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HIIT Vs Running: Which One Should You Do For The Best Fitness Results?

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Every type of workout has a host of shared physical and mental health benefits as well as some unique benefits specific to the particular mode of exercise or training style.

So, which is better, running or HIIT workouts? What are the benefits of HIIT vs running? Which is better for weight loss?

In this article, we will compare and contrast the primary differences between HIIT vs running and discuss the benefits of each to help you decide whether it is better to do HIIT or running for weight loss, fitness, performance, or whatever your health and fitness goals may be.

We will look at the following: 

  • What Is HIIT and How Does HIIT Compare to Running?
  • Which Is Better for Improving Fitness: HIIT vs Running?
  • Running vs HIIT for Fitness Goals
  • Should I Do Running or High-Intensity Interval Training?

Let’s get started!

A person sprinting up stairs.

What Is HIIT and How Does HIIT Compare to Running?

Before we can have a meaningful discussion about the pros and cons of running vs HIIT and whether it is better to do HIIT vs running or vice versa, we need to cover the basics of what HIIT and running workouts entail.

HIIT

So, what is HIIT?

HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training.

HIIT isn’t a type of exercise per se but rather a style of workout that involves alternating between bursts of vigorous exercise and easy recovery periods. 

The recovery periods allow you to push your body harder and elevate your heart rate to near-maximal levels during the intense intervals more than is possible during steady-state exercise.

A class of people in a squat.

The target heart rate range for most moderate-intensity steady-state cardio workouts, such as running, is 70-85% of your maximum heart rate. With HIIT, the goal should be to increase your heart rate to at least 85% of your maximum heart rate during the “on” intervals.

Because the recovery bouts between the high-intensity intervals are short, your heart rate stays elevated throughout a HIIT workout, even though your pace and intensity will change. 

This allows you to burn a lot of calories and improve both your anaerobic and aerobic fitness.

It’s important to wear a heart rate monitor during HIIT workouts because studies have found that people habitually underestimate their exertion level during moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise.

If you are not getting your heart rate up to at least 85% of your age-predicted maximum heart rate, then you will not be capitalizing on the effectiveness of HIIT workouts.

A person running on the beach.

Running

We all know what running is, but for the sake of the discussion surrounding running vs HIIT, we will make the distinction that when we are discussing running workouts, we are primarily talking about endurance-based, steady-state running vs interval workouts.

That is to say that running can certainly overlap with HIIT training because you can do running workouts that incorporate bouts of high-intensity running, such as hill repeats or sprints followed by recovery jogs.

However, for the sake of comparing HIIT vs running benefits, we will mainly discuss regular distance running at a moderate-intensity steady pace.

Which Is Better for Improving Fitness: HIIT vs Running?

Although both running and HIIT can improve your aerobic fitness and aerobic capacity, If you are trying to compare which type of workout will get you fit faster, you will likely be best served to focus mostly on HIIT vs running at a slower, steady pace. 

A person lifting a tire.

For example, one study looked at the improvements in physiological markers of fitness in untrained individuals with just six sessions of HIIT over two weeks (three HIIT workouts per week) using an exercise bike.

Results showed that the aerobic capacity of skeletal muscles increased due to a roughly 20% increase in mitochondria in type I (slow-twitch) muscle fibers.

These improvements allowed for greater respiratory capacity and oxygen extraction—and thus better aerobic endurance and exercise capacity—with just two weeks of HIIT workouts.

Running (and aerobic training) can absolutely improve endurance, but adaptations may take longer.

Finally, studies have found that both aerobic exercise like running and HIIT can reduce cardiovascular disease risk, but HIIT may be even more beneficial for lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke because it involves high-intensity intervals. 

Additionally, a review of 22 studies found that HIIT is equally effective as moderate-intensity continuous training like running at improving cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, but in a more time-efficient way.

A person running on the beach.

Running vs HIIT for Fitness Goals

Ultimately, your primary fitness goals will have a major impact on whether it is better to focus on running or HIIT workouts. 

Even within running itself, if you are trying to decide between steady-state distance runs or interval running workouts that use a HIIT-workout style format, there are pros and cons and different applications in which one type of workout may be better than the other.

This is where it is generally best to do both endurance training and interval training in your running routine so that you can give yourself the benefits of each type of training stimulus.

That said, here are some of the deciding factors for choosing HIIT vs running based on your goals:

A person running.

Training for Longer Races

If you are training for a longer running race, such as a half marathon or marathon, the focus should be on long-distance endurance running vs HIIT.

This distinction becomes particularly relevant when you are considering the breadth of HIIT workouts.

In other words, you can do HIIT with any mode of exercise, as it is a particular training format or style, not a type of exercise.

Doing a lot of HIIT indoor cycling workouts, for example, will help improve your overall fitness and may help you lose weight, but it will not necessarily translate well to helping you run a marathon without stopping in the way that running will.

Running long races, in particular, requires specificity of training; you have to run if your goal is to run well in a distance race. 

Again, this does not mean you can’t or shouldn’t supplement with HIIT workouts. 

Cross-training with HIIT workouts using different types of low-impact exercise can be a great way to enhance your aerobic and anaerobic fitness, strengthen different muscles, and improve your running. 

A person doing a push up.

Getting Into Fitness

For most beginners, it’s actually generally best to do HIIT vs running.

This may seem surprising because of the vigorous nature of HIIT vs running (which, theoretically, you could do at a low intensity by jogging very slowly).

Although lower-intensity intervals are probably smarter, safer, and more manageable than high-intensity interval training, as is the case with HIIT, the nature of having “on“ intervals and rest periods is a good way to build up some fitness. 

Running without stopping is very difficult for beginners or deconditioned individuals. Running is also a high-impact activity, so jumping into running every day will put too much impact stress on your musculoskeletal system. 

You can do HIIT with a variety of types of exercise such as swimming, elliptical machine some running, stair climbing, rowing, circuit training, etc., to prevent high-impact injuries as your body adjusts to exercising and you build up your cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular strength.

A person on a stationary bike.

Weight Loss

If your goal is weight loss, it’s generally best to focus on HIIT vs running.

HIIT has been shown to be more efficient at burning calories, and the “afterburn,” also known as excess post-oxygen consumption (EPOC), is higher after HIIT vs running or moderate-intensity continuous exercise.

This means that your metabolic rate increases for a longer period of time, and often more significantly, after HIIT vs running.

Additionally, HIIT workouts have been found to be especially beneficial for burning fat and losing weight and potentially boost your metabolic rate for up to 14 hours or more after your workout is over. 

This means that it is generally easier to lose fat and lose weight doing HIIT vs running or other moderate-intensity continuous exercises. Indeed, studies have found that HIIT exercise is a great way to improve body composition and lose weight.

Particularly if your goal is to decrease belly fat (visceral fat), it may be more effective to focus on HIIT vs running.

Keep in mind that both HIIT and running can burn calories and help you reach a healthy body weight and composition.

A person doing battleropes.

Should I Do Running or High-Intensity Interval Training?

There is no single answer as to whether it is better to do HIIT vs running or running vs HIIT because each type of exercise or workout style has its benefits, and not everyone will have the same fitness goals.

As a broad generalization, almost everyone can benefit from incorporating both high-intensity interval training and running into their workout routine.

Interested in combining HIIT and running? Check out our guide to some of the best HIIT treadmill workouts here.

People running up stairs.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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