June 04, 2007

Interval Training: Sorry, It's Very Good For You

Remember a while back Crabby wrote a nagging post about how you might want to start doing some strength training? Well, this is going to be a similar post, on interval training.

It will only hurt for about thirty seconds or so, then you'll feel much better afterwards.

So, are you warmed up and ready to go?

Interval training, as you may have heard, requires short bursts of "very intense" exercise, followed by "recovery" periods. (These "recovery" periods do not, however, require supportive meetings in church basements, bad coffee, or turning anything over to a higher power. Just gasping for air and cursing).

Here's how it works:

After you've warmed up a bit, you go for it: you haul ass and go all out for a short period of time. How long? From about 30 seconds to several minutes, depending on whom you ask. Crabby recommends you start with 30 seconds, because, hell, if some experts say that's enough, then that's good enough for Crabby.

So if you generally do brisk walking for exercise, then during this 30 seconds you would run. Or ascend a steep nasty hill at a fast pace. Or at least waddle with much more velocity than usual and swing your arms in a more frantic fashion.

If you normally run, you sprint. You get the idea.

Then, after you start to feel somewhat miserable, but before you actually perish from exhaustion, you slow down again. Hooray, it's time for the recovery part!

But not forever. Not long enough for your heart rate to go all the way down to resting again. And, unfortunately, you have to repeat this whole cycle several times. Again, the advice varies on how often. At least one of the studies mentioned below said 4-6 times, so we'll go with that. Let's say four. (Others advocate eight, but screw them. We don't want to do that many).

Why on earth would you do interval training, other than masochism?

Well, for one thing, you get a tremendous training effect in a very short amount of time. One study, for example, found that four to six 30-second bursts of "all out" cycling interspersed with 4 minutes of recovery equaled the benefits of 90-120 minutes of continuous moderate-intensity cycling each day.

Coolio. That would save a lot of time.

However, there's more to it than the time savings. Want to know some of the great things interval training can do? How about: burn fat, build stronger lungs and heart, add more mitochondria to muscles (this is a good thing, even though mitochondria sound scary), build lactic acid tolerance (also good), and increase the release of human growth hormone, making you feel young and frisky. (Read this article and the research cited therein if you think Crabby is just making this sh*t up).

Crabby needs to get better about interval training. She does it, sort of, unofficially. She maxes out when the music gets good, or a hill comes along, or a mean dog lunges at her. But given all the nifty benefits she could get by doing it less haphazardly, she resolves to get a bit more serious about figuring out a Program and a Schedule.

Some caveats:

Don't do this if you're just starting out exercising or if you have any health problems. It's intense; that's the point. Check with your doctor, blah, blah, blah.

Don't do it every workout. Start with once a week.

This also might be a good time to think about a heart rate monitor to track your exertion, so you don't kill yourself.

And here are a few random sources of more information on interval training; you can probably find many more through google, your local library or bookstore, or by asking that cute buffed trainer at the gym you've been wanting to chat up anyway.

Is this something you already do? Something you'd consider... when hell freezes over? Anything else on your minds? Crabby loves comments.


  1. Hmm, I'm considering it. Now that I've gotten into a nice routine of being able to jog for 30 minutes without having to walk nor feeling out of breath (what gives out first are my legs, not my heart/lungs), I'm wondering what's best: running for a longer period, or start doing intervals? I admit I've never done interval training, so I'm curious about it.

    Yep, maybe it's indeed time I satisfy that craving for 'knowledge' and 'new experience'.

  2. I am not sure I am completely sold on this concept. I am have almost completely quit conventional working out and almost strictly do Yoga. I do Power Yoga but, that is a steady heart rate progression. I also walk leisurely and ride bikes leisurely. I am so done with torchering myself. I did that for years. I have injuries to prove it and I worked with personal trainers and got injured! So now it is Yoga!! That's it for me:).

  3. I do this sort of thing informally. Maybe once per biking session especially if I'm on my stationary bike.
    If I'm on an actual bike ride I'll do it only if I see a chance to coast for a really long time afterward.

