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 is typically used with the more traditional cardiovascular exercises, such as running, rowing, cycling and swimming, as a way to work harder than you could during a continuous effort.

It consists of a series of repeated bouts of exercise (work intervals), ranging from several minutes to just a few seconds. During each interval you work at a prescribed intensity for a set period of time or distance and follow this with a low intensity recovery period (recovery interval). The speed, duration and rest period can all be manipulated in order to achieve differing goals from your training session.

What is interval training good for?

Interval training is good for improving both aerobic (working with oxygen) and anaerobic (working without oxygen) energy systems and is very effective at improving your VO2 Max and anaerobic threshold. What this means in the real world is that you will be able to work harder (run faster) and then maintain this intensity for longer (run further still 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?

Interval training is best utilised once you have established a good baseline level of cardiovascular fitness 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 very 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 or tedious may benefit from interval training as they have a shorter but more intense period of work and can use each separate interval as a mini goal within their 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 14 June 2021

First published on Thursday 7 January 2016