Lately on my long runs I’ve been noticing my breathing is slower and more comfortable at the same speeds, which is very cool, but it makes me think about how hard running is to start because of the breathing issue. Running is inherently intense — there’s no “low gear.” You can be aerobically fit on the ellipitcal machine or in spinning classes, and still find that running spikes your heart rate and your breathing gets out of control almost immediately.

There were several workouts I did the first fall of 2006 that ultimately helped get me back into running. First, of course, was a lot of walking. But you can do all the walking in the world and still find running for more than 30 seconds nearly impossible. That’s where a version of HIIT (high intensity interval training) bridged the gap for me.

HIIT actually started as a bodybuilder thing, and they use it to a) get their cardio workouts over with quickly (because they like lifting, not cardio!) and b) burn a lot of fat and calories in a short period of time (because they need to get ripped!). It’s a good way to enhance general fitness and burn fat, and it’s a lot more fun and interesting than 40 to 60 minutes or more of steady-state cardio, though that has its place, too. (There’s also a belief that too much steady-state cardio is catabolic, or eats your muscle, though that might be considered a positive adaptation for an endurance athlete.)¬† There’s a lot of research that’s shown significantly greater fat loss among people¬† doing HIIT protocols, than those in control groups doing low-intensity cardio workouts lasting two to three times longer in the so-called “fat burning zone.” And it is pretty amazing to think that 20 minutes of a fun, quick routine can work better than 60 minutes of slogging it out!

And it helps with beginning running because you only have to run for 30 seconds at a time. Max. Even if it got to be a bit much at second 20, I generally felt I could hold on for another 10!

Here is the version of HIIT I began doing twice a week on the treadmill about 2-3 months into my new fitness goal, once I’d established some basic fitness:

  • 5 minute warm-up (walk to jog)
  • 30 seconds running
  • 1:30 minute walking recovery
  • REPEAT THE 2-MINUTE RUN/WALK CYCLE 8 TIMES: runs 1-4 start at a moderate speed and gradually increase speed each time; runs 5-7 are run at one peak speed; run 8 is run at a slightly higher, “stretch” speed
  • 5 minute cool-down (jog to walk)

This entire workout takes 26 minutes. Some people cut down the warm-up and cool-down, and do the whole thing in 20 minutes. I need more warm-up than that! I also used to like to add some steady-state jogging to the end of mine to complete 30-40 total minutes.

You’re looking for an effort that gets you breathing hard (not gasping or dying or flying off the back of the treadmill) by the end of 30 seconds, and breathing normally again during the walks to feel ready for the next run interval. If you can’t recover in 1:30 of walking, slow down the run and/or walk speed or take a longer walking break. I just read about a guy who does fast marathons now, who started running in this way using 30 second running intervals and 4 minute walking recoveries!

As a benchmark, I would typically warm up each time by walking at 3.0 to 3.5 mph and jogging at 4.5 to 5 mph. I did steady-state jogs at only 4.5 mph (13:20-minute miles) for many months, struggling to get to where I could do 5 mph (12:00-minute miles) comfortably. But if my breathing got out of control, I ramped it back down a little bit.

For the 30 second “sprints,” I typically did 6.5, 7.0, 7.5, 8.0, 8.5, 8.5, 8.5, and 9.0 mph. I gradually increased the whole sequence by 0.1 mph each week, until I could get up to 9.5 or 10.0 (6:00-minute miles) for the last one. I found I loved the feeling of running fast (the monster stirred…)! But it would be perfectly fine not to do them that fast, or to make the gaps between them less than 0.5 mph. For example, you could do 6.0, 6.1, 6,2, 6.3, 6.4, 6.4, 6.4, 6.5 for a great workout. You can also use hills (% grade) instead of speed to increase the intensity of the runs, which is interesting and works different muscles.

If you like to use a heart rate monitor, shoot for 85-90% of max HR in the 30-second run, and under 70% by the end of the walk. Personally I use perceived exertion and listening to my breathing to train by, even now, only checking my heart rate occasionally during specific workouts. Basing my effort on my breathing instead of a device works much better in my racing.

You will feel a rush at the end of doing the hard efforts that is totally different from the feeling of doing a slow, steady workout! And because you’re paying attention to the intervals and your speed and recovery, you won’t need to stare at reruns of Law and Order to get through it! You can also do this workout outside, not on a treadmill, running 30 seconds and walking 1:30. In fact, coach and author (and former Olympic athlete) Jeff Galloway founds his entire system on a less intense run-walk model that gradually increases the running time and reduces the walking time. He’s a great author to check out for beginners, though I didn’t know about him at the time.

Finally, for existing joggers who feel they never get faster, HIIT is a way to break out of single-speed running and get some speed into your legs.

This isn’t only a beginner workout, either. I do versions of HIIT as speedwork (6-12 x 100 yards race pace, 100 yards jog recovery), hill strength work (4-10 x run up a moderate to steep hill for 30-90 seconds, jog or walk back down for recovery), and bike power intervals (12-15 x 10-20 second sprints in hardest gear with 1:00 recovery).

After some months doing my 30-second treadmill run intervals that fall, I spontaneously began to run-walk the trails I’d been walking. More walking than running, but still. It was the start.