Sunday, June 17, 2012

An introduction to interval training

Sometimes interval training can be really intimidating because people who are really fit have to work really hard to do it. But that doesn't mean you can't try it out yourself. This post gives an introductory interval workout that anyone, and I mean anyone, could try.

The old thinking about exercise intensity was that people wishing to lose weight should keep their heart rate within the “fat burn zone” and not exceed that level. That thinking has been corrected by research, while the mentality still exists in the fitness industry. This myth has held on for many of the same reasons that other fitness myths hold on. It is easier to hear someone say that you should work smarter and not harder to reach your goals. Unfortunately, working harder is working smarter!

That is not to say that steady-state moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise does not have its place, because it certainly does! If you are new to exercise you should do a lot of limited intensity cardio to help condition yourself for the more intense work that is to come. Moderate intensity cardio is also important for athletes, too. The laundry list of health benefits range from heart health to injury prevention to emotional well-being. That’s why all of my interval workouts have just as much steady-state work as they have intervals! That’s also why I tell everyone to keep moving throughout the day.

Here is a basic first step into the world of interval training.

Over the course of a week or so, get accustomed to using one of the cardio machines. Aim for workouts of at least 30 minutes. Try to find an intensity level that is the most that you can do for this extended period of time. Each cardio machine is a little different, but you remember to try speed, resistance, and incline as options to increase intensity. We'll call this the "long distance" intensity level. If you are using a heart rate monitor, make a note of your heart rate at this steady level of exertion.

On a day that you don’t feel run down, start your workout by steadily working up to your long distance intensity level over 10 minutes and then hold that level for another 5 minutes. Once you've done this, add enough intensity that you know you wouldn’t be able to maintain it for very long. Do the best to hold this challenging level for 1 minute, then recover at an intensity level below your regular workout intensity for 1 minute. Repeat this 1 minute ‘on’ 1 minute ‘off’ with progressively higher intensity until you don’t fully recover until you have about 15 seconds left of the recovery phase. If you are monitoring your heart rate, remember that the body needs about 20 seconds to adjust its heart rate in response to changes in intensity. Finish the workout with a steady 10 minute cooldown to allow your heart rate to return to normal.

As you get more accustomed to these workouts, aim for three distinct intensity levels: "long-distance”, "intense,” and “recovery.” The “intense” level should be nearly impossible to maintain for more than a minute – but don’t worry, you don’t have to! It can be difficult to quantify intensity levels across different types of machines, but imagine the intense level at least 10% more difficult than the long-distance level. To recover, the difficulty will have to be reduced to 10% below your long-distance level so you can be ready for the next one. If you are watching your heart rate, watch for about a 10% difference between the high and low of each cycle.

Don’t be surprised if you get tired much sooner than you normally would. These workouts are more challenging than the steady-state variety that you are used to. That’s the whole point! This is a new challenge that the body will adapt to. Those adaptations will make you leaner, stronger, and more prepared to take on the world outside the gym!