Get More from Your Body in Less Time A Beginners Guide to Interval Training

Updated: June 27, 2012

Mark Kennedy

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This is a guest post by Mark Kennedy of Healthynomics.

Has your amount of free-time for working out been declining like a common share of Facebook after its IPO?

If you ask anyone why they do not engage in an exercise program, research tells us the most common response coming out of their mouths will be, “I don’t have time”.

You juggle family life, a demanding job, hanging with friends and much more. Time is a scarce commodity. How are you supposed to regularly fit a quality workout into your daily routine? Heck, some days you’re lucky to have 20 minutes to yourself!

Fortunately for you, in as little as 20 minutes, a quality workout that will increase your aerobic fitness is within reach. The catch - you have to be willing to put in some effort and get out of your comfort zone.

Are you ready?

The Options

Some people manage to burn the candle on both ends and fit in an hour workout a few times per week. Being fit is important, but getting up at 5 AM to grind out a 90-minute ride is not for you.

You are left then with two options:

1. Give in and miss your workout knowing that if you can’t fit in a long workout, there is no point. Right?

2. Make use of even as little as 20 spare minutes to maintain your fitness level or perhaps, take your speed and endurance to a new level!

I hope you have chosen option two and if you did, I am going to introduce you to a type of workout that is fast, furious and most importantly…time efficient! This type of workout can be extremely challenging.

Your reward however, is a speedy sweat that offers many of the same benefits as an aerobic session of much longer duration.

Think of it like ripping a band-aid off quickly. It hurts for a second, but it’s over before you know it! Are you up for it?

Enter Interval Training

”The usual excuse of “lack of time” for not doing enough exercise is blown away by new research published in The Journal of Physiology.” – ScienceDaily (Mar. 11, 2010)

Interval training is a powerful and efficient way of getting fit. Fitness encompasses a few different components, but in this article I’ll use it interchangeably with aerobic capacity – the ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles. Aerobic capacity is vital for endurance sport success.

I focus primarily on the benefit of aerobic capacity in this article, but other interval training benefits include lowering your risk of developing type-2 diabetes and increased tolerance to the build-up of lactic acid in your muscles (i.e. you can go longer and faster).

Interval training involves alternating periods of intense effort followed by a period of recovery (moderate to low effort). Most competitive athletes make use of interval training to enhance their endurance and speed. Fortunately, interval training also works for the rest of us and has a place within a well-balanced exercise program.

Several studies over the past few years validate the benefits of interval training – even at sub-maximal efforts. Science, at least not yet, does not prescribe the perfect mix of longer sustained workouts and interval sessions.

Consequently, forgetting your longer more sustained workouts would be a mistake. In order to become a better runner, you still need to run. A lot. A long run for example, is great for improving many aspects of fitness and health. What interval training does is provide a more time efficient way to achieve many of the same benefits - allowing you to become a faster runner, cyclist or whatever your endurance sport may be.

If you’re short on time, an interval training session is your ticket.

What activities can I do with an interval workout?

Pretty much any activity that works a large muscle group in a repetitive manner will work. Running, walking, rowing, stair climbing, cycling, swimming – there are many options.

What equipment do I need?

There are lots of gimmicky pieces of fitness equipment introduced to the market every day. The beauty of interval training is that it requires none of them.

If you run, you just need your running shoes. If you cycle, you just need a bike. You get the picture. Other than a simple watch to track your interval and rest times, you’re ready to go.

For those of you looking to get more technical, a heart rate monitor can be a useful tool. It will let you monitor how hard you work during your intervals, based on how high your heart rate reaches.

Personally, the perceived exertion method for monitoring my efforts works for me. Let’s say that you put your physical exertion on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being your absolute maximum effort - the moment you feel like you might just vomit! Let’s stay below a 10 and work at a level between 7-9.

As a gauge of working hard enough, you should not be able to have a conversation during or right after your big effort.

What does an interval workout look like?

Here is a sample stationary bike interval workout to get you started (total workout time = 26-30 minutes):
  1. Warm-up - pedal at a slow pace for 5 minutes.
  2. Pick it up - go hard for 1 minute!
  3. Recover - pedal at a slow pace for one minute to rest up for the next interval.
  4. Repeat this cycle 8-10 times.
  5. Cool down - pedal easy for 5 minutes to gradually bring your heart rate down.
To give you a better visual of what your effort (and heart rate) will look like throughout an interval workout, check out one of my own running interval workouts below.

A few points to note:

  1. WARM-UP - Gradual increase in heart rate.
  2. EFFORT - 4 intervals marked by the 4 flat peaks.
  3. RECOVERY - recovery periods are represented by each drop in heart rate following each flat peak.
Easy warm-up, big effort, recover, big effort, recover, big effort, recover, big effort, recover….cool down. Simple!

Further Reading

Gretchen Reynolds, writer of the New York Times, “Phys Ed”, has written some great pieces on interval training. Here are two useful articles to check out: Interested in some of the research behind the benefits of interval training? Start here:

Final Words

Interval training is not just for elite athletes. Beyond time efficiency, interval training has other health and performance benefits. Continue to perform your longer runs or rides, but mix it up with the odd interval session. Use interval training ideally once or twice per week to supplement your longer workouts or when you are pinched for time.

Interval training is intense and increases the chance of injury. Be prepared and as always, check in with your physician prior to starting any new workout routine. Now get out there and rip that band-aid off!

What are your experiences with interval training? Let us know in the comments below.


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