Interval Training- Maximizing Your Workout
Working as a massage therapist, I often get asked questions about exercise. There are three basic components to an exercise program; cardiovascular exercise, strength training and stretching. Interval training is a specific type of cardiovascular exercise that employs short bursts of exertion followed by short recovery periods. This strategy allows one to achieve exercise goals much quicker than traditional forms of exercise.
High-level athletes have used this method of exercise for years, but there is now a body of research to support its use by a larger sector of the population. Its benefits include reduced training time, shorter and less frequent workouts to achieve similar goals, and increased weight loss when compared to traditional aerobic training. It also promotes physiological changes that increase muscle mass, heart rate recovery, strength, power and speed. Now just to warn you, the world of exercise has a lot of BIG WORDS due to the extensive research that has been done. So brace yourself for a few fancy terms, and their corresponding acronyms.
Just what is interval training? An interval-training workout is one in which you alternate periods of hard work with periods of easy work. You can use any mode of exercise that you enjoy to perform intervals. You can run, row, cycle, swim or employ whatever exercise you prefer.
With traditional aerobic training you always stay within your aerobic threshold, meaning that you don’t get out of breath during your workout. You’ve probably heard advice before indicating that you should stay at a level of exertion that allows you to converse easily with someone. This is good guidance if you are happy with your present fitness levels, or need to play it safe due to heart or respiratory concerns. However, if you are trying to improve your cardiovascular health, or lose weight through exercise, even a conservative interval program will yield quicker results than aerobic training. One of the unexpected findings from interval training studies is in the area of Post Exercise Caloric Expenditure (PECE). Interval training appears to rev up our metabolism causing our bodies to burn fat hours after our workout, improving fat mobilization and utilization. This is where big gains are made in weight loss over traditional aerobic training.
True interval training uses specific heart rates for exercise intensity, and is based on your percentage of body fat and maximum oxygen uptake capacity (V02 max), which is a laboratory measurement. This is fine if you are an Olympic athlete, but the average Joe can still benefit from intervals performed at a more moderate level, without going high-tech.
So how does one begin an interval program? The best way to proceed is to use a Swedish system called Fartlek, which means, “speed play”. Unlike traditional interval training, Fartlek does not involve accurately measured intervals. Instead, intervals are based according to the needs and perceptions of the participant. In other words, how you feel determines the length and speed of each interval. For example, if it is your habit to walk 2 miles per day in 30 minutes, you can easily increase the intensity of your walk by picking up the pace every few minutes and then returning to your usual speed. A great trick is to tell yourself that you’ll run say from the blue car to the house on the corner, and then drop the pace to recover. When you first start Fartlek training, each interval can be a negotiation with yourself, depending on how strong or energetic you happen to feel that day. This helps to break up the boredom and drudgery that often comes from doing the same thing day after day. Your intervals don’t need to be long. Bursts as short as fifteen seconds have been shown to measurably improve athletes’ VO2max. One general rule to follow is – never begin your next interval until you have recovered from your last exertion. As with any workout, be sure to include warm-up and cool-down periods before and after each session.
Is interval training right for you? You are probably the best judge of that. If you are doing Fartlek properly, then you are listening to your body, which is by far the best way to approach exercise (or life in general). It is wise however, to check with your doctor before entering a rigorous exercise program, especially if you have any health concerns. Begin cautiously and then build from that base. This is the best way to prevent injury, and give your body time to adapt. At the performance end, interval training will increase the overall efficiency of your body, and allow you to run faster. At the fat burning end, benefits are garnered in the areas of post exercise calorie burning, and even appetite suppression. Intervals require less time to achieve better results and are more interesting because of the varied pace, so why not try this method of training in a few of your workouts?
Click here to see my next post where I outline a more scientific method to approach interval training, for those overachievers out there. As well, there is a wealth of information on the web on this subject. Just type in the term “interval training” or “Fartlek”, and you will be off and running!