Interval training, redefined

New research outlines a running routine proven to shave minutes off your race time and cut training in half.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least among the exercise elite) that interval training maximizes your exercise minutes. We know it delivers an elevated calorie burn, increases your overall fitness level, and, according to some studies, may improve athletic performance. But since the proliferation of Tabata intervals (popularized by Dr. Izumi Tabata's research that outlined a 4-minute routine: 20 seconds of maximal effort followed by a 10-second recovery, repeated 8 times), science hadn't delved into the nitty gritty of the actual interval protocol — until now. We'd like to introduce you to 10-20-30. In a recent study from the University of Copenhagen, runners who were coached on the new training concept (developed by the school’s department of Exercise and Sport Sciences) for seven weeks improved their 5k times by a full minute and cut their training by 50 percent. They also saw significant decreases in blood pressure and cholesterol and improvements in emotional stress.

10-20-30 structures training sessions with short bursts of exertion. Following a 5-minute warm-up (subjects in the Copenhagen study jogged one kilometer), you do five sets of intervals in one-minute blocks:

• 10 seconds at high intensity

• 20 seconds at moderate intensity

• 30 seconds at low intensity

The five sets (totaling five minutes of running) are followed by two minutes of rest. The cycle is performed a total of three to four times, resulting in a workout that’s 20-30 minutes long.

The particular benefit of the 10-20-30 concept is that its structure forces the body to continually adapt to different intensities, leading to greater strength, better running form, more efficient use of oxygen in the body (VO2), more significant weight loss, and — what all racers want to hear — faster times, says Rick Garrigan, Tier 4 Coach and EFTI Master Instructor at Equinox. Plus, the protocol builds in appropriate proportions of varying intensity and rest, making it easy and safe for exercisers who don’t typically incorporate intervals into their training — a common practice in runners, he says.

Most runners tend to vary distance, but not intensity, in their training. “In doing this, they stop adapting to the training stimulus,” says Garrigan. “They plateau, and the only improvement they make is in mileage.” Garrigan claims this method of training causes more muscle and joint deterioration and an increased risk of injury.

So how do you get started? “When starting a new program that requires upping intensity or duration, one should always begin with minimal increases and build up,” Garrigan suggests, explaining that introducing the change incrementally reduces your risk of injury. “I recommend having a VO2 assessment performed by a coach to establish the appropriate heart rate ranges, which ensures that your training intensities are appropriate.”