Are we training too much?

There’s a reason why high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is so popular it’s designed to give you a killer workout in a short amount of time.

HIIT classes are short, intense bursts of exercise where you train above 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, and Sean Johnson, regional fitness manager at Orangetheory Fitness, can see why they’re “tempting.”

“Many people are short on time and looking for a quick fix. For many people, the assumption is no pain, no gain and so they look for a hard-hitting, mind-blowing workout to undo any unhealthy habits they may have gotten into,” she says.

“A hard workout can be very rewarding when you move fast and blast for a short time.”

Additionally, there are benefits to HIIT training, with Johnson stating, “A shorter, more intense workout has the ability to elicit a longer afterburn than a less intense, longer workout.”

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But is there a chance that we are overdoing it in an effort to get the most out of our workouts? There’s a growing trend for low-intensity exercise that often uses a heart rate monitor so you can monitor where you are which could provide a whole host of benefits, without making you feel a little sick.

Signs that you may be overdoing it

“Working at a maximum heart rate can sometimes make people feel lightheaded, dizzy, faint, and nauseous. This isn’t much fun and can even discourage people from coming back,” suggests Francesca Sills, an exercise physiologist at Pure Sports Medicine.

Johnson agrees: “Exercising for too long at too high an intensity can put strain on the body such as fainting, vomiting, and even serious cardiovascular and respiratory health problems.”

A heart rate monitor can help you keep track of how hard you’re pushing yourself, but if you don’t have one, Johnson recommends following the “feel.” Orangetheory uses three terms to define perceived exertion: “Base pace is a challenging, but doable feel, push pace is an uncomfortable feel, and all-out is an empty-of-the-tank feeling,” explains Johnson.

He doesn’t recommend spending more than a minute in the full-court section, and other signs that you may be overdoing it include “fatiguing earlier than usual, feeling dizzy, lightheaded, injuring yourself, or having joint and muscle pain on a regular basis.”

Someone who checks their heart rate on a watch while exercising
Heart rate training can help you gauge where you are (Alamy/PA)

Downsides of HIIT?

Sills suggests that there aren’t necessarily downsides to HIIT, just “things to be wary of.” He says, “If you work very hard for a long time or longer than you’re used to, it’s possible you’ll end the session feeling unwell rather than energized.”

Johnson says there is a risk of overtraining with regular HIIT classes. “In the short term, exercising at too high an intensity can stress the adrenal glands and stimulate the release of cortisol (the stress hormone). In turn, this can have numerous side effects such as increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, promote fatigue and ultimately hinder recovery.

“If your body can’t recover properly, you will find it difficult to get into a regular routine with your fitness and you will see a lack of results.”

The benefits of slowing down

Johnson suggests incorporating low-intensity exercise into your routine can improve your daily life. “Doing workouts that don’t raise your heart rate to the extremes can help reduce your risk of injury (and your risk of falls and trips), reduce fatigue and pain, improve your mood, improve your sleep quality, while still helping to burn calories,” she says.

Sills mentions how zone two workouts are a “hot topic” in the fitness world lately, this is a low intensity sustained type of exercise where you work at about 65-75% of your max, for example, going for a light jog where you can still hold a conversation.

He says these types of workouts are gaining popularity due to the “vast amount of benefits it brings to the health and efficiency of your cardiovascular and metabolic systems.”

Two people jogging
Low intensity training could be a ride where you can still chat (Alamy/PA)

If you’re used to leaving everything on the floor with an intense workout every time you hit the gym, it can be hard to know how to slow down. Johnson recommends using the FITT principle to adjust your exercise routine:

Frequency: Instead of doing your four workouts next week, try doing just three
Intensity: Do your normal four workouts, but take each one down a notch.
Time: Instead of doing four 90-minute workouts next week, maybe try doing four one-hour workouts.
Guy: Switch it up and use different equipment or training styles.

Johnson adds, “Having slower days will allow you to focus more on form and technique, which also carries over to high-intensity days.”

Do HIIT safely

While it’s a good idea to mix up your workouts at different intensities, there are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t overdo HIIT. Sills recommends “eating well to fuel your body for performance” and “maximizing your sleep routine to allow your body to rest and repair.”

If you’re new to exercise, he wouldn’t necessarily recommend a HIIT class right away: “If you haven’t exercised a lot before, it’s important to learn how to do things right and build a good base level of strength and fitness before you go in and destroy yourself. If you’re not sure how to do exercises well when you’re fresh, you’re not setting yourself up for success when you’re fatigued.”

And finally, she says, “It’s important to work within your limits. Often these classes are demanding, loud and intense, and people can be encouraged to keep going for more weight, more reps, etc. Problems arise when people push themselves too far beyond what they can handle. Instead of always working at a 10/10, push it back to an 8-9.”

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