HIIT recovery: How long till my next HIIT?

Written by Ana Holt

October 28, 2018

As an applied physiologist and past rowing coach, that was my question. Recommendations typically encourage the separation of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions by at least 48 h (11). But given there are so many ways to skin the cat with HIIT, and so many HIIT weapons (formats) and physiological target types (1), is it fair to think that each is going to require the same length of recovery time following? Adding to the puzzle might be how we actually quantify this recovery.  How do we know when an athlete is ready to perform another HIIT session given there are so many things that can be measured? As Dan Plews will describe for us in the HIIT Science rowing chapter and course, notwithstanding the importance of rowing technique and race tactics, the ability to generate absolute raw horsepower makes the lion’s share of the contribution towards a rower’s performance (Figure 1). So in the context of solving the puzzle that best builds a rower’s engine, figuring out the interplay between the HIIT weapon, target type, and subsequent recovery needed following is going to be critical.

Figure 1. The context we can use to understand the performance requirements of rowing and subsequent need for HIIT.

  Heart rate variability (HRV) has been gaining traction as a useful marker of recovery. HRV is a measure of the heart’s parasympathetic activity (think ‘feed and breed’), the branch of the nervous system responsible for telling the body to rest as opposed to being prepared to deal with stress (think sympathetic, ‘fight or flight’). We can use HRV as one way to assess recovery after exercise and measure the time it takes for HRV to return to pre-exercise levels. Typically, we see that HRV takes about 24 h to recover following low-intensity (< 70 % VO2max) sessions,  24-48 h following threshold-intensity (70-82 % VO2max) work and >48 h following HIIT (>82 % VO2max) (11). Generally speaking then, it seems the higher the exercise intensity, the longer the HRV recovery time usually is. However, research has established this trend across passive recovery periods without other training content, thereby limiting the practical relevance for high-performance programs. That’s not how our athletes train, with 2-4 sessions per day being more typical in our elite. With this background, we undertook a study in well-trained rowers (3) to determine the duration likely needed between HIIT sessions where a rower would be considered ‘recovered’, defined as how long it took for heart rate measures and performance to return to the pre-exercise state.
The study
To achieve this, a group of 13 highly-trained rowers (Figure 2) each performed three different training sessions on a rowing ergometer on separate weeks as follows:
  • 5 x 10 min, 4 min rest (threshold session)
  • 5 x 3.5 min, 4 min rest (long interval HIIT)
  • 10 x 30 s, 5 min rest (sprint interval training)

Figure 2. Our rowers performing HIIT.

  We measured the intensity of each of these sessions as a percentage of the rowers’ power at VO2peak and their blood lactate response on completion of the session. The sessions were also assessed using the training impulse (a product of the rowers’ session rating of perceived exertion and the duration of the session) and the duration of the session spent at high heart rates. A summary of the session demands are shown in Table 1. Table 1. Demands of each of the three HIIT sessions performed.
Threshold Session Long Interval HIIT Sprint Interval Training
% VO2peak power 79.6 ± 6.8 97.0 ± 5.4 156.4 ± 15.6
TRIMP 16.7 ± 7.9 10.6 ± 0.4 12.1 ± 1.3
sRPE 18.3 ± 0.9 19.0 ± 0.7 16.2 ± 1.7
Blood lactate (mmol·L-1) 8.2 ± 2.9 11.6 ± 2.5 11.8 ± 3.8
Time >90% HRmax (min) 30.5 ± 11.8 14.8 ± 2.1 2.7 ± 3.6
Time 80-90% HRmax (min) 18.1 ± 9.7 7.6 ± 3.7 7.2 ± 2.0
Mean (± standard deviation [SD]) session power as a percentage of rower’s power at VO2peak (% VO2peak power); Training impulse (TRIMP; calculated using RPE from a 15 point Borg’s scale with time in hours, not minute); session rating of perceived exertion (sRPE); duration of session spent above 90 % of maximal heart rate (time >90% HRmax) and between 80-90 % of maximal heart rate (time 80-90% HRmax). Every 10-14 h for 72 h following the HIIT session, we measured: peak and mean power from a 30 s maximal test on the rowing ergometer, HRV immediately post HIIT, at rest, and following 5 min of submaximal rowing (HRVrec), heart rate (HRex) during and heart rate recovery (HRR) post-5 min of submaximal rowing, as well as perceived recovery. To ensure findings were relevant to athletes and coaches, we assessed recovery throughout regular low-intensity and resistance training following the HIIT session. The training schedule was kept the same for each of the three key training sessions.
What we found
As shown in Figure 3, there were no statistically clear differences in HRV recovery time between any of the sessions, but recovery times for HRV following the HIIT sessions were faster than the > 48 h duration reported in other studies (11). Interestingly, HRV took the longest absolute time to return to pre-HIIT levels following the 5 x 10 min threshold session, which occurred after 29 ± 12 h (mean ± SD). Time for HRV recovery from the 5 x 3.5 min long interval and 10 x 30 s sprint training sessions took 16 ± 11 and 18 ± 10 h, respectively.

