Hi Intensity Interval Training [4]

If HIIT should be off-limits to the majority of athletes, then who should do HIIT sessions?

Athletes who have a substantial base of training, who have acquired thousands of hours, years of conditioning, who have gained a level of mastery of the skills, techniques, form, tactics and strategy; athletes who have acquired the self awareness and introspection skills to be able to self assess, evaluating their intensity level, and able to modify effort as required.

Athletes who have a maturity level which ensures that they take appropriate and sufficient time to recover, to rest, to heal between training sessions.  Athletes who understand what it means to recover, how long it takes to rest, and put in the necessary time sleeping, and napping to set themselves up properly for subsequent training.

Finally, HIIT should be reserved for athletes competing or are preparing to compete for National Team Qualification with the goal of competing at international events (e.g. Olympics, Worlds, Pan Ams, Pan Pacs, Commonwealth,…). The intensity of these competitions requires refinement of the athlete’s physiology and psychology and in these circumstances HIIT is an appropriate training tool (but still not the only training tool).

For amateur and age group athletes, HIIT should be reserved to final preparation for an ‘A’ race, only under the condition of health, under the guidance of a trusted coach who will offer objective direction when the athlete is unable or unwilling to be objective with themselves.

With this said, it must be highlighted that Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman did not do any weight training (i.e. a form of HIIT) prior to Michael turning 19 years of age.  Yet despite this lack of HIIT, Michael Phelps qualified and competed at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens walking away with 6 Olympic golds and 2 Olympic bronze medals.  To train Michael to swim fast (instead of hard), Bob prepared Michael on dryland: he had Michael visualize himself swimming fast during mental training sessions.  When it came time to swim fast in the pool, Bowman had Michael “put in the (mental) video of himself swimming fast” and execute. Swimming fast wasn’t measured in pain, fatigue, nor by excessive exertion, it was a product of executing consistently a specific program of exquisite technique, on demand, irrespective of distractions.


If Bowman didn’t need weights to bring Phelps up to the level of competition at the Olympics, then this should demand all athletes to reflect on their own training… why do you need weights if you are nowhere close to Olympic level competition?  What aspect of training are you trying to short cut? Why? Why are you attempting to force progress, success? What are you afraid of?

If an athlete rises to the top in one of the most competitive countries in the world, in one of the most competitive sport programs in the world (US Olympic Trials can be more competitive than the Olympic Finals) and NOT be obsessed with HIIT, then we need to re-evaluate our approach.

Since Michael Phelps – a swimmer – rose without full dependence on HIIT, then surely the sport of swimming leads in the development of technique, stroke, efficiency, and form?   Wrong.

Unfortunately, in swimming HIIT continues to be used to short cut the long term process of developing champions, with coaches refusing to let go of a ‘last one standing’ approach to validate training (i.e. ‘last man standing’ was a post-WWII Eastern Block mentality of training – still in use today – where athletes are driven to their limit day-in day-out, with the last man/woman hailed as the top athlete).  Despite piles of wrecked bodies, destroyed minds, and resentful athletes discarded by this training methodology which blames them for failing (as opposed to the system failing the athlete) the prolific use of HIIT goes unabated, with coaches and sport associations refusing to acknowledge reality (and worse, failing to acknowledge that this methodology underpins the use of PEDs amongst athletes…trying to stay in the system).

The sport of swimming is notorious for HIIT, for subjecting young swimmers almost from the moment they start swimming to HIIT and non-stop HIIT. Swim coaches refuse to eliminate a ‘last one standing’ approach despite efforts to retrain the mindset. The outcome is a drop out rate which should raise alarm within sports associations but is instead heralded as optimal for training. In a Swimming Natation Canada (SNC) powerpoint on Long Term Athlete Development, US statistics are used to identify the low retention rate of athletes in the sport. Only 2% of swimmers who ranked in the top 100 at the age of 10 are retained until the age of 17-18. Approaching peak years, the sport loses 55% of all female athletes and 71% of all male athletes in the course of just 2 years (between the ages of 15-16 and 17-18).  Why?

SNC LTAD age grprs

If any business lost 55-71% of their top clients in a period of 2 years, shareholders would fire the CEO if not the entire C-class along with management.  In swimming where 55-71% of all top athletes are lost, the system is not audited, instead the status-quo is held onto firmly.

