With all of the recent and much-deserved hype over high-intensity interval training (HIIT), a true and loyal friend has been left behind: good, old-fashioned steady-state training. Gone are the days of 30-minute jogs, in favor of jump squats and 30-second sprints.
In contrast to high-intensity interval training, which alternates short, strenuous bouts of activity with slightly longer low-intensity rest periods, steady-state training refers to cardiorespiratory exercise in which your heart rate is kept relatively constant for an extended period — at least 20 minutes in duration and often in the 30- to 60-minute range. The intensity may be low, moderate or moderately high, but you must be able to sustain the activity for at least 20 minutes.
You can use a “talk test” to estimate your intensity: You can carry on a conversation with ease (low intensity), you can comfortably carry on a conversation but with slightly heavier and more frequent breaths (moderate intensity), or you have to pause every few words for a breath, and you’d rather not engage in lengthy conversation (moderately-high intensity).
While HIIT delivers benefits that steady-state training does not, including dramatic increases in speed and power and comparable if not greater cardiovascular benefits in less time, moderate-intensity cardio workouts with a longer duration still have a place in most exercise regimens. In other words, don’t delete them from your friend list.
Here are five reasons to include longer, less intense workouts in your exercise regimen:
1. You’re a beginner. If you’ve been relatively sedentary or haven’t done much formal exercise for a few months or more, start with a low- to moderate-intensity workout, and gradually increase duration and intensity. Once you can sustain a minimum of 20 minutes of continual exercise, do that three to five times a week for at least one month before adding high-intensity interval training.
2. You’re training for an endurance event or sport. Your body adapts to the specific stimuli you throw at it. This specificity principle means that you will be best at the activity you practice most. If you want to run a marathon, you need to do some long, continuous runs to prepare not only the cardiorespiratory system, but also the connective tissues and the psyche as well. For most sports and recreational activities, including one to two bouts of steady-state training per week will give you the stamina to play well for longer.
3. You enjoy moderate intensity more than high. Not everyone loves the feeling of pushing their bodies to the limit, and that is what high-intensity training requires — repeated, near-maximal effort for short periods of time. If you prefer an easier-going workout, by all means stick with less intense, longer duration workouts. You will still burn calories and fat, you will still feel more energetic, and you will still get the health benefits associated with high-intensity training. High-intensity training is most important if you need certain performance benefits such as power and speed.
4. You want to decrease injury risk and allow your body to recover. High-intensity interval training is tough on your body. While the volume of work may be lower than in steady-state training, the added intensity places significant stress on connective tissues and muscles, often leading to higher levels of acute inflammation that can become chronic if you don’t allow your body to recover from those intense workouts — especially when you couple the HIIT with heavy resistance training. Most people cannot incorporate high-intensity interval training more than two to three times per week without increasing their risk for injury or overtraining. Try a mix of high-intensity interval training and steady-state training. You can mix them up within the week, or you can periodize your workouts and focus on high-intensity training for a couple of months and then steady-state training for a month or two. To decrease injury risk with both types of training, as well as maximizing the benefits, vary your activities.
5. You want to burn calories without burning out. If weight loss is your goal, you may not be able to burn all of the calories you want to with HIIT alone. To avoid burning yourself out with too much high-intensity training, alternate HIIT workouts with some moderate-intensity, steady-state workouts of longer durations, up to 60 minutes. And remember to vary your activities. For a 60-minute workout, try two activities for 30 minutes each or three activities for 20 minutes each.
You may hate the idea of going back to including longer-duration workouts in your fitness regimen. I know — time is precious, time is money, time is relaxation, time is relationships. But lower-intensity, longer workouts will give you back more than they take from you. Indulge yourself in them once in a while. Use them as time to listen to a good book, talk with a friend, enjoy nature or just ponder. After all, life is not just a sprint. It’s an endurance event.