If you’ve ever had a training plan for a long-distance run, you’ll know that interval training is an integral part of improving your performance.
We’ve all heard of high intensity interval training (HIIT), but the beauty of plain old interval training (IT) is that you get low intensity and/or recovery periods.
And it’s nothing new. IT has been been used by athletes for decades, helping them train for a longer amount of time and work at a higher intensity than they would usually be able to sustain in one bout.
So why is it so beneficial and should we be including it in our own workout schedules?
We put the questions to two experts: Anthony Mayatt, personal trainer and owner of Breathe Fitness and Professor Ken Fox, who is researching physical activity and health at the University of Bristol.
Why is interval training becoming a bit of a buzzword?
Mayatt said there are two reasons interval training is increasing in popularity: firstly, because fitness works on trends and the more people that do it, the trendier it becomes and secondly. people are now realising you don’t need to spend hours in the gym each day.
“Shorter, more intelligent workouts create better results,” he said.
Professor Fox said the boost is also down to the fields of cycling, triathlons and running growing, firing a new need for this type of training.
“Methods which have proved successful with elite athletes are now filtering down to the masses who are interested in improving their performances,” he said.
“Word has got out that this type of training is necessary to get quicker.”
So how is interval training different to HIIT?
With HIIT you are working at 100% capacity for a very short period of time and the workouts should last no longer than 20 minutes, said Mayatt.
But with interval training, they last longer because you aren’t working to an intensity quite as high the whole time.
Classic training will usually mean 90% of your maximum output, in order to do more intervals.
What are the benefits of interval training?
“Interval training burns more calories over a shorter period and is a great cardiovascular workout as it works the heart and lungs as well as the muscles,” said Mayatt.
“Steady-state exercise burns calories over a longer period and tends to not works the muscles as well and it is constant repetition of the same movement.”
Prof Fox said research shows training in intervals can help build protein, strengthen muscles and tendons and raise our metabolism.
But, he added: “I guess the problem is that it is very hard work and requires real dedication to keep it going especially HIIT which is downright painful.
“The people who are likely to get most health benefit are least likely to do it. Furthermore high intensity work should not be attempted until the body has shown good adjustment to exercise at lower intensity.”
What happens to the body during interval training?
Mayatt explained that our bodies go through EPOC (that’s Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) which means that the body uses up more energy to try and return to normal.
In the high intensity periods, Fox said we are stretching our body to maximum aerobic capacity – the point where our muscles are unable to utilise more oxygen.
When we’re working at this capacity, our bodies call upon other energy systems in the muscles – our anaerobic metabolism – which soon brings fatigue.
In the recovery periods, Fox said we are getting rid of CO2 (which causes fatigue) and bringing energy supplies to the muscles so that they’re ready to work harder again in the next bout of high intensity work.
“For the serious exerciser who wants to make a big difference to performance, then some form of interval training to get the body to adapt to higher intensity work is critical,” said Fox.
Advice On Getting Started
Do not overdo it. Interval train a couple of times a week mixed with your resistance and steady-state cardio exercise. Doing too much with cause the body to overtrain and you’ll be exhausted.
Be creative with your workouts. Find the exercises you like – so if you like the bike, for example, then work on that at a high level mixed with a slow recovery period.
You can also just do bodyweight intervals: Squats, lunges, push ups, burpees, star jumps are all simple exercises that can be performed into a full-body interval session mixed with recovery periods.
Make sure you warm up and cool down properly as the body is put through added stress doing this so you will want to prevent injury as much as possible.
Drink plenty of water before and after as you’ll lose a lot through sweat and heat.