Whether you’re a strength or power athlete, an endurance athlete, or a recreational fitness enthusiast, we can all agree interval training is effective.
But are those high intensity interval workouts you’re doing designed to help maximize your results?
As a CrossFit Games athlete and strength fitness coach for the last 11 years, I have discovered some common pitfalls many athletes make when it comes to interval training—the number one being a failure to consider their unique strengths, weaknesses and goals.
The result: You end up being a dabbler who hits random interval workouts with little to no thought behind them, often missing the mark on the intended training stimulus, thus affecting your ability to make gains, especially in the long term.
Three Big Pitfalls:
1. Not understanding your own capabilities
Without a thorough understanding of your strength level and movement patterns, your deficiencies, ability to recover, muscular endurance and your work capacity, etc, you run the risk of being blinded by movements and exercises you see others doing in their programs. Or maybe you decide to try some random high-intensity interval workouts you picked up on Instagram.
The point: Proper movement selection is key to interval training, and this depends on the individual.
For example, if you can only do two or three kipping pull-ups at a time, then it makes no sense to include kipping pull-ups in an interval workout designed to achieve an aerobic dose-response at a pace required for two minutes. You’re simply not strong enough for pull-ups to become an aerobic movement yet. However, it might make sense to include kipping pull-ups in a workout such as the latter if you’re someone who can easily string 20 pull-ups together within the interval.
Similarly, if you have just learned a technical lift like a clean or snatch, it’s unlikely this movement should be incorporated into metabolic conditioning intervals until the movement has become more second nature to you.
Note: Underestimating your abilities can have the same negative effect: It will hinder your ability to achieve the intended stimulus of the interval session
Pro tip: Hire a coach who can put you through a thorough movement assessment and gather information about your goals, priorities, movement patterns—how do your shoulders, hips, ankles move?—work capacity and body composition.
Best case scenario: Especially if you’re still getting to know your own abilities, your coach can prescribe an exact pace they want you to hold on each interval—be it a rowing or airbike pace, or a number of burpee reps per minute—so you receive the appropriate training stimulus during each training session. If you’re confused, ask for clarification. The more you understand the intention behind your training program, the more autonomous you’ll be able to become.
2. Not understanding how to progress interval training
Just like a strength program, for long term success, interval work should also be progressive—meaning it builds from session to session and week to week.
Taking the following three considerations—prioritize, plan and periodize—make this a lot easier:
- prioritize strength and skill work versus longer conditioning pieces and interval training based on your goals, needs, strengths and limitations
- plan out each week and cycle according to the above,
- and periodize your training program with a longer term plan in mind.
Pro Tip: Log all of your scores, so you can monitor their progress in both the short and long-term. Knowing your times, for example, on 400 meter run intervals will help you figure out how to increase your pace, or reduce your rest, over time.
3. Not understanding work to rest
The third big mistake is doing intervals with inappropriate work to rest ratios.
I already alluded to this, but just like any other training day, interval programming needs to be designed in a way that provides you with a particular training stimulus, which is easily botched if work to rest ratios aren’t considered.
For example, if you are looking to achieve 100 percent recovery between intervals, you’re going to need more rest than work. Generally speaking, you’ll need at least a 1:3 work to rest if you’re looking for full recovery between 90 percent plus efforts.
Two other things to consider:
1. Whether you’re looking for a maximum effort (more rest needed) or a sub-maximal effort (less rest needed).
2. The overall program: For example, week one of a running interval program might look like this:
400 meter run @1:50 pace
Rest three minutes.
Repeat 4 times
However, as you progress, the speed of the interval will likely increase, while the rest period will decrease.
Week 10 might look more like:
400 meter run @1:35
Rest 90 seconds
Repeat 8 times
Tip: The more familiar with energy system training you become, the easier this will be. Depending on your abilities and goals, you might benefit from biasing one particular energy system—either their lactic system, alactic system or aerobic system—or you might be someone who will benefit from a program that works all three systems at once.
Sometimes, more than one miscalculation can happen at once:
Let’s say, for example, you do a rowing interval workout with the intention being to hold the same speed throughout all 10 intervals. But you quickly find you’re unable to sustain the intended pace after the first two intervals and your pace steadily declines over the course of the next eight.
This is problematic because the intention was an aerobic energy system biased training session, but instead you are relying on your anaerobic lactic energy system, thus instead of improving your aerobic capacity, your body is learning how to use glycogen as fuel.
It’s possible that you just needed you to program a longer rest period in relation to the work, but it’s also possible that you tried holding a pace you’re not capable of because you aren’t in tune with your abilities and so you overestimated your work capacity or ability to recover.
We’re not created equal. Our training histories are all different. Our goals are different. Our strengths and weaknesses are different, so it’s only common sense that these differences need to be taken into account when it comes to fitness, and interval training is no different. When you, or your coach, is in tune with your uniqueness, you’ll be able to remove the guesswork from the equation.