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The “How To” of Interval Training

The “How To” of Interval Training

 We have already discussed the benefits associated with interval training (see – Interval Training = Burn More Fat & Reverse Diabetes) so lets discuss how you can get started in a safe and healthy fashion to perform your first interval session.

Interval training simply means you exercise at an exceedingly high exertional energy output for a short period of time, followed by a recovery period before repeating the strong exertion again. Each cycle of work and rest is one interval. You can make the work to rest ratio change over time, which is how you gradually build greater fitness. You can also control the level of intensity such that your first workouts are only 60% effort and gradually build over time. Don’t be intimidated by this. Ultimately you are in control and will benefit from any effort in this direction. You can’t lose.

I often tell patients that walking is a great start but it does not offer enough intensity to really challenge your body to improve. No amount of “walking” or steady state aerobics is able to advance your fitness like intervals. The key is to start where you are comfortable and gradually build.

There are dozens of different approaches or patterns to interval training and part of the fun of intervals is discovering new ways to use them. I am going to briefly discuss 2 options. Play with each one. Please start slow if this is your first time doing intervals and gradually build up. Any kind of aerobic equipment can be used: treadmill, elliptical, rower, stationary bike, road bike, running, etc.

Tobata interval training

I will first discuss the original format intended by Izumi Tabata and used in his study but we will then discuss a gentler entry point. Warm up for 5 to 7 minutes and prepare for an “all out” maximum effort. Do not start until you feel warmed up enough to engage in such a workout. Once warmed up set your clock or timer and begin:

  • 20 seconds all out effort – sprint as hard as you can go.  Then . . .
  • 10 second rest period – keep moving but just work to catch your breath.

Repeat this cycle eight times for a total of 4 minutes of extreme exertion. Then either do a slow cool down or continue on if you like at a more comfortable pace to complete your desired workout time.

If your only exercise to this point has been walking then simply add a few short jogs to your present routine. Pick out an object ahead such as a mailbox or street sign and simply jog to it. Once there, then return to walking until you catch your breath. Congratulations, you just did your first interval. If you are up to it then try a second and a third. You can continue to build in this fashion with increased speed, intensity and time at your own comfort level.

Now that you are comfortable with the concept of performing an interval or if you are already a jogger or casual biker, it is time to use a more formal schedule to push your efforts. Here is a 12 week graduated schedule to get you there. Don’t go “all out” on your first attempt. The first time you perform this routine just plan on giving a 50 to 60% effort.

Week 1 is 10 seconds followed by 20 seconds rest for 6 cycles or 6 repetitions. That is written as 10/20 x6. Week 2, increase your reps or cycles to 7. At week 4 you increase the duration of work to 15 seconds and reduce the rest to 15 seconds for 5 reps (15/15 x5).  At week 8 the work increases to the full 20 seconds while the rest is now reduced to the short 10 second interval. As you increase the number of reps each week you will arrive at 8 full reps or cycles by week 12. Along this path you will find yourself more capable of dedicating more intensity to each interval. Ultimately if you are a performing athlete you want to give 100% effort on each interval by week 12. But don’t forget that in Gibala’s study even submaximal efforts (80%) resulted in significant gains and improvement in insulin resistance. Just give you best effort and good things will come.

Tobata 12 week graduated course
Week 1 10 work / 20 rest x6 reps
Week 2 10/20 x7
Week 3 10/20 x8
Week 4 15/15 x5
Week 5 15/15 x6
Week 6 15/15 x7
Week 7 15/15 x8
Week 8 20/10 x4
Week 9 20/10 x5
Week 10 20/10 x6
Week 11 20/10 x7
Week 12 20/10 x8


The 8 Peaks Program

This is another approach and can be used interchangeably with the Tobata. The idea is very similar and all of the above guidelines apply. Start slow and build up if this is new to you. There are still 8 cycles but these are a bit longer. Start with a 5 to 10 minute warm up and when you are ready begin:

  • 30 seconds all out, as hard as you can go – don’t let yourself slow down
  • 90 seconds rest – a longer recovery.
  • Catch your breath and as you feel good again then start to build slowly preparing for your next all out effort.

Repeat this for 8 full cycles, which will take 16 minutes but only 4 minutes of it is hard.

The sampling above are just examples of how to get started. There are endless variations that you can employ so play with this tool and have fun with it.

Intervals should not be done more than once or twice a week if you are a beginner. Even highly trained athletes should not perform intervals on a daily basis.  Daily use of intervals training will cause too much stress on the body and lead to overtraining syndrome as well as spiked cortisol. If you have grown accustomed to interval training then you may be able to tolerate performing them 3 times per week but be sure to support your recovery with excellent nutrition and proper rest. Be smart with your training at all times and listen to your body.

Breathing hard is a part of good exercise but if you ever experience chest pain, lightheadedness or feel close to passing out then contact our office as well as your primary care doctor and seek emergency help if appropriate. Remember that this type of hard training is the best way to avoid a heart attack, not cause one.

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