Interval Training – Kick Your Ass and Kickstart your Metabolism in 20 Minutes

I have a confession to make.

Unlike this awesome dog here, I’m not a fan of running.

I used to run cross country in high school, and I’ve tried to get excited about running about a dozen times since then.  After reading Born to Run, a fantastic book, about running, I even had myself convinced that I was going to LOVE running.  Every time I get started, about ten minutes into my run, I just get bored as hell!  I know some people love running, it makes them feel good, and it’s their primary form of exercise – I’m happy for you (and the info here will help you too!)

I’m here to tell you that if you don’t like running, you don’t need to be spending hours a day on a treadmill or out jogging around your neighborhood to lose weight. In fact, those hours of running could actually be causing you a litany of healthy issues that I can help you avoid.  There’s a type of advanced training that not only burns calories more efficiently than straight cardio, but it can also increase your aerobic breathing capacity MORE than straight cardio while also increasing your a capacity for max sprinting ability.

(warning – interval training shouldn’t be done by people who haven’t exercised before.  You should be in somewhat decent shape before attempting interval training).

What do I have against cardio?

Other than being boring, I find steady cardio to be highly inefficient: I simply don’t have time to go out for runs that last longer than hour.  Not only that, but I always found myself getting injured (shin splints like whoa) or sick when running long distances over a long period of time.  Rather than go into the remaining reasons why I don’t like cardio, I’ll hand the reins over to Mark from Mark’s Daily Apple, who presents the best argument I’ve ever read on the subject – A case against cardio (from a former mileage king.

Now, if you LOVE running and think I’m an ass for even suggesting that running isn’t the greatest thing ever, this article will still provide you with some solid information, I promise.  If you have no interest in running but still want to burn calories and get in shape efficiently, maybe today’s Interval Training post will get you started down the right path.

What’s Interval Training?

Interval training is when you vary your speeds and intensity throughout a shorter run. So, you might jog for three minutes, and then push yourself hard for a minute, repeating this cycle for a certain amount of time (usually around 20 total minutes).

This type of training not only burns calories and builds up your oxygen capacity while exercising, but it can also produce an ‘afterburn’ affect
that can leave your metabolism operating at a higher level of efficiency for hours and hours and hours after you’re done exercising.

This means you’re burning calories while you’re sitting on your butt watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia reruns on Comedy Central.

Why interval training?

Your heart is a muscle: if you keep it beating at a constant rate, never expanding it outside of its comfort zone, it will never grow.   If you do 100 benchpresses with 10 pounds and don’t feel it, your chest will never develop.  Same thing with your heart…if it’s not feeling the exertion, it doesn’t have to work harder, and nothing has changed.  However, when you throw some intervals in there, your heart will have to work harder, pump more blood, and work harder to return to normal levels.  Have a high stress job?  Wouldn’t you rather have  a heart that is used to rapid changes in blood pressure and needs?  That’s the kind of heart I want.

Interval training promotes a healthier physique.  I know this is pretty superficial, but who doesn’t want to look good?  Compare the best sprinters in the world to the best marathon runners in the world – which would you rather look like?  One is super muscular, built for speed, and looks like he could outrun a cheetah at a moment’s notice…while the other looks like a stiff breeze might blow him over.  Obviously there’s more too it than just sprints vs. distance – weight training also plays a HUGE rule.  However, it’s a lot easier to get weight training in when you don’t have to run for 2-3 hours a day.

Interval training improves both your aerobic and anaerobic capacity. As referenced in this post from Mark’s Daily Apple, Dr. Tabata’s “famous study on moderate and high-intensity interval training helped legitimize a movement – away from chronic cardio and toward high-intensity workouts. This studies showed that high-intensity intermittent training actually improves both anaerobic (intensity and muscle building) and aerobic (slower, oxygen consuming) body systems, while aerobic exercise only improves aerobic systems.”  Two for one!

note: Tabata training is highly advanced – you’ll still see similar results with interval training compared to Tabata training, but perhaps not to that extreme.

How to interval train

Let’s take you through a sample running guide for interval training.

Three  days a week of running is sufficient – if it’s done right, your body will need 48 hours to recover between exercises, and actually burn fat on your off days, when you’re sitting at your computer or playing videogames.

