Interval Training: Better For Athletes?

July 6, 2016

There are a number of popular approaches for aerobic exercise training. The other day I was approached by a soccer strength and conditioning coach about my thoughts of aerobic training and soccer. I told him that, while there are others, the two major approaches to aerobic exercise training involve long slow distance training (LSD) and interval training.

 

LSD involves a lower intensity and, as a result, can be performed for a long time. This is about building an aerobic base, fitness level, etc. It improves maximal oxygen consumption and enables athletes to perform for long periods of time.

 

The challenge with LSD is that the intensity and speed are low. Specificity says that if we want to get faster then we need to train at faster speeds, so in a sense LSD training gets us better at being slow.

 

To combat that people use interval training. This involves training at high intensities and speeds, but for brief periods of time (30-90 seconds usually). The intervals are repeated multiple times for a training effect. Because the speed and intensity are higher they improve those qualities, they also improve maximal oxygen consumption. The problem is that the intensity is very tiring.

 

Christensen et al, in an issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at the impact of interval training of oxygen consumption kinetics. This refers to the speed at which oxygen consumption responds to exercise. They studied untrained college aged males.

 

Subjects trained for two weeks, three times per week. They performed intervals on a cycle ergometer consisting of 60-second bouts followed by 75-seconds of recovery. The work bouts were performed at a resistance equivalent to the subject’s peak power, recover was at 30 watts. Subjects began the study at 8 intervals and over the course of the two weeks progressed to 12.

 

Results:

  • The speed at which oxygen consumption increased as a result of the exercise increased by almost 42% over the course of the study.
  • There was no increase in oxidative enzyme activity.

 

There was a lot more to this study, but this is the part that was most interesting to me. Working with athletes, I’m very concerned about speed. I’m also concerned about preventing overuse injuries. To me, LSD training is asking for slower athletes who, due to the nature of the repetitiveness of the LSD training, are asking for an overuse injury.

 

As a result, I really favor interval training for most athletes that need that aerobic work. To me it’s the best of all worlds, plus I don’t have to devote an hour or more in each session to it. We know from previous studies that interval training is effective at increasing speed as well as maximal oxygen consumption. This study also showed that it had an impact on how oxygen consumption changes as a result of exercise, dramatically speeding that up.

 

Now, the subjects were untrained. It’s unclear how this would impact someone with a higher fitness level. It’s also unclear how these results would be impacted over a longer time period.

 

Christensen, P.M., Jacobs, R.A., Bonne, T., Fluck, D., Bangsbo, J., and Lundby, C. (2016). A short period of high-intensity interval training improves skeletal muscle mitochondrial function and pulmonary oxygen uptake kinetics. Journal of Applied Physiology, 120: 1319-1327.