Interval Training : What, Why & How?

Interval training has been a mainstay in the world of fitness for the past century. From marathoners to bodybuilders, to the Average Joe wanting to shed a bit of timber, using interval training has been a key weapon in the athlete’s armoury since the beginning of the 20th century.

Since I myself use various types of interval training in my own programme, I wanted to look deeper into the origin, and development of this well-known training protocol to add context to mine and my clients’ exercise regimes. So let’s take it back to 1930s Sweden, and a failing cross-country team…

Fartlek : The Revolution of randomness

Don’t you dare laugh at the name…

In the 1930s, Swedish coach Gösta Holmér decided that something needed to be done about his downtrodden groups of cross-country runners and their poor performance in competition. He therefore developed a new form of training that involved random bouts of mid-high intensity intervals followed by lower intensity rest periods.

Swedish for ‘speed play’, Holmér’s new method saw his athletes experience massive improvements in aerobic endurance, and they became physiologically adapted to cope with variations in intensity that come with cross-country running. Holmér’s protocol soon became one of the go-to training methods in the fitness industry for its adaptability to a wide range of goals.

The Zatopek Days : Crank Up the Volume

A few years later, Czech long-distance runner Emil Zatopek took the idea of interval training to the next level. He introduced the method of running reps, which involved high intensity bursts of either 200m or 400m followed by rest periods of lower intensity. Zatopek’s theory was that, by introducing brief periods of recovery, he was able to maximise his average speed over long distances:

“If I run one hundred meters twenty times, that is two kilometers and that is no longer a sprint.”

Zatopek, along with the work of German coach Woldemar Gerschler (who worked with intervals based on % of maximum heart rate), re-popularised interval training at the elite level; Zatopek won 3 gold medals in the 5k, 10k and Marathon events at the 1952 Olympics, so people began to realise the effectiveness of interval training to improve aerobic power. 

Furthermore, people started to  use intervals to crank up the mileage of their training due to the ability to work harder and longer as a result of recovery periods; for example, in 1954, Zatopek managed to rack up a whopping 7,888km over a year thanks to his training methods. Good luck replicating that….

Izumi Tabata : The Father of HIIT

The final Big Fish in the world of interval training is Dr Izumi Tabata (yes, as in Tabata training), best known for his creation of the 20:10 method.

Dr Tabata’s methods were initially trialled  during a study in the 1990s at the Japanese National Institute of Fitness. He used a group of national speed skaters as guinea-pigs for a new training protocol that involved 8 rounds of 20 seconds maximal intensity followed by a 10 second rest period on a stationary bicycle. The subjects of the study were made to work at 170% of their VO2max during each working set.

These methods led the skating team to Olympic success, and has since become a regular fixture in elite sports training across the planet. However, the incredibly high intensities of each working interval during true Tabata training (i.e. 170% VO2max) leaves even the fittest of athletes sprawled on the floor in a heaped, exhausted mess; probably not a good idea for the average gym-goer…

Interval Training : The Verdict

Interval training has seen huge developments since the early 20thcentury, and has been one of the most experimented training protocol in existence. There are a huge number of studies, past and present, analysing what the optimal work-to-rest relationship is for different performance-based goals, and is therefore constantly evolving and developing.

My opinion?

Having used various different interval-based methods in my own training throughout the years, I have found it particularly effective in developing aerobic power through ‘running reps’, similar to those methods used by Zatopek (albeit not quite as extreme…).

I think it is one of, if not the most adaptable training methods for anyone to use. By manipulating the work-to-rest ratio, you can apply it to almost any goal, whether it’d be to build strength, power or endurance. The most successful athletes in history have frequently touted the benefits of interval training, so I think it is fair to say that it is a half-decent way of achieving your goals!

That being said, I wouldn’t delve into a Tabata-style training session too quickly without a sick bucket & a trained paramedic at your disposal…

If you fancy giving the brutality of interval training a crack, try this great workout from Yuriel Kaim specifically for beginners! Happy Training 😊

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