The evidence continues to mount that interval training is very effective in a number of ways. For those not familiar with interval training, it involves short bouts of intense exercise (usually running, cycling or rowing) interspersed with longer periods of light exercise. An example involving running would be to warm up thoroughly first, then run a quarter-mile (~400m) at 85-90% of max speed, then walk or jog an eighth-mile (~200 m), repeating the run/walk cycle for 8-10 repetitions followed by a warm-down. There are many variations of interval training, and some involve even shorter bursts of intense exercise (e.g. 200m runs).
A recent article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Tanisho and Hirakawa, vol 23, no. 8, 2009, pages 2405-2410) reinforces the efficacy of interval training. The subjects were 18 Japanese male lacrosse players who trained 3 days/wk for 15 weeks on an exercise cycle. The continuous-training (CT) group pedaled continuously for 20-25 minutes, while the intermittent-training group (IT) alternated 10-second max-speed pedaling with 20-second easy pedaling, for a total of 10 intervals (total time = 5 minutes). There was also a control group that did no training. Interestingly, the IT group improved almost as much (10%) in the maximal oxygen uptake test (gold standard of aerobic fitness) as the CT group (12%). However, only the IT group improved in maximal power output. The IT group was also the only one to improve in fatigability, measured as the ability to maintain cycling power output over 10 intervals of 10-second max-speed pedaling interspersed with 40-second recovery periods.
One would have to conclude that the interval training produced amazing results. The 5-minute interval training sessions produced almost as much increase in aerobic capability as 20-25 minutes of endurance training. Yet the interval training also produced significant gains in maximum power and in resistance to fatigue from repeated intense exertions bouts. IT was a truly remarkable and time-efficient form of training.
This type of training is clearly advantageous for most team sports, which generally involve short bursts of intense activity interspersed with mild-to-moderate activity. The effectiveness of the interval training supports the concept of Specificity of Training, by which training is most effective when it reflects important aspects of the sport in which improvement is sought. Distance running is not effective for most team-sport athletes because it has been shown to actually reduce max power output, needed for jumping and sprinting. Thus long runs are only recommended for athletes in endurance sports.
A word of caution is in order. No-one should engage in an exercise program without first determining whether a doctor's clearance is needed first. See our Exercise Risk Questionnaire. Even if you are cleared for general exercise, you may not be ready yet for interval training, which should only be undertaken by people who are already well-conditioned. It is an intense form of exercise that puts considerable strain on the heart, lungs, muscles, and bones. Running intervals can easily cause muscle pulls or other musculoskeletal injuries, so very thorough pre-interval warmups are necessary. Cycling and rowing intervals involve less impact and peak force on the musculoskeletal system than running and are thus less likely to produce injury. However, any interval training must be approached with caution. The key points are to start with a well-conditioned individual, warm up very thoroughly, and start at a moderate level of difficulty, increasing the intensity of intervals over a period of several weeks.