Group fitness class

How to do anything: Master interval training

A great addition to any fitness plan, interval training alternates high intensity exercises with recovery periods over a given time period. The good thing about interval training is that it helps you get stronger for other activities like climbing, hiking, running and biking.

Whether you want to up your performance for a specific activity or find a new way to get in shape, interval training will help you make the most of your workouts.

Before you start

Interval training isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s effective because of its high intensity approach.

According to MEC Ambassador and road cycling coach Allan Prazsky, it’s important to have a base fitness level that’s sufficient enough to properly do a series of intervals without incurring injury. Before you throw intervals into the mix, you should start with a routine of cardio and strength training to help get your body ready for this next step up.

To get the maximum benefits out of interval training, Allan also recommends that you make sure that the intervals are specific to the demands of your fitness routine or competition. These benefits include increased VO2 max (the volume of oxygen you use), reduced blood lactate levels, better resistance to fatigue, improved neuromuscular efficiency and increased peak power.

The right equipment

Workout clothes and shoes

To maximize your training, you’ll want to have the right equipment on hand. This means proper workout clothes and footwear; a watch for time keeping; your current heart rate and heart zone measure; and a heart rate monitor bundle that can estimate your VO2 max, outputs and recommended recovery time.

Interval training ideas

Once you’re ready to get going, here are some workout ideas to get you started

1. Tabata intervals

I have a love-hate relationship with Tabata intervals, which involve 20-second spurts of high intensity followed by 10 seconds of rest over 8 cycles. The beauty of the Tabata interval is that you can do it with just about any exercise, and it requires very little time.

I’ve found that the easiest way to keep time is to create a music mix that plays for 20 seconds and then stops for 10 seconds. Once you’ve chosen your time-keeping tool, you can warm up and decide which exercises to do. For example, you can stick to running, biking, swimming or rowing for the eight cycles, or you can add in some squats, push-ups, sit-ups or any other strength-building exercise. If you want to push yourself, try to match your distance or your repetitions during each cycle.

2. Sprint for time

Another type of workout involves picking a distance (such as 100m on a track or two points on a street), and then sprinting to your chosen finish line. Once you’ve reached the finish point, walk back to the start and repeat four to ten times. Keep track of how long it takes you to sprint your distance, and try to match that time during every set.

3. Sprint for distance
Runner on a trail with autumn trees

You can also sprint for a pre-determined time (30 seconds), rest for a pre-determined time (1 minute) and repeat 4 to 10 times. Use the same start point and try to replicate your distance during each set.

4. Sprint for fun

If you just want to have some fun, you can mix up how you do your intervals. Put some music on and run for an entire song, then rest during the next one. Or you can walk for one song, jog for the next and sprint every time the chorus comes on.

If you’re feeling ambitious, then try Allan’s personal favourite interval, which he calls “Magic 8-Balls.” Do three to five eight-minute sets performed at your VO2 max. It’s important to take your time resting between each set. Allan says each break should last between 8 to 12 minutes to allow for maximum recovery. As he puts it, “They hurt so good.”

Now that you’ve got the basics, you can start incorporating interval training into your fitness plan. Good luck!

Note: Since this type of training places big demands on your heart, make sure you check with your doctor to see if high-intensity training is alright for you. It’s also important to start slow, with a few intervals for a short amount of time.

Photo credits: Angela Aladro mella / Shutterstock.com, baranq / Shutterstock.com.

Joanie Gaudreau

Writer and fitness enthusiast always chasing her next mountain peak. Also coffee. She chases coffee, too.