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High Speed Interval Training for Improved Sport Performance

Quick Hit Summary

There is a misconception amongst most athletes that long distance running will increase their stamina in anaerobic based sport competitions (football, basketball, etc). However, this is clearly not the case. In a recently published research study, it was demonstrated that high intensity interval training (10 second sprints followed by 20 seconds rest; repeat 10x) was superior to 20-25 minutes of slower speed endurance training. More specifically, high intensity interval training led to significant improvements in maximum repeated power capacity as well as resistance to fatigue. These changes were not present in athletes who completed endurance training.

High Intensity Interval Training

Figure 1 Are you wasting your time with slow jogging sessions3.

Numerous times I’ve seen various ball sport athletes (soccer, basketball, football, etc) running the streets of my hometown with the goal of getting in shape for the upcoming sports season. By running 20-30 minutes, many coaches and athletes feel it will help them acquire the endurance required to excel during the final quarters/periods of their respective sports. However, during the past 15 years, various sport scientist and athletic performance specialist have challenged this dogma. In their eyes, the only reason to run long distance is if you want to run an aerobic based sport (cross-country, distance running in track and field, etc). Rather, these individuals recommend high intensity interval training (HIIT), which has physical demands similar to that seen during ball sport competitions. For those not familiar with HIIT, this involves multiple short bursts (~ 5-12 seconds) of near maximum effort, followed by rest periods of 20-60 seconds. The goal of HIIT is to improve one’s high power endurance capacities. Despite interval training being similar to sports such as football or basketball (where athletes gives maximum effort for only a short period, followed by rest), many high school athletes and coaches still put emphasis on longer, slower paced runs as a means to build an endurance base during the offseason.

New Research on HIIT vs. Continuous Aerobic Training

A recently completed study by Tanisho & Hirakawa explored the effects of continuous cardio vs. high intensity interval training on high power endurance capacities1. Their study included 18 college lacrosse players who for 15 weeks completed one of the following training program: continuous aerobic training (CT), high intensity interval training (HIIT) and a non-training control group (NT). For reference, training was 3 days/week and completed on a bike. The CT group started their workout at an intensity equal to 70-75% of their heart rate max. (HRmax). Gradually, their workload was increased until they could no longer pedal at 60 rpm. For this group, the average workout generally lasted 20-25 minutes. In contrast, the HIIT pedaled at maximum speed for 10 seconds, followed by a 20 second recovery period. This pattern was repeated 10 consecutive times (athletes never got off bike). Their workload for the HIIT was set at intensities that matched maximum power outputs observed during the pretest.

After 15 weeks, both exercising groups increased their VO2max (~10-12%). However, only the HIIT significantly improved in their maximum power capabilities (power is the product of strength and velocity) during the early and late stages (4% & 11%) of power endurance tests. Additionally, only the HIIT significantly improved in fatigability tests. In conclusion of their study, Tanisho & Hirakawa state that.

“ball game players should improve their endurance capacity with high-intensity intermittent exercise.”

One Minor Limitation with Study

One limitation present within the study is that exercise training was completed on a bike instead of most ball sports that are done on foot. A more specific exercise training and testing protocol would have been completed on a treadmill. However, endurance power measurements are easier to obtain on a cycle. I’m assuming that this is the reason the study’s researchers chose this piece of exercise equipment. Also, the study included a small number of participants. Despite these limitations, I completely agree with the conclusions drawn by the researchers of this study.

Training Specificity

One of the basic principles of any strength and conditioning program is specificity. This principle refers to the idea that to achieve a physical goal, exercises must be specific to that movement. For example, jumping rope will do nothing to improve a seasoned lifter’s 1 rep max on the back squat!! The same holds true with running; slow, long distance running will do little to nothing with respect to improving the speed/power necessary for ball sport athletes. In fact, there’s a good chance that it will actually make you slower2.

Although they have the best intentions, I’ve seen various athletes and coaches abuse this principle during offseason conditioning. As a high school athlete, I was no different. Although I respected this principle with respect to the resistance training side of things, I definitely “dropped the ball” with respect to the conditioning aspect of training. I knew that I’d be playing both ways (offense and defense) and didn’t want to be fatigued late in the games. Thus, I knew that I needed to have good endurance to perform at the level I expected of myself. With this in mind, along with agility work, I’d also run 2 miles (3x/week) during the summer to get “in shape.” However, based off research and personal experience, I’ve changed my philosophy. Now, in order to prepare my athletes for the endurance aspects of sports, I utilize more HIIT vs. continuous aerobic training.

Bottom Line

This study provides clear evidence that HIIT is more effective than continuous aerobic training with respect to improving one’s resistance to fatigue accrued by high intensity sprints. In order to prepare oneself for anaerobic based sports, ditch the distance runs and incorporate more HIIT.

And before I forget, HIIT is much more physically demanding than regular aerobic work and thus, greater risk of injury is involved with it. Thus, be wise and don’t start sprinting at high speeds if you have trouble walking >20-30 minutes (or similar) pain free!


1 Tanisho K, Hirakawa K. Training Effects on Endurance Capacity in Maximal Intermittent Exercise: Comparison Between Continuous and Interval Training. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Oct 12. Epub ahead of print.

2 Sullivan VK, Powers SK, Criswell DS, Tumer N, Larochelle JS, Lowenthal D. Myosin heavy chain composition in young and old rat skeletal muscle: effects of endurance exercise. J Appl Physiol. 1995 Jun;78(6):2115-20.

3 Photo taken by U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt Araceli Alarcon. Accessed June 13, 2010 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Treadmills_at_gym.jpg

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Written on October 16, 2009 by Sean Casey
Last Updated: October 15, 2012

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Sean Casey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments.
Field Experience: During college, Sean was active with the UW-Badgers Strength and Conditioning Department. He has also spent time as an intern physical preparation coach at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, FL. He also spent time as an intern and later worked at Athletes Performance in Tempe, AZ. While at these locations he had the opportunity to train football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis athletes. Sean is also active in the field of sports nutrition where he has consulted with a wide variety of organizations including both elite (NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars) and amateur athletic teams. His nutrition consultation services are avalable by clicking on the Nutrition Consultation tab.