Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Who would win? Aerobic vs. HIIT Training

Christina Sauder, MS, Clinical Research Program Administrator | Vail Health Behavioral Health

In the fitness world, two terms often find their way into discussions: aerobic and HIIT, or High-Intensity Interval Training, training. While both offer numerous health benefits, they represent distinct approaches to exercise, each with its own set of advantages and considerations. Is there a winner? Let’s dig into their differences and find out.

Aerobic Training: Steady State Endurance
Aerobic training, also known as cardiovascular or cardiorespiratory training, refers to physical exercise that primarily targets the improvement of the body’s aerobic capacity. This type of training aims to enhance the efficiency of the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) and respiratory system (lungs), ultimately increasing the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to muscles and tissues during sustained physical activity. This type of exercise primarily uses oxygen to meet the body’s energy demands.

Common examples include running, cycling, swimming, brisk walking, dancing, hiking, and aerobic classes.

Key Characteristics of Aerobic Training:

  1. Moderate Intensity: Aerobic exercises typically involve maintaining a steady pace that elevates the heart rate to around 65-75% of its maximum capacity (Zone 2). You should be able to talk to your workout partner at this intensity.
    • Note: a simple way to ballpark your heart rate max is to subtract your age from 220. For example, to calculate the heart rate max of a 40 year old, you would use the following equation: HRmax =  220 - 40 = 180 bpm.
  2. Sustained Duration: Workouts are performed at a moderate intensity over an extended duration, usually for 20 minutes or more, to stimulate cardiovascular and respiratory adaptations. 
  3. Rhythmic: Aerobic exercises are typically rhythmic, repetitive activities that elevate the heart rate and breathing rate for an extended period. These activities involve large muscle groups.
HIIT Training: High-Intensity Interval Training
HIIT, or High-Intensity Interval Training, involves alternating between short bursts of intense exercise and brief periods of rest or low-intensity recovery. This approach challenges the body to perform at maximal or near-maximal effort during the high-intensity intervals, followed by periods of active recovery to allow for partial replenishment of energy stores.
Sidebar: For the runners out there, Fartleks, where you alternate periods of sprinting with jogging, are a form of HIIT. Interestingly Fartlek means “speedplay” when translated from Swedish to English. Runners are the masters of mind games, and this is case in point. Take note from the runner, if you label something difficult as “play”, perhaps you can trick yourself into enjoying it.

Key Characteristics of HIIT Training:
  1. High Intensity: HIIT workouts involve pushing the body to its limits during short bursts of vigorous activity, typically reaching 90+% of maximum heart rate (Zone 5).
  2. Interval Structure: Workouts consist of repeated cycles of intense exertion (e.g., sprinting, jumping, or cycling at maximum effort) followed by brief recovery periods.
  3. Shorter Duration: HIIT sessions are often shorter in duration compared to traditional aerobic workouts, ranging from 10 to 30 minutes.
  4. Versatility: HIIT workouts can be adapted to various forms of exercise, including running, cycling, bodyweight exercises, plyometrics, and strength training. This versatility allows individuals to customize their workouts according to their preferences, fitness levels, and goals, while also preventing boredom and monotony.
Differentiating Between the Two
While both aerobic and HIIT training offer valuable health benefits, they target different energy systems and physiological adaptations within the body:

Aerobic Training: During aerobic exercise, the body operates below the lactate threshold, allowing for sustained effort for an extended period. This moderate-intensity training stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis, the process by which the number and efficiency of mitochondria within cells increase. Mitochondria are often referred to as the powerhouse of the cell because they are responsible for producing the energy currency of the cell, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) through a process called cellular respiration. ATP is essential for powering various cellular processes, including muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission, and production of molecules. Mitochondria play a crucial role in regulating cellular metabolism and produce antioxidants that regulate reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels which in excess can be damaging to cells. Additionally, mitochondria are involved in the regulation of programmed cell death, or apoptosis. They release signaling molecules that trigger apoptosis when cells are damaged or no longer needed, thus eliminating potentially harmful cells. 

Overall, mitochondrial biogenesis is essential for maintaining cellular function, energy production, and overall health. Dysregulation of mitochondrial biogenesis has been implicated in various diseases, including metabolic disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. Therefore, understanding and controlling mitochondrial biogenesis hold therapeutic potential for treating a wide range of health conditions.

HIIT Training: During HIIT, the body's demand for energy exceeds its ability to supply oxygen, leading to the activation of anaerobic metabolism to meet the increased energy needs. One of the unique characteristics of HIIT is its ability to induce excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), also known as the afterburn effect. Following a HIIT workout, the body continues to consume oxygen at an elevated rate to restore depleted energy stores, clear metabolic byproducts, and return physiological processes to baseline levels. This post-exercise oxygen consumption contributes to increased calorie expenditure and fat oxidation, leading to greater overall energy expenditure compared to steady-state cardio. 

Both forms of training contribute to improved athletic performance, cardiovascular health, cognitive benefits, better sleep quality, increased endurance, and metabolic health.
What is the Lactate Threshold? The lactate threshold marks the transition from predominantly aerobic energy production to a combination of aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Aerobic metabolism, which occurs during aerobic exercise, uses oxygen to break down carbohydrates and fats. Anaerobic metabolism occurs in the absence of oxygen and leads to production of lactate. HIIT training and other high-intensity workouts tap into your anaerobic metabolism, producing lactate. You typically reach our lactate threshold when exercising at  85% - 88% of your heart rate maximum (Zone 4).

So, who is the winner? 
Sounds like both to me. Rather than viewing aerobic and HIIT training as mutually exclusive, consider incorporating both into your routine to reap the benefits of each. HIIT is more efficient but a little harder on the body, while, aerobic exercise is a bit more comfortable but require longer workouts to reap the benefits. Aim for at least 1 HIIT workout and 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Integrating regular aerobic sessions with occasional HIIT workouts can provide a well-rounded approach to fitness, promoting cardiovascular health, metabolic efficiency, and overall well-being.