to see a UK paleo website. We are near B’ham, so nice to know we’re not alone in our paleo quest in this part of the world!!

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