Based on my experiences as an athlete, as a parent of children who swam competitively, as a health professional who works with swimmers, and as a NCCP swim coach, these stats simply reflect how age group athletes – children – are coached: all-out, all the time, with minimal focus on technique (perhaps once a week), with an attitude of either you got it, get it on your own time or get out. The agenda of coaches is to push for immediate results, disregarding the fact that there is absolutely no reason to expose children to HIIT, let alone peak children years ahead of their peak growth periods, ahead of their physiological and psychological peaks.

The sport of swimming lives and breathes HIIT, HIIT, and more HIIT despite the fact that the sport goes through kids as if kids are disposable.  The problem is that when children fail to improve, parents believe that it is their children who are incapable of more, thus coaches are not held accountable.  Without the performance of swim coaches evaluated, there is no pressure on coaches to improve, to gain in their understanding of physiology, behaviour, training and competition methodology. Most coaches coach the way they were trained, just like the coaches before them (with every error in coaching repeated). With a fresh supply of parents every fall coming with their children to try out for the swim club, the turnover gives coaches carte blanche to continue to repeat training which fails our children. In any other industry, this would not be tolerated and coaches would be fired.  When it comes to coaching our children, why do we tolerate coaches who fail at modelling a pursuit of excellence?

Swimming Canada’s policy is that the sport of swimming is highly intensive, that training can only occur within a swim club so that the high level of intensity is maintained.  At the same time, Swimming Canada’s document on Long Term Athlete Development [LTAD] reveals that the average age of athletes who compete at Worlds and the Olympics is the early 20s. If athletes don’t need to peak until their 20s, why is intensive training the basis for swimming policy in Canada? Why are 9, 10, 12, and 14 year olds trained into the ground? Why is intensive training the policy when such a policy violates the LTAD model, results in a mass drop out rate, resulting in such a lack of top swimmers that Ontario’s own former High Performance Coach Dean Boles admitted that he had few swimmers to coach as so few are able to train and compete at the national or international levels. Fact is that many top Canadian swimmers don’t train in Canada, instead train in the US. If the US system has a high drop out rate, yet Canadian athletes move to the US to train, it begs the question how much worse is the Canadian system? Bad enough that Swimming Canada uses US statistics instead of its own?

SNC LTAD ave age

Click on image for larger view

How Bob Bowman coached Michael Phelps reveals that when an athlete is trained properly, individually, when capacity, technique, skill, the mental and emotional dimensions of performance are made equal in training, then an athletic career can last a lifetime. In his book Without Limits, Michael Phelps shares how Bowman coached him to learn how to gain satisfaction beyond the clock; to seek success in stroke technique improvements, and strategy execution. It is with this mindset that Phelps now at the age of 30 is able to train to try out for his 5th Olympic team, extending a career which has lasted already two decades.

Swimming is not the only sport notorious for HIIT. In North America, cycling, running and especially triathlon rely on hi intensity red-zone training almost exclusively.  Base training is limited to weeks, treated as an unfortunate necessity as opposed to what it is: the foundation, the starting point, the fundamentals upon which development is predicated, the path to an healthy and long lasting relationship with physical activity, and sport. We wonder why kids drop out of sport? Maybe, just maybe its because parents and coaches want to see results now, leading to kids simply coming to hate sport because adults take out all the fun. Proof? How do most adults train, exercise, workout? Rarely do I see adults having fun, most tolerate the pain, the sweat, the agony of what they put themselves through in order to boast, not be healthy so why would that approach change with their children?  It doesn’t.

If you want what is optimal for yourself as an athlete, or for your children as athletes, then take the long approach, the long long term approach. Be willing to take the time to invest in skill acquisition, the development of technique, form, flexibility, building a massive base, aerobic conditioning, fat burning, mental skills of imagination, drive, imagery, belief, visualization, rehearsal, and emotional skills of breathing control, converting reactions to responses, learning stress identification, engagement, and management.  Most importantly, be willing to make it fun, and learning how to keep it fun when obstacles occur, adversity arises. There is a lifetime of learning available that can translate into all aspects of adult life if coaches and parents give each child the time to learn.  There is a lifetime of learning and refining for masters athletes, where HIIT is absolutely unnecessary in order to restore, maintain, and enjoy health, and to compete setting PRs in competition by improving the execution of sport specific skills.

With HIIT you will get either bored, injured, ill, sidelined with a medical condition, impeding progress and diminishing your interest in sport.

With base training you cannot get bored.  Base training is endless, with the only limits being those of curiosity, imagination, and what you impose as the limit of your own potential.