HIIT Conditioning: HIIT Drills – Part 1

HIIT Conditioning: HIIT Drills – Part 1

In the first part, What You Need To Know, I have presented the basics, as well as the introduction to the High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). I have also talked mostly about HIIT Prescription. In the following two parts, the emphasis is on HIIT Drills.

I will talk about their classifications and then cover each of these categories in more details. Namely, in this part, I will focus on the first two categoriesLong Intervals and Short Intervals, whereas in the next part, other three categories will be covered: Sprint Interval Training (SIT), Repeat Sprint Training (RST) and Intermittent Recovery.

Here is the classification of HIIT drills used in this article series:


Each of these will be covered in more details, but for the sake of the big picture view, here is Velocity Profile for the Athlete A (MAS 4.44 m/s, MSS 9 m/s), with distribution of HIIT Drills (right side):


Here, REC stands for recovery interval, performed in active variations of HIT drills, which is around 50-70% MAS.

These two images give a big picture of HIIT drills. Let’s now cover each category in more detail.

Long Intervals

Long intervals are intervals longer that 1 min, usually performed from 80% MAS to 110% MAS. In this book we differentiate between the two variations: long intervals with active rest (ALI) and long intervals with passive rest (PLI).

Since long intervals are, well long, coaches prefer to prescribe them using distance. As explained previously, prescribing in distance is fine when working with a rather small number of athletes, but with the big group, if they run on 800m with their individual times and individual recovery time, it can become quite messy and chaotic.

The solution for these longer intervals would be to prescribe them in shuttles.

Let’s take again the Athlete A with MAS of 4.44 m/s (16 km/h) and MSS of 9 m/s (32.4 km/h) and prescribe passive long intervals (PLI) of 3 minutes work at 100% MAS with 6-minute passive rest. The distance that needs to be covered in those 3 minutes is 800m. That would be easily done if our Athlete A is training alone. But he has 30 more training mates, and the coach decides to organize them in 10 shuttles of 77 meters (corrected for 0.7s COD loss), with a beep in 18 seconds (one shuttle needs to be covered in 18 seconds, which is equal to 180sec / 10 shuttles). This is all easily calculated in the HIT Builder.

Let’s deal with the differences between passive (PLI) and active (ALI) long intervals.

Passive Long Intervals (PLI)

Passive long intervals have a passive break between intervals. During that break athletes can stand or walk. Usually they talk. This passive break affords slightly higher intensity (expressed in % MAS) compared to active break long intervals (see the Long Intervals table).

In this article series, I differentiate between intensive, normal, and extensive variations, which involve 1:2, 1:1, and 2:1 work-to-rest ratios. The following graph will convey the message, as well as the long intervals table.

Active Long Intervals (ALI)

Active long intervals involve active recovery period, in which athlete needs to (in this case) run at 50-70% MAS. To be completely honest, this is always tricky with team sport athletes (in general, but with active long intervals in particular) and much easier to convey with T&F athletes. One solution, with long intervals, are performed in shuttle would be to cover the same distance in double time (with intensive variations, with 1:2 ratio), cover half the shuttles in the same time (with normal variations, with 1:1 ratio), or cover 1/4 shuttles in half the time (with extensive variations, with 2:1 ratio).

Taking the Athlete A (MAS 4.44 m/s, MSS 9 m/s) as an example again. Prescribing active long interval of 2 minutes at 90% MAS, with 2 minutes at 55-65% MAS, in 8 shuttles, the Athlete A will need to cover 8x57m (480m total). During the 2 minutes break, he would need to cover 4x57m, which is not exactly 55-65% (rather 45% MAS), but much easier to organize and perform. If you want to be lab coat and nitpick, go ahead and measure the exact distance. Or just do one more shuttle, 5x57m in 2minutes. Problem solved.

