My friend Denise (who led my Dolomites trip) is a competitive cross country skier and a damn fast hiker. She’s over 50, and she can totally kick my ass. Recently, we were discussing hiking training and she dropped a total knowledge bomb. “A lot of people want to hike fast,” she said. “But if you ask them if they ever train fast, they say no.” She’s totally right, which is why today’s post is all about the benefits of interval training.
Most endurance sports coaches advocate building your aerobic fitness through long slow distance. training This is absolutely necessary and should always be your No. 1 training priority when training for endurance sports like hiking.
However, many endurance sport coaches also downplay the importance of interval workouts and speed training. And I honestly think this is a disservice to endurance athletes, including hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers.
On one hand, I can kind of understand the logic. You can’t train to run an ultramarathon by running a few sprints and hopping back on the couch!
On the other hand, adding 1–3 interval training sessions a week can enhance your performance — and will actully make your steady-state workouts more effective.
So today, let’s look at some benefits of interval training for hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers.
What are interval workouts?
Interval workouts alternate periods of hard effort with periods of easy effort or recovery. For example, a runner might sprint for a minute, then jog slowly for three minutes to recover. In a full workout, she might repeat this cycle 8–10 times.
Interval workouts can be performed at varying intensities:
- Beginner intervals (3–5 on the 10-point effort scale, with 10 being an all-out effort). These intervals have you pick up the pace a bit during your longer workouts and are great for beginners who are new to interval training.
- Lactate threshold (aerobic) intervals (5–7 on the effort scale). These workouts train you to exercise at higher intensities for longer with less discomfort and fatigue.
- Anaerobic intervals (8–9 on the effort scale). These interval workouts improve your body’s ability to transport and use oxygen. Anaerobic intervals are also known as high intensity interval training, or HIIT.
Generally, the higher the intensity, the shorter the interval. For example, a cyclist might perform 5 min. lactate threshold intervals with 5-min. recovery periods. The same person might do 1-min. anaerobic intervals with 3-min. recovery periods.
Benefits of interval workouts for hikers
1. Burn more calories
High intensity interval workouts (anaerobic HIIT intervals) cause your body to release a burst of human growth hormone. Among other benefits, this increases your metabolism by more than 450 percent.
And there’s even more good news: your metabolism stays high for several hours after your workout! That means when you’re sitting on your butt watching Netflix afterward, you’re still burning extra calories.
This is one reason that interval training is often recommended for weight loss, especially in combination with healthy diet and strength training.
2. Slower aging
A study that followed senior athletes in their 50s for 10 years found that those who performed only steady-state exercise (long, slow distance) experienced a 12 percent decline in their VO2 max. (VO2 max is a measure of your body’s oxygen use during exercise and is often used as an indicator of endurance performance.)
However, those who added interval training to their workouts had almost no decline in their VO2 max over 10 years. In other words, they were as aerobically fit in their 60s as they were in their 50s!
3. Better performance at altitude
Sherpas and Tibetans naturally have a high VO2 max, meaning their bodies are extremely efficient at taking in, transporting, and using oxygen. You may not have been born with the same physiology, but you can raise your own VO2 max with short, high-intensity intervals.
4. Improved hiking speed and stamina
While it’s not a replacement for building an aerobic base, interval training (especially lactate threshold intervals) will help you to hike at a faster pace for longer. In my experience, this type of training also increases your comfort during moderate hiking. You’ll feel as if you have a higher gear to shift into, which cuts down on fatigue.
5. Time management
Think you’re too busy to train? Make your busiest day your interval workout day and watch your life simplify. HIIT workouts allow you to get an excellent cardio workout that boosts VO2 max in as little as 4 minutes, if you’re doing traditional Tabata training. You can also perform weight-lifting interval circuits to combine your strength and cardio training.
6. More positive mood
To me, a good interval workout feels like a really strong cup of coffee. Vigorous exercise delivers a huge hit of endorphins to your brain, which can have a lasting effect on your mood and outlook. This is one reason doctors often recommend daily exercise to people struggling with depression.
7. Increased motivation and consistency
Research suggests that exercisers enjoy interval training more than steady-state workouts. Adding some interval workouts to your training schedule will keep you fresh and excited about your program. You’re also more likely to stick with this kind of program over the long term.
8. Heart disease prevention
Yes, athletes can get heart disease. (Not fair, right?) But interval training is an important step toward prevention. HIIT workouts have been linked to more elastic blood vessels, better blood sugar control, lower blood pressure, and improved body composition. So do your heart a favor and put some sweat into your workout!
Need help getting started?
I’ve personally seen interval training boost my fitness and motivation, which is one reason I’ve added progressive, high-quality interval workouts to all my training plans.
I usually recommend that beginners start with easy and then lactate threshold intervals. These are safe for most exercisers, less likely to cause injury, and have lots of benefits for longer endurance events like hiking.
Wondering how to put it all together? My 8-week Beginner Training Plan walks you through two months of strength and cardio workouts to help you get in solid shape for summer hiking.
This plan is ideal for people who are active, but want to get more serious and consistent about their workouts! Learn more and peak inside at my Beginner Training Plan page.
Do you already have a great base of fitness and feel ready for some serious mountaineering training?
There you have ’em. Eight awesome benefits of interval training.
Has interval training benefited you as an endurance athlete? Comment below to share your tips.
Originally published March 5, 2019.