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Short Intervals are Best

A new study shows that the most efficient, time-saving and health-benefitting way to exercise is to use short intervals (Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, Jan 2014). Interval training means that you alternate intense exercise with slow exercise until you feel tired. For example, run very hard for 30 seconds, jog very slowly until you recover your breath, and then repeat. Alternate these 30-second fast runs with slow jogging recoveries until you are tired, then quit for the day.

Interval training workouts take far less time to do than conventional workouts that maintain a steady pace at lower intensity. We have known for many years that high-intensity training improves performance and is necessary for competitive athletes in all sports. Now researchers are finding that these short bouts of intense exercise also offer tremendous health benefits for everyone.

Types of Intervals
Intervals are classified into short intervals that last less than 30 seconds each and long intervals that take longer than two minutes. Fit people can do a large number of short intervals because they do not cause much muscle damage and you do not build up lactic acid in 30 seconds. On the other hand, long intervals cause so much muscle damage and such high levels of lactic acid that you can do only a few of them in a single workout.

The new research shows that short intervals are the most effective way to train for competition and also to improve your health. This study compared 30-second all-out, 5-minute all-out, and 40-min all-out bouts of cycling. In 10 weeks of twice-a-week, effort-matched trials, they found that short interval training was more effective than long intervals in improving mean power output and VO2max. VO2 max is the best laboratory measure of how fast a cyclist can ride over a distance. It measures the maximal amount of oxygen the riders can take in and use.

The faster you go in an interval workout, the greater the gain in your ability to take in and use oxygen, and the faster you can ride or run. In another study, short intervals of less than 30 seconds each improved one-hour race times the most. The longer the interval at a very fast pace, the slower you go and the fewer intervals you can do in a single workout (Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1999 May;31(5):736-41).

How to Add Intervals to your Present Exercise Program
Whatever your sport, you can add intervals to your current training program. For example, if you are are a runner who jogs for 20 minutes or more, start your interval-workout day by jogging slowly for five to ten minutes to warm up. Then go as fast as you can for 20 or 30 strides, slow down until you have caught your breath and then pick up the pace again for 20 or 30 strides. When your legs start to feel heavy or hurt, quit for the day. When you are comfortable with this routine, get a stop watch and try to increase your intervals to 30 seconds. Your recovery periods can be as long as you need to regain your breath and your muscles have stopped burning and feel fresh again. Several studies show that interval rests can be of any reasonable duration in training for competition. It’s how fast you move on your intense exercise that determines how fast you can move in competition.

If you are riding a bicycle, warm up slowly for 5 to 10 minutes. Then increase your speed and the pressure on the pedals for 20 pedal strokes. Slow down and recover, then repeat. As you become stronger, work up to 50 pedal strokes. As soon as your legs feel fresh again and you are not short of breath, start your next interval. When your thighs start to feel stiff and heavy, stop the workout for the day. Do not plan to take days off, but take off any time your body tells you to – whenever your legs feel heavy or hurt at the start of workout.

Caution: People with blocked arteries leading to their hearts can suffer heart attacks during intense exercise. Check with your doctor.

More on the Benefits of Intervals
How Intervals Help You Live Longer
How Intervals Enlarge Telomeres and Mitochondria
Intense Exercise Better to Prevent Diabetes
How to Do Interval Training
Intervals Make your Heart Stronger

Checked 12/31/14

January 19th, 2014
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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