This will be your routine for three weeks:

  • 5 minutes of warmup...light walking, bump the speed up a little bit to get your legs warmed up…then stretch.  Don’t stretch until you’ve warmed up.  Think of your muscles like rubber bands…you quickly pull a rubber band that hasn’t been used yet and it’ll snap.  Warm it up, get it used to activity, then stretch it, and you’re golden.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (70% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (75% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (80% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (85% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (90% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (100% of maximum effort)..2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 5 minutes of light jogging and stretching. When you stretch afterwards, your muscles expand, allowing the nutrients you’re about to eat to fill in the gaps that are now empty from exercise.  Also, it keeps your muscles loose, so there’s a far less chance for injury.

Now, because this is your first time doing intervals…it might be tough to get through the routine.  If it is, concentrate on doing the intervals as strongly as possible (really push yourself on those 30 seconds fast sections)…and if you can only get through 3 or 4 intervals, stop there.  The next time, aim for 5 intervals, then 6, then 7.

The reason I don’t tell you how fast to run for either, is because it’s different for each person.  If you’re really out of shape, your 90 seconds might be walking, and your 30 seconds might be jogging.  If you are in shape, your 90 seconds might be jogging and your 30 seconds might be sprinting.

You should be close to death by the time you complete this cycle…okay maybe not that bad, but you should be dripping in sweat.   If you’re not, then you were faking it, and you’re only screwing with yourself.

Applying interval training to things beyond running

If you’re on a treadmill, running intervals becomes slightly more difficult. Most of them have an “interval setting.”  If not, you’re going to want to aim to set the speed in your down time to something safe, and be CAREFUL on setting your top end speed.  If it’s too quick, you’ll end up looking like Bam on Jackass shooting yourself off the thing into the wall.  Make sure you have a camera on hand in case this happens.

If you’re on a exercise bike, even better.  just try to really really push yourself on that 30 second segment, whether its with increased speed and/or resistance.

Now, this is only 15 minutes of heavy exercise, and when you think about it…it’s really only three minutes of HEAVY exercise.  Add in another 5 minutes of cool down, walking/jogging 25 minutes total.  After two weeks at this routine, cut your “decreased effort” time down from 2 minutes to 90 seconds.




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  • Chris

    Loved reading your advice. My ass is getting larger every 30 seconds. Never had an issue with weight until hitting 50.

  • Johangsl

    i have been running for 6 months. I was thinking today of change it to interval. How does interval while listening to music fairs out?

  • Henna Sky

    Been doing hours of cv a day pushing myself to my limit and not seeing results even with clean eating. I stumbled on your site yesterday and I did this today. First time I’ve grunted during cv! Haha shall come back in two weeks to share results! Thanks for the tip and intel!

  • teachermomva

    I can relate!

  • Jerome

    I do this all the time and I apply it to running as described but also body weight exercises if you want some variety – I usually do the Insanity Intervals but you can customize it to fit your need.

  • Rikki Bower

    How can you tell if you are putting in 70% of effort?

  • Andy

    Love this blog

  • Levi

    Don’t suppose I could substitute running for something more indoor intensive, maybe faster easier body-weight exercises like burpees without the pushup, types of jumping jacks and high knees and mountain climbers, those things seem to get my heart rate racing. so if I did the interval style of those fast as i can for 20 seconds then 10 seconds of like, kickboxing shuffle and generally jogging in place would that work?

  • Louise

    I’ve got bad knees and interval on a stationary bike is great for me.

  • Metal641

    I live in an apartment on the top floor… so doing this is a real pain since I don’t want to cause disruption to those below me.. anything I can do which can give the similar effect of this workout without the whole jogging thing?

  • RoRo

    Single Arm Dumbbell rows actually work your biceps and triceps as a bonus to your upper back which makes its superior to isolating your biceps and triceps. During the Row, you move from an extended elbow to a flexed elbow: one of the actions of biceps is flexion at the elbow joint. Also, extension at your shoulder happens which the long head of the triceps aids in.
    Its best to choose compound exercises over isolation exercises because its more bang for your buck plus reduced stress on a single joint. Our bodies are designed as a unit and optimally function as a unit…compound exercises are king.

  • Katy Manley- Morrison

    I do not have access to a treadmill and right now it’s snowy and icy outside and I’m not going out in it, can I still do this or do you have an alternative?

