Menu

Sports Science Update: Interval Workouts Are More Fun

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Mar 3, 2011
  • Updated Mar 3, 2011 at 4:04 PM UTC

Are you not enjoying your running as much as you could be? Perhaps you’re not suffering enough.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

The vast majority of runners do not perform any interval workouts, or runs featuring repeated short segments of fast running. Interval workouts are typically performed by serious competitive runners and are avoided by non-competitive runners, in part because of their perceived unpleasantness.

One of the key differences between competitive and non-competitive runners is the way in which each group is motivated to run. Competitive runners are motivated by race goals, and are therefore willing to deal with a fair amount of discomfort in training in pursuit of those goals. Non-competitive runners are more concerned about simply enjoying the running experience.

Ironically, however, a new study suggests that non-competitive runners who avoid doing intervals for fear of a negative effect on their enjoyment of running may be missing out on a powerful enjoyment booster—as well as a great boon to their fitness.

Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University recruited eight recreationally active men to participate in the study. They were asked to perform two runs on separate occasions. One was a 50-minute steady run at a moderate intensity of 70 percent VO2max. The other was an interval run comprising six intervals of three minutes at 90 percent VO2max, each interval followed by a three-minute active recovery at 50 percent VO2max, all sandwiched between a seven-minute warm-up and a seven-minute cool-down at 70 percent VO2max. The two workouts were designed to elicit a similar amount of total energy expenditure, and they did.

After each run, the subjects were asked to rate their perceived exertion (how hard it felt) and how much they enjoyed the workout. Interestingly, while they rated the interval workout as more difficult (14 vs. 13 on a scale of 6-20), they also rated it as more enjoyable—by a long shot: 88 vs. 61 on a scale of 1-100.

While both workouts burned the same number of calories, past research has shown that the interval type of workout is actually a more powerful fitness booster, because of the short bursts of high-intensity running. It’s not the kind of workout you’d want to do every day, but a training schedule featuring, say, five moderate-intensity, steady runs per week plus one interval workout will get you fitter than a training schedule featuring six moderate-intensity, steady runs per week. This wouldn’t mean much to the non-competitive runner who is more concerned about enjoying the running experience than maximizing her fitness, but what we find in this new study is that the hard, more effective workout is also significantly more fun.

Why was it more fun? I would have to guess that the division of the total run time into bite-sized chunks made the interval run more engaging, less boring, and that the subjects also enjoyed the exhilaration of running faster. After all, kids on playgrounds always sprint, never jog, and kids know what’s fun.

Now, it bears mentioning that the interval workout used in this study was not especially demanding as interval workouts go. A serious competitive runner is more likely to run 6 x 3 minutes at 100 percent VO2max instead of 90 percent VO2max. That’s a much more unpleasant—and even more effective—workout. But again, even the modest interval workout used in this study will boost fitness more than a moderate-intensity steady run, so if you’re currently not doing any interval running, start with this one and watch your fitness grow while having more fun.

Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.

FILED UNDER: Training

Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald

Get our best triathlon content delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to the FREE Triathlete weekly newsletter