Ashton Eaton’s recent decathlon triumph in the Eugene Olympic trials stands as a testament to the extraordinary level of performance achieved with the proper balance of athletic training. To dominate events such as the 100-meter and 1,500-meter runs, Eaton certainly needed speed and endurance, but power, agility, strength, balance and flexibility activities rounded out his training diet to set him on a course for superhuman status. We ordinary human beings may achieve our own level of kick-butt, personal record-shattering athleticism by training as the elites do: High intensity interval training, or HIIT, is a method of exercising that allows you to boost your metabolism, build muscle, and enhance your ability to perform just about any activity you could ever fathom. The best part about this kind of training is that it takes far less time than the average cardio workout, thus allowing you to improve your fitness level AND tend to your other daily obligations. The catch is that 'high intensity' refers to raising your heart rate to a level higher than you experience during a moderate cardio workout, and for many people this is a scary prospect; however, with a bit of education and practice anyone can safely incorporate HIIT into their exercise regimen, keeping in mind these important safety guidelines:
- Respiration: Breathing in your nose and out your mouth stimulates the diaphragm to contract fully to allow full expansion of your lungs. The better your lung expansion the more oxygen you are capable of pulling in to aid the process of aerobic metabolism. Once you've reached a 'burning' sensation, you are relying upon anaerobic metabolism for energy and you start to break down muscle tissue. The goal of HIIT is to reach this state of anaerobic metabolism, and it is at this time that you must remember to continue breathing well to stimulate the muscles of the trunk that support movement. Even when you are tired you must maintain good form or risk potential injury.
- Proper form: Breathing and good posture go hand-in-hand to ensure that you move well and stay injury-free. To attain good posture, stand against a wall with heels touching the wall and feet shoulder-width apart. Bring your chin back so that the back of your head touches the wall, pull your shoulder blades back and down, tuck your navel into your spine, and soften your knee joints. Look straight ahead and rotate your thumbs out with your palms facing forward to activate your rotator cuff muscles. Inhale through your nose and exhale out your mouth. Practice standing in this position and breathing consistently in your nose and out your mouth until it becomes comfortable.
- Rate of perceived exertion (RPE): On a scale of 1-10, 'one' being sitting on the couch in a relaxed state and 'ten' being passed out on the couch from extreme exertion, the goal of HIIT is to reach between an 8-9. These numbers are based on your own personal sense of intensity and you are the only one who determines when you have a little more to give and when it is time to stop and recover. Be in tune to your body and give it as much as it needs but not too much.
- Recovery: As in all things, you must have a balance of work and recovery, especially when you are working at a high intensity. High intensity interval training only works well when you balance the intensity with adequate recovery, both within the workout and after it. On a scale of 1-10, recovery means allowing your exertion rate to fall back down to about a '4 ' whereby you generally feel ready to start another intense interval. Maintaining good posture and breathing during the recovery phase allows you to regain your sense of readiness as soon as possible.
Choose 8-10 intervals per HIIT workout. These intervals are performed for one minute each. During the first 30 seconds of each interval, ease into the exercise so that your body gets used to the pattern of movement, then hit the intensity hard for the next 30 seconds. Your goal during each interval is to challenge yourself enough to feel discomfort. Each interval is followed by 1- 1 ½ minutes of rest/recovery, with a total workout time of 20-30 minutes. Remember that because you are working at an intense level, your total exercise time is only 10 minutes, but again, the key here is to reach an 8-9 on the intensity scale. Sprinting or biking intervals are good for beginners who are just becoming acquainted with vigorous-intensity activity. When you are ready to challenge yourself beyond running or biking, incorporate various sports drills into your HIIT workouts to address elements of power, strength, balance, and flexibility. As with all fitness activities, be sure to warm up and cool down with 5-10 minutes of gentle movement that mimics the exercises performed during the workout. Squats, lunges, and jumping jacks are sufficient, or try dancing to your favorite songs, focusing on coordinating your upper and lower body.
The ten activities of the decathlon event may just provide the perfect opportunity for you to acquaint yourself with high intensity interval training. The diversity of skill required for performing such activities as the long jump and 400-meter run isn’t conducive to a sedentary lifestyle, so if you are going to put in the effort to train like an athlete, be prepared for the physical and mental transformation that comes from using the skills your body was designed to work with. Ashton Eaton may have the added benefit of talent to deliver a record-breaking performance but your untapped potential may only need a nudge to see how far you may go with it. Add two, 30-minute HIIT workouts to your weekly exercise regimen and you may just discover a world-class athlete waiting within you.