Have you ever had someone tell you, “Life is not a sprint, its marathon”? These words are simple, but capture what we humans do on our short time on earth: we run a steady pace towards the finish line. Those who do not heed this old adage may find themselves burnt out on the side of the path, exhausted, doomed never to finish. And although I believe in this saying, I find myself questioning its relevancy today. To explain, I have been quite fortunate in my short time on earth to experience wonderful moments surrounded by awesome friends and family, and also some awful moments of self-doubt, insecurity and failure, again surrounded by the same wonderful people. Hell, these peaks and valleys continue today as they did yesterday and so many years ago.
Thus, I have begun to wonder: Am I really running a steady pace, rarely deviating from the mean stride of a marathon runner, or am I actually in the midst of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)? You know, HIIT—a training method where intense bouts of exercise are followed by periods of non-exhaustive recovery (Daniels & Scardina, 1984; Laursen & Jenkins, 2002). Don’t get me wrong, I still believe the old saying holds true, but in our current fast-paced lifestyle, I would like to propose a different take as to what life really is.
For instance, take the journey of undergraduate studies. How many of us have slowly jogged our way through a class or a semester only to put tremendous amount of time preparing for our assignments, midterms, or final exams, and as soon as we place our pens and pencils down head back to the sloth like pace of our lives. Taking our example a bit further we explore the exit out of undergraduate studies and into society at large. Convocation is the glorified rite of passage most undergraduate’s students have waited for; the moment in which we shed the protective cocoon of academia and journey into adulthood. For some well-planned students, post-graduation is a time of excitement as they head off into their careers. For others, it’s a rude awakening when they realize their previous four years, while busy partying or over-studying, forgot to give thought to judgement day.
As such, some will undoubtedly and unwillingly find themselves in the midst of HIIT; that intense period of piecing together our resumes, thinking of potential job positions, and blasting our intentions into cyber space all the while hoping for that one shot. And for some, following this intense session will relax once they receive the good news of finding a job, an accepted application to a professional school, or their world travel plans falling into place. Alternatively, the unlucky participants continue the intense bout with the hope that they may find eventual solace. Hence, we as humans cycle between acute and restful periods similar to HIIT whether we mean to or not. Why is it that life emulates HIIT?
To answer, we have to explore the benefits of HIIT and how conducting our lives in this manner could be beneficial. Individuals undergoing HIIT are able to mimic the physiological changes of increased VO2 max and growth of muscle work capacity that accompanies sub-maximal endurance training in a much shorter period of time (Hickson, Bomze, & Holloszy, 1977). The end result is an ability to achieve aerobic fitness at a faster rate (Gibala & McGee, 2008). In our fast-pace environment we sometimes lack enough time or patience to attain all that we would like to achieve, and at times it is advantageous to accomplish our goals in blocks of high intensity productive sessions. As such, for some HIIT just makes economic sense!
Another reason for why I believe life resembles HIIT is due to the similarity in processes. To clarify, when conducting HIIT the end objective is to stress the system or body beyond the limit required for a particular event (Daniels & Scardina, 1984; Laursen & Jenkins, 2002). For example, it is well established that some athletes will train or live at altitude where there is limited oxygen in order to trigger the release of erythropoietin, the chief hormone responsible for the creation of red blood cells, to allow for extra working capacity during competition at sea level (Jacobs, Lundby, Robach, & Gassmann, 2012; Macdougall & Ashenden, 2009; Sottas et al., 2011). Likewise, in life we may over prepare for a job interview or a test knowing full well that the real event maybe similar or less strenuous. Thus, sometimes in life we seek to push ourselves beyond our limits in order to prep for the highs and lows similar to HIIT.
Like every good athlete undergoing interval training, there comes a period of aerobic adaptation. This period is when our maximum aerobic capacity ceases to increase with further training. Such is life after several bouts of ups and downs we adapt. We no longer fear the intense spells of stress and pace because we understand that just on the other side is the sweet pot of gold we call “recovery”. The period in which we hopefully have time to sit back and reflect on all that we have achieved, while not resting on our laurels look forward to the next fight.
For me and like so many others, I believe I am still in the transition of adapting to the intermittent tests of life. I still feel the joy, the stress, the disappointment and intensity of chasing a dream of one day making something out of myself; and I still look forward to the recovery period from my last training session. However, during the recovery periods of life’s interval training I like to sit back and re-evaluate, see what I did well, what I did poorly and scheme for my next test. It’s the athlete way, the way I was trained, the only way I know how to move forward. In essence, it’s the Unsung hero way!
To end, I say keep pushing in your attempts and keep getting back up after you fall, for all this intermittent bouts will help you adapt to the race we call life. Which I now see is not merely a constant path of a marathon, but series of sprints and recoveries or in other words High Intensity Interval Training.
 VO2 max is defined as the maximum measured volume of oxygen consumed by an organism during a stressed state (i.e exercise). Often VO2 max is measured for endurance athletes either on a treadmill or a stationary bike.References: Daniels, J., & Scardina, N. (1984). Interval training and performance. [Review]. Sports Med, 1(4), 327-334. Gibala, M. J., & McGee, S. L. (2008). Metabolic adaptations to short-term high-intensity interval training: a little pain for a lot of gain? Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 36(2), 58-63. Hickson, R. C., Bomze, H. A., & Holloszy, J. O. (1977). Linear increase in aerobic power induced by a strenuous program of endurance exercise. [Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.]. J Appl Physiol Respir Environ Exerc Physiol, 42(3), 372-376. Jacobs, M. R. A., Lundby, C., Robach, P., & Gassmann, M. (2012). Red blood cell volume and the capacity for exercise at moderate to high altitude. Sports Medicine, 42(8), 643-663. Laursen, P. B., & Jenkins, D. G. (2002). The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training. Sports Medicine, 32(1), 53-73. Macdougall, I. C., & Ashenden, M. (2009). Current and upcoming erythropoiesis-stimulating agents, iron products, and other novel anemia medications. [Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't Review]. Adv Chronic Kidney Dis, 16(2), 117-130. doi: 10.1053/j.ackd.2008.12.010 Sottas, P.-E., Robinson, N., Fischetto, G., Dollé, G., Alonso, J. M., & Saugy, M. (2011). Prevalence of blood doping in samples collected from elite track and field athletes. Clinical chemistry, 57(5), 762-769.