Interval training is hard. Interval training is uncomfortable. And...well, it’s just better. In simple terms, interval training is a method of conditioning that alternates periods of work with periods of recovery—it’s the opposite of steady state cardio. Interval training develops aerobic capacity better than steady state aerobic training. The fastest way to raise VO2 max, our standard measure of aerobic fitness is through interval training.
Side note: steady state cardio definitely has its place—great for recovery or if you’re an endurance athlete, then long steady state training is very important.
The complicated part of interval training is figuring out the rest and work ratios. But it doesn’t have to be complicated if you use heart rate.
I prefer heart rate based methods of dictating work to rest ratios as opposed to arbitrary time based intervals because with time based intervals, we have no idea what’s happening inside the body and we may either work TOO hard or not hard enough—it’s easy to either over work and under rest or under work and over rest. Get yourself a heart rate monitor and use that — to use this method, have an idea of your max heart rate and select an appropriate recovery heart rate—I use 60% of theoretical max heart rate as my recovery. Note—if you use a HR calculator/formula to calculate your max HR, understand that at least 70% of the population does not fit into the theoretical calculations of the commonly used 220–age maximum heart rate formula. My actual max HR is higher than the formula based max HR for my age—I know this because, well I’ve exceeded the formula based maxHR and I’m still here. Do the formula based version anyway to have a ballpark idea. Note your heart rate immediately after completing your first hard work interval. During a HIIT work effort, you want to hit 80% or more of your estimated max HR. The recovery is set by the time it takes to return back to the recovery heart rate (~55-60% max HR). You’ll notice that initial recovery after the first interval may be rapid, but subsequent intervals may require slightly longer rest periods.
How many intervals should you do? Start small and build up—your first several sessions might include only 3 total intervals. And then, you might add an extra interval for several more sessions. Gradually, you can build up your total number of intervals. Note: up to 20-30 total HIIT session minutes is sufficient — you don’t need to go beyond this.
When to do it? I usually do 10-15 total minutes right after a strength training workout (rest is included in the total time so actual work time might only be 5-7 minutes).
Find a modality you enjoy—I love sled push sprints. The AirDyne Bike is great too—it’s probably one of the best modalities because it’s non-impact, safe for everyone and uses both the legs & arms effectively raising heart rate. Mix it up though—don’t always do the same thing—have a few options to rotate through—battle ropes and sleds, treadmill or track sprints, Assault Bike (AirDyne) sprints, etc. I do not recommend elliptical machines or stair climbers for HIIT/interval training.
VERY IMPORTANT— WARM UP THOROUGHLY BEFORE INTERVAL TRAINING
EXERCISE AND MEDICATION MAY REQUIRE YOU TO ADJUST YOUR HEART RATE. A common example is a group of drugs called beta-blockers, prescribed for patients with heart problems and high blood pressure. This drug reduces both the resting and exercise heart rate, although not always by the same amount. In some cases, a person can workout much harder without the heart rate elevating even into the aerobic zone. In this case, exercising at 125 beats per minute, for example, may be the same as 155 without the medication—so if your max aerobic heart rate is 140, you can easily be overtraining at 125. In fact, some people are unable to attain their max aerobic heart rate while on a beta-blocker. Anti-arrhythmic drugs, calcium channel blockers, and other medications can sometimes reduce exercise heart rate as well. If you’re taking any prescription or over-the-counter drug, you should know whether it affects the heart rate. Some drugs raise the heart rate. These include thyroid medication, Ritalin and other amphetamines, and even caffeine, which is found in certain cold remedies, pain relievers, and, of course, coffee, tea, and some sodas. These drugs will often cause higher exercise heart rates, forcing you to slow down to maintain your maximum aerobic heart rate. This means that by following your heart rate you may have to reduce your exercise intensity.
NOTE: Before beginning any training regimen, make sure it is medically safe for you to do so. If you have any injury, disease, disability or other concerns about starting an exercise program, consult your healthcare provider first.
Questions always welcomed! And I’m always happy to take you through a conditioning workout!