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HIIT versus Cardio Part 3 - Marathon runners versus sprinters

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HIIT versus Cardio Part 3 - Marathon runners versus sprinters

Is sprinting better for bodybuilders than distance running?

It is a commonly held belief in many bodybuilding circles that steady state cardio causes muscle tissue loss whilst HIIT (high intensity interval training) targets fat stores only and might even lead to some muscle gain. In the case of running, proponents often support this view with the argument that most marathon runners have a super slim physique while many professional sprinters look like Greek gods, hence bodybuilders should perform intervals.

Is interval running really a better option for bodybuilders than steady state cardio, or is the matter more complex than this line of reasoning implies?

Street marathon

The HIIT versus cardio debate

In Part 1 of our series on cardio and HIIT, we looked at some of the benefits and costs associated with each form of training. We should add that this was done purely from the standpoint of their relative impact on body composition rather than on aerobic or anaerobic performance.

In Part 2 we questioned the popular belief that interval training is superior to steady state cardio by virtue of the EPOC or “afterburn” effect, which advocates give as the main reason for the superiority of HIIT. Upon closer examination, we concluded that the number of calories burned from HIIT are only slightly more than those burned from regular cardio.

Once one adjusts for the fact that steady state cardio can be performed more frequently and for longer than interval training, the weekly EPOC generated via steady state cardio is actually likely to be greater than that generated via interval training.

Another question that splits opinion amongst athletic trainers is which of these forms of cardio, if either, is more likely to lead to muscle loss. Many argue that HIIT is better because it’s a high-intensity form of exercise, but does this reasoning hold up in practice?

The Issue with Comparing Marathon Runners and Sprinters

SprinterTo the average person, comparing the slender marathon runner with the muscular sprinter is a pretty good argument in favour of HIIT. However, to those in the know it is a gross misrepresentation of both the form of cardio used by bodybuilders and the type of interval training conducted by sprinters. In other words, sprinters' interval training looks nothing like what bodybuilders espousing intervals do.

Similarly, while the average bodybuilder looking to drop a little fat might perform 30-60 mins of cardio in conjunction with a resistance training program many endurance athletes perform several hours’ worth of aerobic training with no resistance work at all.

So neither the sprinter nor the marathon runners training is in any way comparable to either the interval OR steady state cardio performed by bodybuilders.

Arguing that any bodybuilder who performs steady state cardio is destined to end up with the physique of an endurance athlete completely misrepresents the actual training methods used by both. This point of view also fails to account for the differences in phenotype, nutrition and use of ergogenics between these two populations.

How Sprinters Perform Intervals is Nothing like Bodybuilders Doing HIIT

Similarly, many of those who make the case for HIIT employ a distorted view of the actual training done by elite sprinters. If we look at the typical HIIT program, it will tend to involve a work to rest ratio of 1:1 with some, including the famous Tabata Protocol, demanding a work to rest ratio of 2:1. Very strenuous training without a doubt.

By contrast, elite 100m sprinters will typically sprint at maximum pace for no longer than 100m, which means their work times will be around 10 to 12 seconds. After such exertion they will typically rest for up to 15 minutes before the next set. That means that for a 10 second sprint their work to rest ratio would be 1:90! This is closer to powerlifting for 1-3 reps than it is to anything resembling HIIT as practiced by bodybuilders. 

But what about 400m runners, for whom keeping pace requires speed as well as excellent aerobic and anaerobic endurance? To achieve this, training typically resembles that of a short distance sprinter but with a much larger component of relatively long-distance runs of 300-800m.

While distances of these kinds bear a closer similarity to the ones seen in HIIT, the difference with a 400m runner is that, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of this work is performed at sub-maximal intensity. For instance, Michael Johnson, the 400m world record holder, was known to run for over 20 minutes in his off season to help build his aerobic endurance.

 “The 400m is much harder to pace (than the 200) since nobody can go out and run 400 meters full-speed from the gun.” - Michael Johnson

If HIIT is a superior form of training for fat loss as its advocates claim, we need a better argument than the flawed comparison that is comparing the physiques of marathon runners with sprinters and assuming that either trains anything like how a bodybuilder would perform cardio.

Next up we will look at the effects of steady state cardio on performance.