The concept of interval training isn’t new in endurance sports. Even athletes who are new to their endurance sport of choice have at least heard of the concept: Do work for a set amount of time, then recover, then repeat that cycle for a predetermined amount of time. Voilà! You have an interval workout.
The concept of interval training originated in the 1930s, and it was pioneered by a coach named Woldemar Gerschler who sought to help his athletes be more productive with their time during workouts.
Basically, the idea behind this type of training is that athletes will be able to get more out of the workout and accomplish more in their hard efforts if they break down the workout into “bites”. For example, the workout could be broken down to 4 x 5 minutes of harder efforts with 3-minute recoveries versus working for 20 minutes straight at a harder effort, with those 5-minute efforts yielding a higher performance gain than if the athlete worked 20 minutes consecutively.
How You Do Something is What Matters
Like so many things in endurance sports, the strategy employed in interval training can be translated beyond sport into everyday life situations. The most common thought process I encounter with athletes is the “more is better” mindset. As I have said very frequently over the years: more is not better; better is better.
The best performers in sport and in life often don’t put in more work or practice; how they work and practice is the key factor. In other words, no matter the realm (sport, work, life) the quality of the work that they are doing is what yields success for these best performers, not the volume of their work.
We live in a world where the “more is better” philosophy is widely touted as wonderful, productive, and the key to being successful. We are bombarded with (inaccurate) messages that we can (and should be able to) do everything all simultaneously. We are constantly connected to our work and social circles via smartphones (which are then linked to smartwatches). Those devices notifying us every time someone comments on one of our social media posts, when we get a new e-mail, when someone sends us a text message, when a call is forwarded from our work line, and on and on. In other words, we are constantly distracted, and our attention is regularly pulled away from tasks that we are seeking to accomplish.
Multitasking is a Myth
Research shows, quite conclusively, that we are not as capable of multitasking as we think we are. The human brain divides and conquers when it is asked to accomplish two tasks simultaneously; one-half of our brainpower is given to one task, and the other half is given to the other task. Multitasking can actually cost a person as much as 40% of their productive time. So, while people may think that they are getting “twice as much” (200%) accomplished when they try to multitask, they might actually be getting closer to 50% done.
The average endurance athlete is a very busy person. They are usually balancing family commitments, social engagements, work, and sport on a daily basis. I always try to encourage athletes to make their training time truly their time - free of distractions from the other areas of their lives. In other words, I seek to encourage athletes to push pause on other things going on in their life to focus whole-heartedly on the workout itself - the task at hand - and then “resume” the other tasks/obligations that they have for the day once the workout is complete.
In addition to advice to practice “shutting down” sectors of our mind that might want to be thinking about what else we need to do in a day, this piece of advice usually comes with a suggestion to either shut off one’s smartphone--or at least put the phone on airplane/privacy mode so that the number of device distractions are minimal.
I cannot begin to tell you the number of athletes who use their phones while completing indoor workouts. My advice always has been (and always will be) that if you don’t do it outside, it’s not a good idea to do it inside. Imagine riding outside, and stopping every time you got a text to respond to it right then and there. That seems like that would be incredibly disruptive and that it would ruin the quality of the workout, right? Well, even though an athlete might not be physically stopping while inside (since it’s safer to keep “going” in the workout), they are effectively stopping since they are pulling their brainpower away from the workout and directing it to their phone.
Hard Work is Only One Part of the Equation
The people who end up getting involved in the endurance sports world are usually driven people. It comes with the territory; the people who set goals for themselves (whether in sport or in life) are very driven. They wouldn’t be setting goals and aiming for “that next thing” if they didn’t have that intrinsic drive.
Over the years, I’ve experienced that I rarely have to push athletes to work harder; most athletes instinctively know how to work hard. My most common job function is actually holding athletes back. Without me there to help them go easy when it’s time to go easy and rest when it’s time to rest, most athletes would overtrain, run themselves into the ground (pun intended), and not be able to maximize the hard efforts that they are putting forth.
In essence, my job is teaching athletes the principles of interval training within a workout and how to translate those principles to the “bigger picture” - their overall training plan and their lives. I encourage athletes to focus on the workout and to take each component of the workout as it comes as they are completing a workout. In their lives, I encourage them to deeply focus on the important task-at-hand, whatever that may be at a given time. Sometimes, it’s spending time with their kids. Other times, it’s finishing up a project for work.
No matter what it is, I encourage athletes to put their focus into that task, then draw a line when it’s time to rest, and then again when it’s time to focus on something else. The rest portion is just as important as the “work” portion; rest should be viewed as an important task (aka a productive use of time)!)
The Bottom Line
Yes, indeed, there are intervals within intervals. A workout is an example of an interval within one’s daily life, and then there are intervals within that workout. Aim to give your undivided attention to what you are doing, whether it’s a workout, dinner with your family, a walk with a friend, or a project at work.
Applying the principle of interval training - blocks of time where you are highly-focused on a single-task - enables you to put out and sustain the emotional and physical energy needed to get your best out of yourself and the task that you are seeking to complete. Give it a try and see if you don’t feel a deeper sense of satisfaction from doing so.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.