The 6 Best Ways to Pace Yourself During a HIIT Workout

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Most people go into a HIIT workout too fast, but starting out slow and gradually building intensity is a great pacing strategy.
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Enthusiasm at the start of a workout is a beautiful thing, but if you're doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that involves all-out effort interspersed with brief moments of recovery, it's easy to go into the workout too fast —and start sputtering well before you're done.

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Competition might increase your risk of that energy plummet, too. For example, in a class like CrossFit or Orange Theory, trying to outpace your fellow gym-goers can be motivating, but it may also prevent you from listening to your body and brain asking for a slower pace.

What's more, whether you're in friendly competition mode or not, leaving it all on the gym floor could make recovery tougher because that wave of exhaustion when you finish can be hard to come back from — and may even impact everyday function.

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How can you nail your HIIT workout while still leaving some gas in your tank? Here are six expert-backed tips to keep in mind.

1. Start Slow, Finish Strong

The biggest mistake many people make with HIIT is coming in too hot, according to Sam Karl, CPT, co-founder of HIIT-focused Kamps Fitness. In part, that may be because some of these workouts seem pretty short at about 15 minutes. But don't let the timeframe fool you — that can be a ​long​ quarter-hour stretch when you start dragging only five minutes into the workout.

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"Save your maximum effort for the last couple rounds in the last few minutes," Karl tells LIVESTRONG.com. "That's where you really go all out, rather than maximum effort the entire time."

This doesn't mean you need to take it easy most of the time, he adds. Instead, think of your pace as a gradual build up so you get more intense with each round.

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2. Make Warming Up a Priority

Because HIIT is so short, it might seem like a few minutes of warming up doesn't matter, but that assumption is like a recipe for mid-workout exhaustion, Karl says.

"The best approach would be to warm up for 10 minutes if you can, because the better your body is prepped and ready to perform, the more consistent your energy will be," he says. "Remember the goal isn't to finish just a portion of the workout, it's to finish it all."

3. Track Your Heart Rate and Exertion Level

The simplest way to gauge intensity is through the "talk test," according to Rocky Snyder, CSCS, author of strength training guide ​Return to Center.​ If you can say a short sentence of about six to eight words before having to take another breath, chances are that you're at the appropriate workout level, he tells LIVESTRONG.com.

"If you can hold a conversation without needing to breathe more, then your intensity is too low," he says. "If you can say only two to three words without having to take a breath, then you are way too high and need to bring it down a bit."

If you want to see this reflected in your data, Snyder suggests tracking your heart rate. Using a heart rate monitor not only allows you to see your workout intensity, but it also creates a data set you can look at to mark progress over multiple HIIT sessions.

For example, if you can do more work while staying at the same heart rate — Snyder suggests subtracting your age from 180 as a target heart rate — that means your conditioning is improving over time.

4. Perform a Balance Test

Another way to determine if your pace is right is to use one of your rest sessions as a balance test, Snyder says.

"The nervous system can be a great guide in determining work intensity," he says. "If you go above and beyond your capability, your balance will be affected. Just stand on one leg to see if you're working out too hard."

If you're very wobbly, he suggests taking the intensity level down a notch, and then repeating that same test on the next rest day to see if the quality of your balance improves.

5. Switch to HILIT

Although HIIT includes numerous types of motions, it often has some form of jumping as an element, such as box jumps and burpees.

But that doesn't need to be the case — even when you still want an intense workout. In fact, switching to high-intensity low-impact training (HILIT) can be just as effective, says Cordelia Carter, MD, who specializes in sports orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Health.

"Just because you're not jumping doesn't mean you're not working as hard," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Plus, HILIT moves can be especially helpful if you're just starting out and need more conditioning. It can help you build endurance and strength, and most HIIT moves that involve jumping can be modified for low-impact."

For instance, instead of box jumps, you can do step-ups. Or instead of squat jumps or jumping jacks, you can do air squats.

6. Pay Attention to the Present Moment

When you're going through a series of complex motions — looking at you, kettlebell snatches — it can be tough to keep checking in with your body, but that's essential when it comes to both form and pace, says Reda Elmardi, CSCS, founder of The Gym Goat. Also, there's a tendency for your mind to wander away, and that can make it even more challenging.

"Try to stay in the present moment, not what's ahead," he tells LIVESTRONG.com. "When you're doing HIIT, you shouldn't be thinking about anything else other than how hard you're working. Concentrate on the task at hand and how your body is moving."

If you can't quite click into awareness mode, he suggests always coming back to the breath — it's a yoga, tai chi and meditation technique that works well even in HIIT.

Elmardi's hack is to take a deep breath and hold for a few seconds before exhaling. Bonus: It can take some of the stress and muscle tension out of the workout, too.

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