Interval Running vs. Continuous Running - Which is Better?
Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN
Have you ever wondered whether it's better to spend more of your time doing interval running instead of long duration, continuous runs? I know I have, and that's part of what led me to develop the Treadmill Trainer interval running workouts.
But what is the difference, both in structure and results, between interval and continuous running? Let's have a look at each one and then see what some of the research says about improving running performance and burning fat.
What is Interval Running?
Interval running consists of intermittent bouts of fast and slow running speeds. For example, a bout of sprinting for 1 minute followed 1 minute of jogging. This type of running training always you to run for a longer period of time at faster speeds because these faster bouts are interspersed with "recovery" bouts. After all, how long can you possibly sprint? Not much more than 30-60 seconds, right? However, intervals allow you to spend several minutes at your fastest speed because of the recovery interludes.
A classic interval running program would look like this:
30 seconds @ 100% : 60 seconds @ 65% x 10 = 15 minutes
In this workout, you would be spending a full 5 minutes at your fastest running speed! That's huge and a feat that is very difficult to achieve using continuous running.
What is Continuous Running?
As the name implies, this type of training simply means that you are running continuously at roughly the same pace. This type of training can take 2 forms.
The first involves running at a slow pace for a long period of time. These type of runs definitely have their place in a training program but I recommend using them in the initial stages of training and as recovery runs later on.
The second type of continuous running is very effective but very difficult unless you are an advanced and highly motivated runner or athlete. These runs are known as supramaximal runs and involve you spending as much time running at, or faster, than your given race pace. Stated simply, it involves you running as fast as you can for as long as you can. Because most people can't sustain this kind of pace for much longer than a few minutes at most, these runs usually end of becoming interval runs.
In general, when we talk about continuous running we refer to long and slow runs. Now let's see what science has to say about which is better for improving your running performance and burning fat.
Improvements in VO2 max and Aerobic Performance
A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology had 12 subjects maintain the same relative exercise intensity in either an interval training (IT) or continuous training (CT) group. The 12 subjects were equally divided into continuous (CT, exercise at 50% maximal work) or interval (30 s work, 30 s rest at 100% maximal work) training groups that cycled 30 min/day, 3 days/week, for 8 weeks.
Following training, aerobic power (VO2max), exercising work rates, and peak power output were all higher (9–16%) after IT than after CT (5–7%). The authors concluded that, of the two types of training programs employed, interval training produced higher increases in VO2max (ie. aerobic performance) and in the ability to exercise at maximal intensity for a longer period of time. Although this study was used with cycling, the principles and results may be assumed for other methods of aerobic training such as running.
7 Sessions of Interval Running Improves Ability to Burn Fat
A more recent study (again on the bike) had 8 women perform 7 interval sessions consisting of ten 4-min bouts at 90% VO2max with 2 min of rest between intervals. Training increased VO2 max by 13% and skyrocketed whole body fat burning by 36%. And again, this is only after 7 interval training workouts over a 2 week period.
These are just a few examples of the benefits of interval training. Here are some articles on the subject that may also be of interest to you:
Gorostiaga, E. (1991). Uniqueness of interval and continuous training at the same maintained exercise intensity. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 63 (2): 101-107.
Talanian, J. (2006). Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. Journal of Applied Physiology, 102: 1439-1447.
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