    The following isn't my business, but I'll ask anyway. How's your MSO's mom doing?

  4. It works well.
    I did this while learning to run and the whole walk a few minutes run a few with lengthening the runny bit and shortening the walky bits has gotten me up to running/walking ~6Km. I still walk bits in the middle to break it up and feel all the better for it. I'm not one who can go all out for a long time, (heck a few months ago I never thought I'd be running)but it really makes a huge difference in a short amount of time.
    I do it to feel good and healthy so it works for me...

  5. I really don't consider it a good workout unless I actually break a good sweat, and as I've increased my conditioning over the last several months, that gets harder. So at this point I'm switching between the elliptical, which always burns a ton of calories and makes me feel like I've had a real workout, and doing double intervals on the treadmill.

    What are double intervals, you ask? Well, I just made the term up on the spot. ;) Basically I put it on the hill program on a fast walk, and then every time the cycle starts over, I increase the speed to a run for about 2 minutes. And I do a long cardio (mostly because I'm an endorphine junkie) so I get about 5 cycles in and then a nice long cooldown. By the end of it, I can tell I've worked out.


  6. Hey, I'm supposed to be writing an article on this right now. I guess I'll just steal this one! Ha, kidding. Just wanted to say good morning, and here I find you ahead of the curve. I do interval bike riding - push it five minutes and then chill. Like Samantha, I'm not sure there's enough evidence prove this is useful in the long run but my calorie count does go up when I do it. I use a heart monitor to count.

  7. I do this on many of my indoor workouts. It makes the workout go by faster, somehow. A 30 minute ladder drill on the elliptical trainer feels like only 20 minutes, whereas 30 mintues steady-state can feel like 40.

    For the bike, I just love my Spinerval videos! They're tough, but they really are effective! And as a bonus, Coach Troy is pretty darn cute! :-)

  8. I have a hard time doing this unless I'm going up a hill or running stairs. :(

  9. Whew! I'm exhausted just reading the post and the comments. If I did this interval thing, i.e., running uphill for 30 seconds during my lunch-hour walkabout, I just might keel over. That's one steep pitch from bottom to top, Nob Hill is. I might also reach the top before the 30 seconds are up -- it's only five blocks. Then again, I might get all sweaty before returning to the office. What, you say I could exercise before or after work? You crack me up. So let's review: drop dead or get damp, or, possibly, get healthier. Choices!

  10. All right, Crabby ( long sigh) I'll get the exercycle out again. I've been meaning to for a while. Used to do a thirty minute workout each morning but, somewhere along the way during the last few months, it stopped. Noticed yesterday that the excercycle has cobwebs on it!

  11. Hi Everybody! So, are you relieved to not have to talk about penises anymore this morning?

    I'm going to have to respond in "intervals" 'cause I seem to have gotten a bit behind. So I may be in and out a bit.

    Kery--good for you! Well, they both have benefits, so you might want to look at which one appeals to you more, endurance or intensity? And whichever, I get the feeling that starting modestly with manageable goals is better than jumping in big time, which is what a lot of people do then they burn out.

    Samantha (nice hair!)
    Sounds like you've found what works for you, which is the important thing.

    Leah--I like your sort of naturalistic sprint & coast idea.

    And thanks so much for asking about Most Significant Other's Mom! Doing a bit better--more details at your blog in case anyone wants to follow you over.

    Okay, back in a minute (or so...)

  12. Interval training or some type of intensity work is a good idea for fitness. Just remember, if you need to burn calories don't stop doing the 'long slow distance' as well the interval work. As Crabby might say:"Sorry, no free lunch!"

  13. Welcome, geosomin!
    "Lengthening the runny bit and shortening the walky bits"--that's a great prescription and could save someone big bucks for a personal trainer. (And hooray, another scientist! Crabby loves scientists because they tend to have Big Genius Brains instead of tiny little crabby ones).

