How To Do Interval Training Properly
Let’s talk about HIIT or high-intensity interval training, and how to do interval training properly.
We’re going to talk about common mistakes and misconceptions, how to do it, how not to do it, what you need to do, what you don’t need to do. All of that.
Benefits Of Interval Training
Seems as good a place to start when talking about interval training as anything.
It Improves Your Fitness Levels Quickly
Pure and simple because your interval periods are relatively shorter, you can train at a higher intensity for a short burst, before recovering. That means you can spend spending more time working at the higher level in your workout, and your body’s going to gradually adapt and get more used to being able to train at that higher level.
Let’s go with a specific example.
Say you go for a 30-minute run and your normal run speed is 10 kilometres an hour, for example. So in a 30-minute run, you’re going to cover 5k.
And that whole time you’re going to stick to that one steady pace because if you tried to go faster than that, your endurance wouldn’t last out that half hour.
But if you’re doing an interval and then you end up doing short bursts of 12, 13, 14, 15 kilometres an hour and then allowing yourself to recover your body’s going to get more and more used to running at the higher speed.
And you’re going to gradually find that that’s going to transition over as your body gets more comfortable into your steady-state pace as well.
More Time Efficient
In a lot of cases, it can also be more time-efficient. Because you’re going for bigger highs or more intensity with recovery periods, you can get more bang for your buck.
So rather than going for a steady 20, 30-minute workout, you can actually get a more intense workout or a more rigorous workout from doing intervals.
It Can Be More Interesting
For a lot of people is actually just more interesting. You’re constantly changing the intensity you’re working at and you’re being mindful of time, so it’s going to take your focus, which means that you’re less likely to get bored.
Whereas if you go for like a steady-state run, or get on the treadmill, or you get on a spin bike or something, and you’re trying to just stick to one speed it can get a little bit more boring.
So those are the three benefits of interval training.
Is Interval Training Better For You Than Steady-State Cardio?
The answer in my opinion is that neither is better than the other.
It depends on what you can do safely, which one you prefer, which one you can stick to, which one you have time to do, and which one you enjoy more.
And also, what your actual goals are.
If you’re training for an endurance event and you have a performance goal, then you probably want a mixture of both.
If you’re training for more general fitness and you only have 20 minutes, intervals are probably going to fit in better.
But if you have more time and actually want to just go out on a long run or really long walk, run, bike ride, or just want to block out some time of your day to focus on you, then a longer steady state might actually be what you’re looking for.
So it depends on a lot of things.
The science does kind of lean towards interval training.
But in the context of working out, which is better, most studies look at it from the point of view of calories burned during the workout, recovery time, calories burned during recovery, weight loss, fat loss. That side of things.
Whereas when I look at it, I’m looking more at your overall health and wellbeing.
I don’t run that much anymore. But when I did, my long run on a Sunday was probably the highlight of my week.
It was just nice to get out, clear my head, and block out distractions.
It really, really, really depends on you, your circumstances, your goals, and what works for you.
The Most Common Interval Training Mistakes
Now that we have talked about the benefits, let’s look at how to do interval training properly – by avoiding the most common mistakes.
High Intensity Doesn’t Have To Mean High Impact
If you look at all the home workouts that have been coming out since the pandemic, they almost all seem to be some variation of pushups, burpees, jumping squats, jumping lunges with, the low impact options seen as a step-down.
High impact work and plyometrics, which is basically jump training, do have a training effect on the body. But they also take a lot more investment in technique and really need good form to avoid injury and to be done safely.
And, to be honest, a normal full range squat is going to do you a hell of a lot more good than trying to do a really fast-paced set of jump squats.
So don’t go thinking that you have to be jumping around your living room like a kangaroo to be getting a good workout.
Maxing Out Too Quickly
With interval training, you do a work period and a rest period.
It’s common to assume the work period needs to be a flat-out 100% maximum effort. This isn’t true unless your planned work period is under the 10-second mark.
If you look at it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being super hard and 1 being coasting it, if your work period is under 10 seconds then you want that your work periods to feel like a 9 or 10 out of 10.
If it’s 10 to 30 seconds then you probably want to be hitting an 8 out of 10.
And if you’re going for 30 seconds to a minute, which I’ll cover below, then probably somewhere between 6 and 8 out of 10 is about right, depending on your fitness levels and your stamina.
Otherwise, you’re going to burn out quickly and you’re not going to last the course of your workout.
Your Intervals Are Too Short
It’s become fashionable to think all intervals need to be short, but we’re not all ready to go for super-short intervals right away.
I won’t go into too much detail on the science, but just understand that your muscles have two different types of muscle fibres – fast-twitch, and slow-twitch.
Your fast-twitch muscle fibres are the ones that have really sharp, really quick reaction time. But they fatigue and burn out quickly. Sprinters generally have well developed fast-twitch muscle fibres.
The general population, who aren’t trained sprinters or elite athletes, are going to have much more slow-twitch fibres.
Slow-twitch fibres are more for endurance and help you on a general day-to-day basis. Especially if you’re not training specifically for sprints or that style of training, then on a general day to day basis, your slow-twitch ones are going to be more developed and more responsive.
Through training, you can adapt and I guess you could say get more “in touch” with your fast-twitch fibres, but especially when you’re starting out and even for most people up to intermediate or moderate level, your slow-twitch are going to be the ones that are going to be utilising more.
So when you’re hitting intervals, I would say that for most people, anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute is probably right. Again, it depends on your goals, your training style and what you’ve done before, how active you’ve been and all of that.
How To Progress With Interval Training
Especially when you’re starting out, a one-minute interval of a 6 or 7 out of 10, followed by a minute or minute and a half rest is probably going to be more beneficial than trying to go for a 20 second flat-out and then burning out, and not being able to actually get through your workout.
And then what you do is that you gradually bring that work period down as you increase your intensity and output down.
Say you’re doing 1 minute on and 90 seconds off. Eventually, you’ll switch to maybe bring it down to 45 seconds work period to be going at a slightly faster pace and 1-minute rest.
And then you start working down to 30 second period.
And again, you’re going back a little bit faster and then to 20. And then if you’re really, really going for that kind of max sprinting effort then you can start to look at like 10 or 15-second intervals.
But you need to build that stamina endurance as your foundation before you really try and get into the intervals.
This is why it usually makes sense to focus on longer intervals, lasting those out, and building up your stamina first. And then start to work on going out a little bit faster and then faster again and again and again and again. And you can use intervals across most kinds of training.
Best Exercise For Interval Training
It depends entirely on what you enjoy.
Find something you enjoy that you can do safely.
You could do running outside, or on a treadmill, although running on the treadmill and doing intervals is a little bit tricky because there’s a lag as you’re trying to change your speed.
You could do it on a bike or a cross-trainer. Or with bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, kettlebells, dumbbells or a barbell.
Perhaps you might find that you would prefer to do a circuit that mixes up a few of those.
Really it’s a case of finding that exercise or that combination of exercises that you enjoy and that you feel like you’re going to stick to.
Wrapping Up How To Do Interval Training Properly
Start with the longer intervals that have, a lower effort level, but you last for longer.
And then gradually start to bring it down. So, as I said, start for a minute and you might do a minute on, and a minute off. Or a minute on 90 seconds off. Depending on your stamina, endurance and recovery, you might even do a minute on and just 30 seconds off.
And then when a minute feels comfortable, then you might up the intensity or the exertion, and then go for a 45-second block instead, and then adapt your rest periods accordingly. And then, as I said, you just keep bringing that work period down until you get to the 15 or 30-second mark.
That is when you start to get into the really high-intensity zone.