High but not moderate-intensity endurance training increases pain tolerance: a randomised trial

Abstract

Purpose

To examine the effect of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) compared to volume-matched moderate-intensity continuous training (CONT) on muscle pain tolerance and high-intensity exercise tolerance.

Methods

Twenty healthy adults were randomly assigned (1:1) to either 6 weeks of HIIT [6–8 × 5 min at halfway between lactate threshold and maximal oxygen uptake (50%Δ)] or volume-matched CONT (~60–80 min at 90% lactate threshold) on a cycle ergometer. A tourniquet test to examine muscle pain tolerance and two time to exhaustion (TTE) trials at 50%Δ to examine exercise tolerance were completed pre- and post-training; the post-training TTE trials were completed at the pre-training 50%Δ (same absolute-intensity) and the post-training 50%Δ (same relative-intensity).

Results

HIIT and CONT resulted in similar improvements in markers of aerobic fitness (all P ≥ 0.081). HIIT increased TTE at the same absolute- and relative-intensity as pre-training (148 and 43%, respectively) to a greater extent than CONT (38 and −4%, respectively) (both P ≤ 0.019). HIIT increased pain tolerance (41%, P < 0.001), whereas CONT had no effect (−3%, P = 0.720). Changes in pain tolerance demonstrated positive relationships with changes in TTE at the same absolute- (r = 0.44, P = 0.027) and relative-intensity (r = 0.51, P = 0.011) as pre-training.

Conclusion

The repeated exposure to a high-intensity training stimulus increases muscle pain tolerance, which is independent of the improvements in aerobic fitness induced by endurance training, and may contribute to the increase in high-intensity exercise tolerance following HIIT.

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Abbreviations

CNS:

Central nervous system

CONT:

Moderate-intensity continuous training

HIIT:

High-intensity interval training

HR:

Heart rate

[La]:

Blood lactate concentration

LT:

Lactate threshold

LTP:

Lactate turn-point

MVC:

Maximal voluntary contraction

post-abs:

Same absolute-intensity as pre-training

post-rel:

Same relative-intensity as pre-training

RPE:

Rating of perceived exertion

TTE:

Time to exhaustion

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2}\) :

Oxygen uptake

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\hbox{max} }\) :

Maximal oxygen uptake

\(\dot{W}_{ \hbox{max} }\) :

Peak power output

50%∆:

Intensity equivalent to halfway between LT and \(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\hbox{max} }\)

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to express gratitude to all research participants.

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Authors

Contributions

The study was designed by TJO, MGM and JC; TJO and MGM collected and analysed the data; TJO, MGM, JC and KH all contributed to preparation of the manuscript. The final manuscript was approved by all authors. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas J. O’Leary.

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The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Additional information

Communicated by Guido Ferretti.

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O’Leary, T.J., Collett, J., Howells, K. et al. High but not moderate-intensity endurance training increases pain tolerance: a randomised trial. Eur J Appl Physiol 117, 2201–2210 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-017-3708-8

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Keywords

  • Central nervous system
  • Exercise tolerance
  • High-intensity interval training
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Muscle pain