  • Luke Bernard

    I wonder if skip rope would be good in your case?

  • Brad

    What luke said. Jumping rope would be a great alternative.

  • beeraxe93

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  • faibexur

    usgx – Last few years i have been lacking in money and debts were eating me from all sides! That was RIGHT UNTIL i learned to earn money.. on the INTERNET. I landed on surveymoneymaker point net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and yes, I have been greatly more able to get around financialy! I am very happy, I did this!!! – Q3S4

  • Jess

    After sprints or runs, do you recommend a heat pack or an ice pack to avoid sore muscles over the next few days? I always stretch thoroughly, (or so it feels) after running but I’m always sore over the next week.

  • Michael Anderson

    Hi my names michael going to start this tomorrow, looks awesome. Have just had surgery and want to exercise while recovering and this looks like the perfect routine.

  • EldridgeDan

    Can anyone help I run minimum 10% incline 6 km/h for a 3 minute warm up then after every 3 minutes I jump off and do 30s sprint high knees,butt kicks,star jumps,skipping,squats so total of 2:30 minute off the treadmill for 5 sets so after one set I jump back on the treadmill, then after that I do intervals at 15% incline and 9.5 km/h, I run for 45 seconds and jump off for 15 seconds, I do that for 8 reps then 2 minute cool down. Is this ok for increasing running speed, endurance and VO2 Max.

    Thanks for your help

  • Ethan Porter

    Im with you :) Im an army Veteran and even when i was in i was over weight. Now my gf and i want to get healthier(and sexier) for ourselves each other and our kiddos plus Im looking to become a police officer so i need to be in good shape. I can’t wait to get started!

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  • Solveig

    Hey, so Ive got a question. I want to do interval training, however I live in China. I dont have access to a gym, and its impossible to run outside here. Not only would you look like an idiot, Chinese people DO NOT get out of the way when youre walking, and I’ve tried running, its more of a game of trying to constantly dodge people while getting hateful glares (and in the end you almost always run into at least 2 people at some point because even if they see you coming they dont friggin move). I have a small apartment, and seven flights of stairs I can use. I also have a yoga mat and dumbells. Is there any way to do interval training with such limited options?

  • Patti

    Run on the stairs in your apartment, as hard as you can, and as far as you can go. Walk back down as a cool-off. I have done this when I couldn’t get outside to run.

  • Mimi

    Could someone please give me an example of their workout routine for interval training? I want to start with it too but I’m not quite sure what to do…

  • Fred

    “When you stretch afterwards, your muscles expand, allowing the nutrients you’re about to eat to fill in the gaps that are now empty from exercise.” Where the hell did you come up with this?

  • BB

    I use a power hour app for interval training. It changes the song every 60 seconds, so you’d have to adjust the above, but it keeps you from having to worry about the clock and keeps your run exciting with new music!

  • Arin

    Thanks for writing a very good post on interval training. Agree that it is not only efficient, it is a lot kinder to the muscles as well. Even for beginners, the soreness will be a lot less with this kid of training.

  • Tim Childree

    I have been running 2 miles per weekday since June of last year. In that time, my average mile has gone from about 10:30 to about 9 minutes. I decided I was going to start injecting intervals today. Starting at the 5 minute mark, I put on a moderate burst of speed for 30 seconds, then reverted to normal pace for 90 seconds (I didn’t sprint during the speed burst – I couldn’t have finished if I had). I beat my former best time (17:54) by nearly a full minute (16:57). Thank you for the recommendation. I’ve been “gliding” by just letting my pace naturally improve. I’m going to start throwing in intervals every other day for my runs and really start taking this seriously again.

  • RBwan

    Steve, thanks for posting HIIT basic instructions. Can you tell me what it means to work at an increased pace of 70% of maximum effort? Is that to mean 70% of maximum heart rate? Or is it a subjective measure as in “Darth Vader sensed he was only drawing on 70% of the Force when he lifted Captain Antilles into the air by the neck”? In the former case, for someone like me (49) my max heart rate (calculated using the simple formula) is 172 and 70% of that would be 120.4 – that doesn’t seem like I’m working very hard. BTW – love the “nerd” perspective throughout your site. Keep up the good work.