Figure 3. Percentage change in heart rate variability (HRV) from immediately prior (baseline; -1 h) to each high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session performed and throughout the following 72 h. The graph illustrates the post-exercise suppression of cardiac parasympathetic activity and its return to pre-HIIT levels.

  When comparing the different measures of recovery, we found they did not all tell the same story. The recovery time of HRV was longer than that of 30 s mean power following both the 5 x 10 min threshold session and 10 x 30 s sprint interval session. Recovery time of HRVrec was also longer than 30 s mean power, peak power, HRex, and HRR recovery times following the 5 x 10 min threshold session. As well, perceived recovery did not return to pre-HIIT levels during the 72 h measurement period following any of the HIIT sessions. The recovery time for measures taken following the three HIIT sessions, including individual responses, are shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Recovery time (mean +/- SD) of heart rate variability (HRV), HRV following 5 min of submaximal rowing (HRVrec), submaximal rowing heart rate (HRex), heart rate recovery (HRR), 30 s maximal rowing peak and mean power following three different high-intensity interval training sessions on the rowing ergometer. Individual data points (white circles and dashed lines) show the variability in recovery responses between rowers.

What it means
Research comparing HIIT recovery time to that of low-intensity has consistently shown longer recovery times following higher intensity sessions (4,5). Given the 5 x 10 min threshold session was performed at a lower intensity (17 and 76 percentage points of VO2max lower than the 5 x 3.5 min long interval and 10 x 30 s sprint interval sessions, respectively), with greater time spent at high heart rates (Table 1), these results suggest to us that recovery time following training can also be influenced substantially by the duration of time spent at moderate and high intensities, and not just simply the absolute intensity of the training session itself. Nevertheless, recovery durations we observed following the different HIIT sessions performed in this study do not necessarily conform with a 48 h separation recommendation between all types of HIIT sessions. We saw that even when training is continued throughout the post-HIIT recovery period, the time taken to recover to a pre-HIIT state can occur anywhere between 6-38 h depending on the HIIT session, the individual, and recovery measure assessed (Figure 4). This highlights a crucial point:

“If we truly want to optimize the recovery duration between HIIT, we must consider the individual”.

