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Outdoor Athletes and The Trap of HIIT

HIIT- High Intensity Interval Training- is the new and ever growing trend in fitness right now, and for good reason. It allows participants to burn a high amount of calories in a short period of time, can be exciting and challenging, and demands a good sweat.

Therefore, for those outdoor athletes looking for the best bang-for-their-buck workout, is HIIT the go to option?

Almost unequivocally, no. And actually, it can even have a negative effect on your goals.

The reason behind this is that most outdoor athletes rely heaving on their endurance.... long hikes, extended climbs, and hours of paddling all require your aerobic system and slow twitch muscle fibers to perform optimally. HIIT workouts, on the other hand, focus on building the anaerobic system and fast twitch muscle fibers, which are good for short, intense bouts.

The issue outdoor athletes face is that not only do these HIIT workouts not build their aerobic capacity, they diminish it. Overly focusing on building a strong anaerobic system, especially when an aerobic system has not be thoroughly established, will allow the anaerobic metabolic pathways to overtake aerobic ones. The body becomes very good at creating quickly available ATP (energy) through anaerobic glycolysis, but it's ability to remove the waste products left over from this process becomes poor, leading to a build up of excess lactic acid.

This training focus can cause Aerobic Deficiency Syndrome, a reason that explosive athletes such as hockey players are notoriously bad at distance and endurance sports. Not bad for hockey players, but disastrous for you.

So how should outdoor athletes approach their cardiovascular training for their sport?

The most important aspect will be building a high volume, strong, low intensity aerobic base. Yes, it's not sexy, or Gatorade commercial worthy. It will, however, be the foundation for all future training, and will be the difference between being properly prepared for an upcoming expedition, and being over trained for it.

After a foundation has been built, the athlete can then move into higher levels of aerobic and anaerobic training, including interval, fartlek, and tempo work, so long as they maintain a strong, aerobic base.

So now my question for you.... what type of training have you found best, based on your personal experience, and for what sport/adventure?

Let me know in the comments below!

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Mar 29, 2021

In 2019 I was able to get into really good shape for a one week backpacking trip up into the Brooks Range. I was a little nervous about how my fitness would play out in the mountains as I had ditched long distance running and replaced it with a combination of strength training, crossfit, and rucking. I was very pleased with the results. Basically I improved my pure strength in the deadlift, overhead press, and squats (front and back at different times). I used crossfit to add some muscle mass and cardio work (there is also a strong social aspect to this that also keeps me consistent). Lastly, and probably most importantly I would ruck twice a week. One long…

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