What is interval training?

Phil Goulding Phil Goulding Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer
Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer Phil Goulding explains what interval training is, what it's good for and when to do it.

Interval training consists of a series of repeated rounds of exercise, ranging from several minutes to just a few seconds. During each interval you work at a set intensity for a specific period of time or distance (work interval) and follow this with a low intensity recovery period (recovery interval). You can vary the speed, duration and rest period in order to achieve differing goals from your training session.

Interval training is typically used with running, rowing, cycling and swimming as a way to work harder than you could during a continuous effort.

What is interval training good for?

Interval training is good for improving both aerobic (working with oxygen) and anaerobic (working without oxygen) energy systems. It's very effective at improving your VO2 Max and anaerobic threshold. This means that you'll be able to work harder and maintain this intensity for longer. For example, you'll be able to run faster and also run further at your faster speed.

Depending on your goal, interval training can be used to improve performance in endurance sports or to improve recovery rate for team sports such as football or rugby which require repeated bursts of high intensity exercise.

When should you do interval training?

It's best to establish a good baseline level of cardiovascular fitness before trying interval training. You can achieve a good baseline level through easy to moderate-intensity exercise.

If you are training for an endurance event such as a 10k race then interval training would be beneficial to you. There are specific recommendations for how long and at what intensity you should work depending on what you want to achieve. A member of your gym team or Personal Trainer will be able to set you up with an interval training plan that is individually tailored to suit your needs.

Those who find continuous cardiovascular exercise boring may also benefit from interval training. This is because there's a shorter but more intense period of work and each separate interval can be used as a mini goal within the training session.

Example session

Example of an interval training session on a treadmill to improve speed in a runner

  • Warm up – Jog for 5 minutes at an easy 5/10 effort 
  • Work interval – Run for 90 seconds very hard 8/10 effort 
  • Recovery interval – Jog for 3 minutes at an easy 5/10 effort 
  • Repeat 4x intervals total 
  • Cool Down – Walk 5 minutes easy

Our treadmill training video provides additional instruction for a 10k treadmill training programme.

Last updated Monday 4 July 2022

First published on Thursday 7 January 2016