  • Frank

    So is the email thing free

  • mindy lee

    This was very informational, I’m going to try it today. !!! Anyone have any good ideas on dieting foods to eat through out the day after this intense exercise?

  • Nailhead

    It’s a subjective measure. Estimate you are giving about 70% power(effort) for 30 seconds. Think of it like driving a car or tiefighter, your power(throttle) is at 10-20% during your decresed pace, then you take it to 70% power. Work your way up to the last set and take it to “Ludicris Speed” and go plad for the final push!

  • Guillaume Cabrit

    If you want to loose weight, try the paleo diet. I have not tested it but it sounds like the best way to loose some weight

  • Shameless Plugger

    I hope this is not a shameless plug but I think it is very applicable to the article.

    Hi I have created an app that would be ideal for this type of workouts it is available for android phones.

    Agile Run/Jog/Walk Timer is a highly customisable app for timing workouts. It can be used for alternating running / jogging / walking sessions or indeed for simply alternating between running / walking workouts.

    By the way it was only published today!

  • salc

    Would you plateau after weeks of interval training? Genuine question

  • Liz

    Thank you for the post, Steve. Gonna start the beginner exercise tomorrow. hopefully, I will lose 30 kilos in six months. Amen for that wish :D

  • jessbear84

    Right there with Steve in the “but running is so BORING” category. I may not RUN, but I will definitely be trying this out for my days I don’t strength train!

  • Mike

    Im going to try this but being close to 400lbs im always a little nervous to overdue it. im probably overly cautious.

  • Tony

    If you don’t understand a subject like sport or fitness, you should be careful with your advice. Did you read the whole “A Case Against Cardio (from a former mileage king)”?

    You should emphasize that your method only helps to look healthy, although it is better than doing nothing.

  • Thornz

    Did this today and it feels awesome, mmm forgotten what those endorphins feel like!!!

  • Madison

    Hi Steve, I just have one question regarding the benefits of HIIT. I used to be a huge fan of HIIT, and it’d kick my ass every single time I did it. However, before becoming an HIIT fan I was in cross country and I’d just about die in every single 5k we’d do (I was going to make the team but I got a temporary injury in both my hip flexers). It’s two years later now and I’m going to a new school and I want to try out for cross country again! I’m just wondering if HIIT would help me improve with long distance running, as well as running track. Cause I get bored out of my mind running a 5K on the treadmill everyday -and I haven’t seen much improvement yet, but if running 5K everyday is what it takes to improve, then I guess I’ll do it.
    P.S. When I did HIIT I did it everyday, is that okay?
    P.P.S I love your website I’ve been rereading a lot of things for the past year. You’re inspiring loads of people.☺

  • Nafisa Tabassum

    Definitely doing this. Cardio is really boring and too many reps. I got the beginner BW workout down, and I want to do something on the rest days. This is just perfect. Unfortunately, I have to do it on the mornings because at night(I usually excercise at night so nothing distracts me, like BREAKFAST and BRUNCH) it might bother the neighbours(the perks of living in a condo).

  • HPL

    Is this the same thing that fartlek?

  • Jimmy

    Steve, thanks for the info. I’ve read a lot of bits about how interval training can create the ‘afterburn’ effect you mentioned, ie…increased metabolic effect. But what I was hoping you could do is explain how this is? Thanks.

  • Jon06

    Would this work with cycling as well?

  • BCarbaugh

    Prehistoric hunters did this with mammoths, and some bushmen still do with antelopes, etc. It’s called “persistence hunting”. It works best in hot environments (eg the desert) because while animals are built for sprinting, they can’t sustain prolonged activity: they have to stop running and pant to reduce their body-heat. Humans can just keep running/jogging, and their body reduces heat on its own, via sweating.

    The simplest go-to example?

    Jason. Yes, the guy with the hockey-mask.

    See, These goofy teenagers sprint their asses off, get tired, and slow down. Then Jason catches up with them, so they start running again. 3-4 cycles of that, and they’re exhausted. So when they inevitably trip over a root and Jason catches up to them for the very last time, all they can do is crawl away, exhausted and helpless, while Jason simply walks right up and kills them.

  • Becky H

    I just need a warm pair of running pants. It’s single digits here in the midwest and I don’t have a treadmill or a gym membership. I’ll give it a shot though…