Interval Training Can Spice Up a Workout

When it comes to fitness, a lot of people think the only way to improve is to do more, more, more. But one way to enhance your workout makes do with "less": interval training.

Interval training alternates short bursts of intense activity with periods of "active recovery," which means more moderate forms of that same activity. Elite athletes use the technique to improve their speed, endurance, and overall fitness. But moderate or beginning exercisers can use the same trick to burn more calories, improve cardiovascular endurance, and get a bracing workout in a relatively short time.

How it works

Interval training draws on the body's two forms of energy production: aerobic and anaerobic. In the aerobic state, the body uses oxygen to convert stored carbohydrates into energy. This is the method you use while walking, jogging, riding a bike, or even playing a leisurely game of golf. If you keep working aerobically long enough, or make more strenuous demands, such as sprinting or jumping, the anaerobic process kicks in. The body then makes energy from glycogen stored in the muscles. This is highly inefficient and produces lactic acid, contributing to muscle fatigue. After you stop the high-intensity activity, your body returns to the aerobic state and breaks down lactic acid.

Most people can't keep up anaerobic activity for very long without feeling out of breath and tired, and quite sore later. One step to increasing fitness is to train the body to delay the switch from aerobic to anaerobic for as long as possible. This is where interval training can help. Pushing the body to work hard for short periods can build your aerobic capacity because the body builds new capillaries and does a better job of transporting oxygen to the muscles.

Take running, for instance. Even a trained runner would find it nearly impossible to sprint for two minutes straight. But adding six 20-second sprints to a routine jog is akin to a two-minute sprint without the fatigue and shortness of breath.

Interval training can also be as easy as slow walking and then resting, or slow walking and then jogging for a few feet. It depends on your fitness level. If your exercise routine is getting stale, interval training can end the doldrums. It's also great for people with limited time.

Getting started

Talk to your health care provider before starting or expanding a fitness program. It is important to monitor your heart rate while interval training.

Interval training can work with any type of aerobic exercise. You should add higher-intensity periods gradually, keep them brief, and always keep the pace comfortable.

Start gradually by varying the pace until you get accustomed to it. Tuning into the way your body responds to new demands is crucial to interval training.