Another important outcome of our study was that recovery time following HIIT seemed to depend on the measure we assessed. Our findings indicate that the recovery of performance occurs before the recovery of cardiac parasympathetic activity. Indeed, perceived recovery did not return to pre-HIIT levels during the 72-h measurement period. As regular training was continued throughout the 72 h period assessed (to replicate a real-world training environment), and the first programmed rest day occurred after the 72 h measurement period, the accumulation of training load throughout this period may explain why perceived recovery remained elevated, as psychometric measures have been shown to be more sensitive to training load than physiological assessments (9). With this in mind, we believe it is important to not only assess performance but also cardiac parasympathetic activity and wellness measures when assessing recovery and readiness-to-train, as the short-term return of performance does not necessarily mean an athlete has completely recovered. This is particularly important in programming considerations, as the repeated performance of threshold and HIIT sessions without appropriate recovery may lead to the continuous suppression of cardiac parasympathetic activity and reduced physical performance (7).
Key practical outcomes:
  • Recovery from HIIT does not always require 48 h, so subsequent HIIT can be programmed earlier depending on the recovery status of the individual.
  • Both long duration moderate to high-intensity threshold sessions, as well as long interval HIIT and SIT, were equally taxing from a recovery standpoint.
  • A combination of performance, cardiac parasympathetic (i.e., HR), and perceptual/wellness measures are recommended monitoring variables that can be used to assess recovery from HIIT.
  • An individualised approach to assessing recovery is advised, given the numerous factors that influence recovery and wide variation shown between individual athlete recovery time to HIIT
  About the author: Ana Holt is currently completing a PhD in the application of power meters in rowing with Victoria University and the Victorian Institute of Sport, while working part-time as a sport scientist at the Victorian Institute of Sport. Follow her on Twitter: @Ana_C_Holt References:
  1. Buchheit, M and Laursen, PB. High-intensity interval training, solutions to the programming puzzle. Part II: Anaerobic energy, neuromuscular load and practical applications. Sport Med 43: 927–954, 2013.
  2. Hautala, A, Tulppo, MP, Makikallio, TH, Laukkanen, R, Nissila, S, and Huikuri, H V. Changes in cardiac autonomic regulation after prolonged maximal exercise. Clin Physiol 21: 238–245, 2001.Available from: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1046/j.1365-2281.2001.00309.x
  3. Holt, AC, Plews, DJ, Oberlin-Brown, K, Merien, F, and Kilding, AE. Cardiac parasympathetic and anaerobic performance recovery after high-intensity exercise in rowers. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 1–26, 2018.Available from: https://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/ijspp.2018-0200
  4. Mourot, L, Bouhaddi, M, Tordi, N, Rouillon, JD, and Regnard, J. Short- and long-term effects of a single bout of exercise on heart rate variability: Comparison between constant and interval training exercises. Eur J Appl Physiol 92: 508–517, 2004.
  5. Niewiadomski, W, Gasiorowska, A, Krauss, B, Mróz, A, and Cybulski, G. Suppression of heart rate variability after supramaximal exertion. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging 27: 309–319, 2007.
  6. Perna, FM and McDowell, SL. Role of psychological stress in cortisol recovery from exhaustive exercise among elite athletes. Int J Behav Med 2: 13–26, 1995.
  7. Plews, DJ, Laursen, PB, Kilding, AE, and Buchheit, M. Heart rate variability in elite triathletes, is variation in variability the key to effective training A case comparison. Eur J Appl Physiol 112: 3729–3741, 2012.
  8. Samuels, C. Sleep, recovery, and performance: the new frontier in high- performance athletics. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am 20: 149–159, 2009.
  9. Saw, AE, Main, LC, and Gastin, PB. Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. Br J Sport Med 0: 1–13, 2015.
  10. Seiler, S, Haugen, O, and Kuffel, E. Autonomic recovery after exercise in trained athletes: Intensity and duration effects. Med Sci Sports Exerc 39: 1366–1373, 2007.
  11. Stanley, J, Peake, JM, and Buchheit, M. Cardiac parasympathetic reactivation following exercise: implications for training prescription. Sport Med 43: 1259–1277, 2013.

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Have you ever thought about what tools are best for telling us when to apply HIIT the next time? How do we know when we will handle it again without driving our athlete into overtraining or injury risk? If you’ve read our ​book​ or taken our ​course​, you’ll know about how important this variable will be when we look to design the ideal program. Both heart rate variability and subjective comments were key factors we discussed. But is one better than the other?
Maybe. We’ve stumbled upon an incredible study that might just help clear our thoughts on the matter in terms of athlete readiness and when to apply HIIT again in the future to maximize performance potential. The blog post written by ​Diego Hilgemberg Figueiredo​ compares training plans guided by either HRV or subjective inner feelings. The findings may surprise you. Check out a sneak peak in the graphic below as to why heart rate and HRV can’t always bring us certainty around readiness to perform. They’re good, and helpful, but you must know your context! Combine it with feel to get the most power in your programming.


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