As with passive long interval, here I differentiate between three variants: intensive (1:2), normal (1:1), and extensive (2:1). They are depicted on the image below, but also consult the long intervals table.

active long intervals

Long Intervals format

One set in the long intervals should be longer than 20-30minutes (e.g. long intervals 3′-3′ takes 6minutes for one repetition, so doing 4x3min is already 24minutes long set). For this reason, long intervals are usually performed for one set only (two tops). In team sports, athletes are already time-constrained, and for that sole reason, long intervals are usually not that frequently performed. They are most likely to be performed when there are not many sport practices (as in the offseason), when the athlete is in the rehab phase, or when the athlete is really shitty with his MAS score (coaching wisdom suggest that lower-level athletes should spend more time with longer intervals). I am an advocate of performing them occasionally through the season, for the sake of variety and covering more ‘extensive’ ranges of conditioning, every now and then. More about this in the upcoming chapter on planning.

Progressions with Long Intervals

First of all, what is progression? In plain English, progression is making things harder (under the same variation). HIIT has a lot of variables to be manipulated, in order to make intervals harder. Here are a few heuristics you can play with (in this particular order):

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can do it for you.

For the reasons already outlined, it is easier to prescribe tempo using time, since in that case %ASR for tempo is always the same (see table below):


With the distance, the %ASR changes based on athletes’ individual MAS and MSS, so it is important to use (Tempo Builder (distance) tab).


Interlude on individualization

Hopefully, you have realized by now that individualization of training prescription and hence training load is tricky and complex. As shown in the tempo prescription, one can use 70% of the best time, or use 40-50 %ASR. Which one is better? Not sure, especially because we need to take into account that these intervals are repeated for a certain number of reps, and how fast the athletes recover in between. We just assume that by individualizing (in this case, using percent of max) we create a hypothetical equal playing field (in terms of stress or training load).

What does an equal playing field actually mean? It means that each athlete works according to their potential (or their maximum). But here is the kicker – how do we measure their potential? We can use %ASR, but that works for intervals over 110-120% MAS, but it doesn’t work for long slow distance. We could use MAS, Power, vLT, vGET, VO2, or percent of velocity. But on top of those, there are numerous other factors we haven’t considered (body weight, height, recoverability, you name it). Put on top of this normal, day-to-day variability in athletes’ performance, adaptation, mood, stress levels, willingness to train, nutrition, sleep, and so forth, and we are completely lost.

And even if we manage to achieve working on the same relative potential, is that enough to make someone adapt and grow? Does doing intervals at 55% ASR for 20minutes represent the same stimuli for Athlete A and B? It is indeed a step forward from doing 100s in 16seconds for everyone on the squad, but even with this individualization, we are far from real individualization. The question is should we even bother, can we even achieve it? Or more importantly – is it counterproductive? To create equal playing field we would need to be able to predict things, but we can’t. We need to embrace the uncertainty. And we need certain strategies that are robust, and not optimal when dealing with such uncertainties. Luckily enough, there are a few which are going to be covered in the planning chapter.

This all reminds me of the social justice warrior types who are trying to create equal playing field (whatever the heck it means), but are actually creating havoc and chaos. The equal playing field is a pipe dream – you try to equalize for one thing and create chaos and terror for the others. Equal pays for everyone? Yes, it resulted in Gulags.

Similar to training – trying to optimize (e.g. create equal playing field) for one variable under given model and its assumptions, but you will completely miss others, maybe much more important things (because they are not part of your model, usually called ‘third variable’ or ‘missing variable’). Remember the T@VO2peak? Few lab coats believe it is a stimuli for adaptation in HIIT training modalities. Having that as our mental model, we are going to try to optimize (in this case maximize) this metric under the constraints (e.g. time available, stress, etc.). In that case, we might completely ditch the tempo HIIT variation “because it doesn’t maximize T@VO2max for the time and energy invested”. We would have put it in “the training Gulag”.

