Jan 29, 2015
Analyzing Intervals

By Stan Reents

Contributor Stan Reents analyzes recent interval training studies conducted by Canadian researchers.

In 2005 and 2006, Gibala, Burgomaster, and colleagues from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, published several papers showing that even small amounts of high-intensity training can produce performance improvements.

The protocol went like this: Healthy college students (none were elite athletes) trained three times per week for two weeks. At each training session, subjects rode an exercise bike “all out” for 30 seconds, and then rested for four minutes. This pattern was repeated three to six times at each session.

After two weeks of training, researchers saw increases in cycling endurance capacity between 81 and 169 percent, with a mean increase of 100 percent. (Burgomaster KA, et al. 2005). This is truly impressive when you consider that it was the result of only six training sessions.

In their follow-up study, published the following year, the McMaster researchers showed that the high-intensity sprint interval training (SIT) described above produced exercise performance improvements comparable to a more traditional training program of cycling at 65 percent VO2max for 90 to 120 minutes three times per week. In other words, the same improvement can be achieved in much shorter sessions, if the intensity is very high (Gibala MJ, et al. 2006).

As I mentioned, this research was conducted using healthy college students. Can this regimen be employed with highly trained endurance athletes? To me, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”

Australian researchers showed that a training regimen of 12 intervals of 30-second bursts at 175 percent of peak power output separated by four and a half minutes of recovery led to an improvement in 40 km time trial performance in elite cyclists (Laursen PB, et al. 2002). Although the performance improvements were only in the range of four to six percent, this could still be significant in elite competition. High-intensity training (e.g., protocols requiring 95 to 100 percent of VO2 max effort) are known to enhance performance in elite distance runners as well (Midgley AW, et al. 2006).

Finally, can weekend warriors benefit from high-intensity training sessions? Again, the answer appears to be “yes.” Young, moderately active women performed 10 four-minute bursts of cycling at 90 percent of VO2 peak, with two minutes of rest between bursts. Similar to the regimens discussed earlier, results were seen after only two weeks (a total of seven exercise sessions): Measurements of fat oxidation increased substantially (Talanian JL, et al. 2007).

Thus, it appears that not only can high-intensity training lead to performance improvements. It may also be useful for those wishing to drop a few pounds.


Burgomaster KA, Hughes SC, Heigenhauser GJF, et al. Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. J Appl Physiol 2005;98:1985-1990.

Gibala MJ, Little JP, van Essen M, et al. Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J Physiol 2006;575(pt. 3):901-911.

Laursen PB, Shing CM, Peake JM, et al. Interval training program optimization in highly trained endurance cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2002;34:1801-1807.

Midgley AW, McNaughton LR, Wilkinson M. Is there an optimal training intensity for enhancing the maximal oxygen uptake of distance runners? Sports Med 2006;36:117-132.

Talanian JL, Galloway SD, Heigenhauser GJ, et al. Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. J Appl Physiol 2007;102:1439-1447.

Stan Reents, PharmD, is a former healthcare professional. He holds Personal Trainer and Lifestyle Counselor certifications from the American Council on Exercise. He has also been certified as a tennis coach by the USTA. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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