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Designing your Interval Workouts

By Alan Frost, updated November, 2013

man rides mountain-bikeInterval training refers to workouts where you alternate between intensive and less intensive training. For instance, alternating burst of sprinting with slow jogging would be an example of an interval workout.

Interval workouts are an intensive form of exercise, which are great fitness and weight loss tools. The intensive part of interval training is anaerobic while the recovery periods are aerobic.

Benefits of Interval Training

Interval training is a great way to improve your aerobic capacity (cardiovascular fitness), lose weight, gain speed, improve lactic acid tolerance, build lean muscle tissue, etc. High intensity training may be more effective than regular, steady pace cardios for weight loss, due to its effect on the metabolism - it will continue to burn calories for many hours after the workout is over. Additionally, most sports require speed and involve alternating between very intensive and less intensive periods (e.g. football, soccer, basketball, tennis, etc.), making interval training particularly useful. As mentioned previously however, interval workouts should not altogether replace cardio but rather supplement it, so as to ensure optimal health benefits.

Factors to Consider in your Interval Workouts

This is a very intense form of training so it must be approached carefully. Due to its high intensity, the chance of injury is higher.

Furthermore, because interval training uses intensive anaerobic bursts, it burns a great deal of calories and uses your body's stored glucose and glycogen (i.e. sugar in the blood and muscles) to generate energy instead of oxygen, which is used in slower-paced training. Following training, your body then has to replenish these stores from the food you consume. This is a good thing, but it does impose one limitation. If interval training duration is too long, your body will begin to cannibalize your muscle mass for energy, since the exercise intensity is too high to burn your fat stores. So, for this reason, a workout should probably be 15-30 minutes and not longer. Warm-ups are also mandatory; 10 minutes is a good warm-up duration.

Beginner Interval Workout

Beginners must take particular care in respect to injuries, even more so if they are not used to playing intensive sports. Start with shorter durations and work your way up slowly, all the while paying attention to your body. Warm-ups are even more important. Checking with your doctor first is always a good idea.

I would also recommend using a form of exercise you are already familiar with. So, if you normally like to bike, start interval training on the bike. This may seem obvious, but you do not want to introduce too many new factors into the equation. If you are not used to any exercise at all, then I would recommend that you start with steady pace cardiovascular work for a couple of months before even attempting interval training (resistance training would be useful too). Pick a cardio form which is low impact, e.g. bike, stair machine, elliptical, so as to minimize the chance of injury when you begin your interval workout. Check out this article on Cardiovascular Workouts and Equipment to learn about the different options. As I mention in that article, overall for most people, I would recommend the stair machine. In all cases, make sure you have perfect form.

Here is a sample beginner interval workout:

  • 10 minute light cardio warm-up.
  • Stretch for a few minutes.
  • Moderate intensity (about 50%-70% of your max) for 60 seconds (e.g. jog or the equivalent for your chosen machine/exercise).
  • Low intensity period of 120 seconds (e.g. walking or the equivalent).
  • Moderate intensity 60 sec.
  • Low intensity 120 sec.
  • High intensity burst at almost 100% for 30 seconds (e.g. sprinting or the equivalent).
  • Low intensity 2-3 minutes.
  • Alternate the high-low intensity as above until you complete a 15 minute workout (not counting the warm-up).
  • At the end, cool down for 5 minutes, e.g. by walking slowly (or the equivalent), and then stretching.

If at any point you feel faint or ill, stop immediately. Make sure that you learn to exercise at the right pace, so that you can actually complete the full 30 second high intensity burst.

Intermediate and Advanced Interval Workouts

running001

As you get better, you can start experimenting with any of the following:

  • Gradually increase the intensive periods to 60 seconds.
  • Gradually increase workout duration to 30 minutes (not counting the warmup).
  • Gradually decrease low intensity period so it is twice the high intensity period or equal to the moderate intensity period.

So an intermediate workout might be:

  • Warm-up 5-10 minutes.
  • Stretching.
  • Moderate intensity 60 seconds.
  • Low intensity 60 seconds.
  • Moderate intensity 60 seconds.
  • Low intensity 60 seconds.
  • High intensity 45 seconds.
  • Low intensity 90 seconds.
  • Repeat high and low intensity until you complete a 20-25 minute workout.

An advanced workout might be:

  • Warm-up 5-10 minutes.
  • Stretching.
  • Moderate intensity 60 seconds.
  • Low intensity 60 seconds.
  • Moderate intensity 60 seconds.
  • Low intensity 60 seconds.
  • High intensity 60 seconds.
  • Low intensity 120 seconds.
  • Repeat high and low intensity until you complete a 30 minute workout.


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