There are a few things to keep in mind – 1) we all use models, just make sure to realize it, and, if possible, try to use multiple, 2) optimization relies on prediction and certainty, unfortunately, there are numerous sources of uncertainty as we will soon see in the next chapter, and 3) embrace the uncertainty and randomness and don’t be a too confident prick. And most importantly, realize that real individualization, real equal playing field, is out of reach, maybe even trying to reach it is counterproductive. However, that shouldn’t stop us from trying better methods. Just because all models are wrong, it doesn’t mean that a few are not useful (but some are harmful, to paraphrase Nassim Taleb).

It is important to note that endurance athletes in T&F, usually don’t use MAS or vLT, vGET and so forth to prescribe, but rather they use actual running performance over a certain distance. Understanding the above constructs is important (as well as physiology and biomechanics), but not enough for endurance athletes – they do need more precision. In a way, they use a more phenomenological approach of using what they can directly measure and observe (e.g. time trials, velocities, etc). So rather than trying to improve certain underlying constructs (“We need to improve your MAS”) and focusing on being inside the “MAS Zone”, endurance athletes work to improve specific phenomenological quality (“Working on your final kick in 5k”). Even with using such an approach, individualization is hard, because how do we know should we use 90%, or 80% of the best performance? Or strip 4 seconds, or 10 seconds? Or repeat 10 intervals or 15 intervals? How do we juggle all of this when training a group of athletes?

With team sport athletes, things are a bit more general, since we do not have a specific distance to cover and to be evaluated on. But it is also foolish to state that the sole objective of HIIT is to increase MAS, or any other underlying construct, although they are more than satisficing for designing the HIIT. There are also other viable objectives, and understanding them and combining them with the practice goals will allow you greater flexibility in designing HIIT drills.

Short Intervals format

Short intervals are usually done in sets of 4-8 minutes, repeated 2-6 times, with 3-5 minutes of passive or active rest in between. These are of course rules of thumb and something you can modify based on your context and objectives.

When it comes to tempo, it is usually done for 10-15 minutes in a set, for about 2-5 times. In the case of using distance instead of time, one set usually involves 4-6 intervals (e.g. 100+100+100+200+100), repeated 2-5 times.

Progression with Short Intervals

Similar to long intervals, short intervals can have the following progression:

  1. Increase overall duration by increasing number of repetition in a set (e.g. from 5min of 15:15 to 6min of 15:15)
  2. Increase overall duration by increasing number of sets (e.g. from 2x8min of 30:30 to 3x6min of 30:30)
  3. Decrease the recovery time between the intervals (e.g. from 30sec work 30sec rest, to 30sec work to 20sec rest)
  4. Extend the duration of the work interval (e.g. from 15sec work 15sec rest, to 20sec work 15sec rest)
  5. Increase the intensity in the active recovery phase (e.g. from 45% to 55%)
  6. Increase the intensity of the work interval (e.g. from 100% to 105% MAS)

It is important to understand that variations and progressions are not easily distinguishable. For example, you can look at 30:30 as a progression to 20:20 (because 30sec is longer than 20sec), or vice versa (because 20s intervals can be done at higher %MAS or %ASR). Thus, the progression should be seen within a given variation (e.g. extending 20sec in 20:20 to 25 seconds at 120% MAS).

I also suggest creating a progression cycles, and then repeating them in iterations. Let’s assume that we are planning to do 20:20 at 110% MAS and we are going to progress work interval from 18, 20, 22 to 24 seconds over a few workouts. For this example, I am are going to use the Athlete A again (MAS 4.44 m/s, MSS 9 m/s).


After athletes finish one phase, MAS can be retested or adjusted for 0.07m/s to 0.14m/s (0.25-0.5km/h) and then the phase can be repeated as in the “rinse and repeat” type of way. This way we get long term progression, we slowly cook the athletes and get this nice implicit zig-zag (wave) pattern, without the need to plan it explicitly.

I am a physical preparation coach from Belgrade, Serbia, grew up in Pula, Croatia (which I consider my home town). I was involved in physical preparation of professional, amateur and recreational athletes of various ages in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, martial arts and tennis. Read More »

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