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Interval Training:
Why it May be the Best Workout for You, Too

It's been used almost exclusively by elite athletes for decades, but now you'll find plenty of average gym-goers taking part in this trendy, fitness secret. It is interval training, a method of exercise that combines high-intensity bursts with short periods of rest, and converts say it's the fastest way to really get in shape.

Interval training

Interval training not only improves your endurance, but it will help you to burn more fat the next time you work out (even if you only exercise moderately).

"There's definitely renewed interest in interval training," said Ed Coyle, the director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin in a New York Times article.

While athletes use interval training to improve performance -- the dynamic bursts coupled with periods of rest closely mimic what goes on in all kinds of sports, like baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and more -- the average person looking to stay fit stands to improve their cardiovascular fitness, boost their metabolism and raise their body's potential to burn fat.

How Does Interval Training Work?

Interval training involves alternating intense activity with periods of lighter activity. It can be easily translated to jogging, swimming, elliptical training, biking and many other aerobic workouts.

The premise is simple. Using jogging as an example, one way to interval train would be to jog for three minutes, sprint for one minute, walk for three minutes, then repeat the process for 20 or 30 minutes.

By pushing your body to its limits during the intense phase of your workout, you avoid "stagnating" -- which can easily occur if you simply jog at one speed for a long period of time.

"After a certain period of plodding along, doing the same steady-state jogging and cycling, you don't progress -- your body gets used to what you're doing," says Christopher Drozd, a Santa-Monica-based strength and conditioning coach in an LA Times article.

In other words, to reach higher levels of fitness than where you're at right now, you need to push your body above and beyond where it's gone before -- even if it's just for a 30-second high-intensity burst. The rest period in between then allows for your body to remove some of the waste products from your muscles so that you can continue on.

And, when you push your body to its limits, new muscle fibers are being used. The next time you workout, even at a moderate intensity, those new muscle fibers are still there to enhance your exercise.

Will Interval Training Get Me Results?

Many studies have documented the beneficial effects of interval training on conditioned athletes and beginners alike.

One study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology followed a group of people who alternated 10 sets of four-minute bursts of bike riding at 90 percent effort with two-minute intervals of rest. After training every other day for two weeks, they:

  • Increased their cardiovascular fitness by 13 percent

  • Burned 36 percent more fat in an hour of continuous cycling than they did before the interval training

  • Increased the enzyme activity in their muscles

"Even when interval training was added on top of other exercise they were doing, they still saw a significant improvement," said Jason L. Talanian, an exercise scientist at the University of Guelph in Ontariothe and the lead author of the study in a New York Times article.

Interval training

Get creative and try an interval workout while rollerblading, cycling, jogging or swimming.

What to Know Before You Start Interval Training

Interval training can be done at any level, from beginner to professional athlete. However, because it is a very strenuous workout, if you have a chronic illness, are elderly or are not used to intense workouts you should discuss the program with your doctor first.

When you're ready to begin, keep the following tips in mind to get the maximum results:

  • The high-intensity phase should last about one to four minutes at 80-85 percent of your maximum heart rate (you should be out of breath when you're done)

  • The recovery period should allow your heart rate to go down -- but you shouldn't rest long enough for your pulse to return to its resting rate

For a beginner interval workout, try this: Walk at a moderate pace for three minutes, then jog for three minutes (repeat for 20 minutes). At an intermediate level, jog for three minutes, then sprint as fast as you can for three minutes (repeat for 30 minutes). You can then experiment with adding intensity, increasing the number of intense intervals or working out for a longer period.

To keep things interesting, try interval training while swimming or biking, too. And remember, interval training allows you to get an incredibly effective workout in a shorter amount of time, but be prepared to work hard for the benefits!

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have or may have any kind of physical / health issue, be sure to talk to your doctor about interval training BEFORE trying any form of it.

Recommended Reading

What to do AFTER a Workout to Get Maximum Benefit From Your Exercise

The 7 (Honest) Facts You Should Know About Losing Thigh Fat, Gut Fat, and Fat in Other "Problem" Areas


Journal of Applied Physiology 2007 Apr;102(4):1439-47.

The New York Times May 3, 2007

Science Daily June 29, 2007 January 15, 200

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