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Interval Training – Embrace the Pain

I’ve been thinking all day about what exactly I was going to say about intervals for this blog post.  There is just so much to say, it’s practically impossible to cover it all.  From tabata intervals and mile repeats,  to Emil Zatopek’s unconventional approach to training.  Intervals make us faster and although they suck, they are oh so worth it.  For example, even though I’ve had a month off from running, a few tabata sessions per week on the elliptical have helped me to maintain my fitness at a level where a  6:30 mile isn’t that difficult.  And when I ran a 1:37 half marathon, it wasn’t because of my running during training.  It was because every Monday I did really hard bike intervals.  I love this type of workout – painful but short, and all so rewarding.  Because intervals have done so much for me, I wanted to look into exactly why, and hopefully it will get more people willing to go hard.

Why are interval workouts so beneficial?

I consider myself an endurance athlete.  I like to run for really long periods of time on my Saturday mornings.  It makes me happy.  But endurance training (ET) is not going to have the same benefits as interval training.  Also, because I have been running for such a long time, I need something to rev up my training.  This is where intervals come into play.  Interval training has many different names, from sprint interval training (SIT) to high intensity interval training (HIIT).  But no matter what you call, it’s still the same basic principle.  Go really hard for a short amount of time, recover, and then do it again.  The duration of your intervals, the recovery time, and the type of interval all depend upon your goals and your sport.  However, the benefits are the same.  Increased performance, speed, and power.

Studies have shown that in as little as two weeks, interval training can produce rapid changes in peak oxygen uptake (VO2 max), cause rapid adaptations in skeletal muscle, and actually double endurance capacity.  I think the key word here is adaptation.  Put your body under a lot of stress, let it recover, and then do it again.  The body learns very quickly and that equals greater cardiovascular fitness with increased speed.  One of the byproducts of interval training (which uses your anaerobic system) is lactic acid.  Some have suggested that the more interval training you do, the more efficient your body becomes at burning this lactic acid, which in turn means you can go longer and harder without the pain or fatigue.  Another one of the many benefits of interval training is that it doesn’t take very long and it burns A LOT of calories.  If I do a 20 minute tabata session on the elliptical, I can be pretty darn sweaty and gasping for air.  Compare that to the person beside me who does 40 minutes on the elliptical at a much easier speed and intensity (while reading a book).  My 20 minutes of intervals will do much more for my fitness than that person’s 40 minutes of endurance training (although still an equally as important workout).

Of course there are important things to keep in mind when doing intervals.  Your body needs time to recover between workouts.  Back to back sessions are probably not a good idea.  Endurance training is still essential, and if you are new to interval training, start easy! It can be a very taxing workout, so give your body a chance to adapt.  But you will surprised at how quickly you will start to notice the improvements.

To sum up the  benefits of HIIT, SIT, or however you choose to call it:

  • short
  • burns a lot calories
  • increased VO2 max
  • less lactic acid build up
  • increased speed
  • increased endurance
  • rapid adaptations in skeletal muscles

As I said earlier, I love interval workouts.  Today, while doing intervals on the elliptical and trying to rap some Eminem lyrics (nobody was around, I promise), I worked hard to reach my max heart rate. I did and 30 minutes never went by so quickly.


Happy Trails, Happy Running, and Happy Wednesday (It’s my favorite day of the week!),



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