Is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) Stressing You Out?

June 6, 2022

What is HIIT?

Whether you're riding your Peloton bike, doing a YouTube workout, or going to a gym class, chances are you've heard of, and maybe even tried, HIIT. A HIIT workout consists of short bouts of intense work lasting anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds, followed by an active recovery period of the same length or longer. This cycle of hard work and recovery is repeated anywhere from 3 to 10 times, depending on the workout. Increased post-exercise metabolism, improved body composition, and enhanced fasting blood glucose and insulin sensitivity are all positive physiological effects of HIIT. HIIT has earned the reputation of being a "magic pill" of exercise due to the advantages acquired in just a few workouts. With HIIT, you can see results in as little as a few weeks and leave your workouts feeling more productive and powerful.It only takes a few intervals to feel your body's heightened level of energy, which is influenced by hormone fluctuations, particularly cortisol.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is one of many hormones produced by our bodies in response to stress. When the brain detects stress during HIIT, a cascade of hormones is released, including cortisol. The sympathetic nervous system is activated when cortisol is released, resulting in a fight-or-flight response. This sympathetic nervous system response to danger was historically crucial to our early survival, supplying our bodies with rapid energy and power to fight or flee when necessary. Cortisol is responsible for physiological changes such as the rapid breakdown of fats and carbohydrates and a surge in blood sugar for immediate energy, as well as suppressing the immune system so that the body's energy can be focused on the potentially life-threatening task at hand.

How HIIT affects cortisol levels

This cortisol response is part of what makes HIIT training so effective at turning the body into a lean, fast, and powerful machine (4).As your legs begin pedaling as quickly as possible, your brain receives the message that your survival depends on this interval, at which point cortisol and other hormones are released, sending you into the sympathetic nervous system response.The body then makes metabolic improvements as a result of this energetically and hormodynamically beneficial response.
The issue with cortisol is that when our bodies produce too much of it — whether from physical or psychological stress — it floats around freely in the circulation, causing undesirable symptoms to emerge.

Overtraining syndrome has some physiological causes, including a rise in cortisol levels. Overtraining syndrome manifests itself in the following ways:

  • chronic fatigue
  • muscle fatigue or a noticeable decrease in power while exercising
  • changes in mood
  • lack of physical and psychological motivation
  • changes in sleep patterns or sleeplessness
  • feelings of anxiety
  • repressed immune system and consistent illness

Any of these symptoms can appear when your body is overtaxed by a cortisol imbalance, even if you haven't worked out in a few days. Ideally, your body should be able to precisely decide when the fight or flight response is most beneficial and appropriate. However, too much HIIT can confuse the brain into signaling a protective response even when our bodies are supposed to be calm or at rest. Everyday tasks like packing lunches and driving to work may leave you feeling agitated because your body is misinterpreting everyday stress as life-threatening stress.

The importance of recovery

The parasympathetic nervous system, in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, is in charge of sending the body into rest, digestion, and recovery mode. Recovery between intervals and recovery days between workouts is essential for seeing positive physical results from your HIIT workouts. The quality of your recovery is also important and can be improved with various practices, such as:

  • sleep
  • good nutrition and hydration
  • meditation and slow breathing exercises
  • foam rolling or massage
  • abstaining from intense exercise

Recognize your body's state of stress, both psychological and physical, and if you experience any of the warning symptoms listed, take some additional time away from HIIT.It's important to note that this type of workout should only be done 2–3 times per week at most, with rest days in between each HIIT session. While HIIT will strengthen your body in many ways, it will be regarded as stress by the body due to the cortisol response it produces. Recovery is crucial to maintaining the advantages of HIIT workouts, as is awareness of physical and psychological indicators of chronic stress. Otherwise, your efforts may backfire.So, the next time you challenge yourself with an HIIT workout, make sure to leave time for recovery.

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