    Dancinghawk--double intervals? Yikes! Actually, it sounds like you've come up with a great and challenging program. (And endorphins rock, I agree!)

    Hi Jennifer!
    Wow, five minute intervals sound daunting. I'm impressed! And thanks for stopping in.

    Bunnygirl--30 minute ladder drills also sound daunting, but it sounds like you take them in stride (so to speak). (I've seen your workout schedule on your blog and know about those 15 mile runs, so I'm not surprised). And Spinervals! I do love that name.

    Will return...

  14. I like a mixture of work outs, so I am up for anything.

    Like Samantha, I am more into "peaceful" alternatives, but I do love the feeling of accomplishment, which comes from mega-super workouts.

    Crabby, you really make me laugh. Even though I'm more of that "cheery type" you warn others about....

    Still, I love it...

    I'd love for you to read Wiggle Monster, by the way. Reading levels for the free e-book range from 0-120. I believe you should fit in there somewhere.

    Sylvia C.

  15. Sera, yeah, hills help. But then you have to go back down. I guess it depends on how/where/upon what you work out. Some machines, for example, make it really easy to turn up the resistance and get your heart rate up. Other workouts are harder to make into intervals.

    Appleton--the good thing about intervals is that you're not supposed to do them every day. Hiking up a steep hill at lunch is good enough! Save the high intensity sweaty stuff for the weekends. Oh, what's that you say about about an art exhibit? A new play opening? A life outside of work and exercise? I'm not sure that's allowed.

    Well Dawn, it's not like you haven't had enough to keep you occupied. But time on the torture device, er... exercise bike means more cream-filled apple donuts.

    Good reminder, anonymous, about doing yucky endurance stuff too!

    And hi Sylvia!
    Very sensible approach to exercise, and thanks for the compliments! I'll definitely have to check out the Wiggle Monster, as I seem to be of an acceptable age. I only sound sometimes like I'm older than 120.

  16. I don't currently do interval training but have had success with it in the past. I also find that when I experience a weight loss plateau it's a good way to kickstart the engine because you're really working to get to a certain level that your *body* sets, (not a machine, or teacher).

    I had this crazy asian kickboxing teacher who was fanatical about interval training. And, although I HATED it at first, I noticed my fitness level improve, (especially my heart rate level), over just a couple of weeks. Whereas with regualar cardio it's taken a few months to really notice a difference.

    Whether you're just starting a fitness program or are very experienced, I think it's good to work in on some level. Just my opinion.

  17. Hi Katieo--
    "Just your opinion" counts a lot, because you always seem quite sensible! Although kickboxing, yikes.

  18. It's kinda funny. I started doing interval training when I tried to start running again. I am a solid woman with plantar...too lazy to look it up, so heel pain. Anyway, I found it was way easier to get my heart rate up running fast (for me) than walking fast. My original goal was to end up running all the time like I did when I was a wee lass. Well, I found the whole sprinting thing such a great break from marching steadily uphill on the treadmill I do it twice a week! Then I still do the boring uphill march, and the bike or elliptical at the gym. It's never "fun" but it's less likely to make me catatonic.

  19. Crabby, you really are getting a lot of traffic? What's your secret?

    Anyway, I'm not sure if this is exactly the same thing, but I remember "a long long time ago in a gallaxy far far away" (20 years ago at Essex Community College) my track coach had us "push the down hills" on a six mile run. That was not nearly the toughest of the exercises he has us do, either. To give an example, I had completed Army Basic Training not long before that, and his workouts were more painful than anything I did there (Basic Training was just more constant)!

  20. Great plan, anonymous. Yes, plodding uphill is really, really boring.

    And the sprinting doesn't hurt your plantar fa... damn, I can't remember the word either, your heel pain? Anyway, if it works, then sounds like the intervals are the way to go. Thanks for stopping in!

    And hi Michael, hope you're feeling better! God, that coach sounds sadistic. Worse than basic training? Gulp.


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