What Interval Training Can Do for You

Want greater results from your workout in less time?  Want to burn more fat, build more muscle, and speed up your weight loss? Interval training may be for you.  Studies suggest that adding high intensity bursts of exercise into your usual cardio workout will do all that and more.

What is Interval Training?

Most people hit their stride on their favorite cardio activity and maintain the same pace, speed, resistance and altitude throughout the entire workout.  With interval training, they'd instead alternate low-intensity exercise with high-intensity exercise for short intervals.  The fast-slow-fast-slow pace keeps muscles guessing and burns fat faster than continuous-paced cardio. For runners, an interval training session might include running-sprinting-running-sprinting. For cyclers, it would pedaling hard and fast alternated with slower pedaling.  Many cardio machines have pre-set programs that determine intervals for you.

Why does it work?

Jan Helgerud, an exercise expert at the Norwegian University of Science says,  "High-intensity interval training is twice as effective as normal exercise.  When compared to people on a normal exercise routine, like jogging, research has shown those doing interval training can double their endurance, improve their oxygen use and strength by more than 10 percent, and their speed by at least 5 percent. Even studies in the elderly and in heart patients found they had better oxygen use and fitness after doing interval training."

Experts say intense bursts of activity are what the body needs to build stronger muscles. Traditional workouts don't push muscles hard enough.  Stephen Bailey, a sports sciences expert at the University of Exeter says, "A lot of the benefits from exercise are due to a stress response. If you disturb your muscles, there's an imbalance created, and your body will start signaling pathways that result in adjustments."  Bailey explains, "Intense bursts of exercise help the body to convert one type of muscle fiber into another type that uses oxygen more efficiently and is capable of exercising a lot longer. You've exercised at such a high intensity that you're going to create a massive disturbance in your muscles." This intensity revs up your metabolism and makes your body burn fat and carbohydrates for several hours after exercise.

How do you add Interval Training into your workout?

Helgerud recommends people try four sessions of high-intensity effort lasting four minutes each, with three minutes of lower-intensity effort in between.  Other sport scientists say high-intensity intervals can be as short as 8 seconds, followed by 20 seconds of recovery.  Experiment with different programs until you find what works for you.

Start your usual cardio workout with a warm-up interval. Then, set a workout pace that's hard enough so you know you're exercising but not so hard as to exhaust you.  Add your high-intensity interval by bumping up to a fast paced effort, pushing as hard as you can without losing your breath. Slow back down for a recovery interval.  Repeat these fast-slow-fast-slow intervals for the duration of your workout.  How long? That depends on your fitness level and goals, but researchers say interval training gives you more bang for your workout buck so don't have to work out as long.

Finish with a cool down interval and stretch. Most interval training studies have been performed in young, healthy adults. Consult a doctor and personal trainer before starting out.