One of the easiest ways to add variety and progression to your aerobic training is to use a system known as interval training. Research has shown that as well as making huge improvements in aerobic fitness, interval training can also improve our ability to work anaerobically – something steady-state training simply doesn’t do.

First developed many years ago for use by athletes, this simple technique involves a period of work followed by a period of active recovery. It is popular among many athletes for improving their ability to work at a higher level than they could sustain for the duration of their event, although the same principles have been used in rehabilitation of cancer patients, and in people with respiratory and heart problems who may find it hard to sustain a desired workrate for very long.

Interval training can be effective for everyone, and two key things dictate the challenge of the workout:

How hard you work during the work phase

How long you allow for the recovery phase.

Let’s look at a simple format – we’ll call it lamppost training. This an excellent way to improve your running if you are just starting out.

Many people find it hard to sustain a steady running pace when they first start, and often tire quickly. Lampposts are regularly spaced and provide easy landmarks for this simple drill.

1 Begin with a gentle warm-up.

2 Walk briskly for the distance it takes to pass three lampposts.

3 Jog or run for the distance it takes to get past another lamppost.

4 Repeat steps 2 and 3. This is one interval.

You can repeat this as many times as you like for the workout. To add a progression, try to shorten the recovery period. For example, instead of passing three lampposts during your recovery, only pass two. This allows you to work on your running fitness without becoming too tired early in your workout.

You can also use timings as another method for this. Initially begin with a longer recovery period as above. An example of a timed interval workout is below.

Start with a gentle warm-up.

Walk at a brisk pace for two minutes.

Run for 30 seconds.

Repeat steps 2 and 3. This is one interval.

The timings and the intensity at which you work are all down to you. An experienced runner may use a short recovery period that is a similar time to the work period. For improving fitness, the key is in the intensity of the work intervals.

In contrast, someone with high blood pressure or heart disease would not work at the very high level of intensity that an athlete might, though the principle of using active recovery along with a shorter, but harder, work period would be the same. The key to the success of this format is progression; if it is too easy, either shorten the recovery time or increase the intensity of the work period. Simple and very effective, this format can be used by anyone looking to improve endurance or body composition.

Many different methods exist for measuring how hard you are working while exercising. These range from the scientific, such as recording a heart rate, through to the more subjective, such as grading your work level from one to 10.

Remember, the key is that you need overload to get progression, but it doesn’t need to be exhausting to be effective. Moderate exercise should get you breathing hard, but you should-still be able to manage a conversation. If you are barely breaking a sweat and it feels relatively easy, you probably need to work a bit harder. One method of measuring how hard you are working is to use your rate of perceived exertion or RPE. This system provides a more subjective way of gauging intensity, though it isn’t always very accurate. People new to exercise or who are unfit will always tend to overestimate their score, while experienced athletes tend to do the opposite. A simple example of RPE is on a scale of 1-10.

Very gentle – no effort at all needed 3 Gentle – little effort but noticeable 4 Light – easily sustainable with some effort 6 Moderate – challenging but sustainable 8 Hard work – difficult to maintain 10 Extremely hard – maximum effort

For your cardio training to be effective, it should involve some time spent working at around level 6. Of course, one person’s idea of hard work is different from another’s, and no method is without drawbacks, but if you are honest with yourself you probably won’t be far off the mark.

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