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Interval Training for Walkers: Get Fit in Less Time

What Is Interval Training?

It's an exercise method that consists of intense spurts of energy followed by recovery periods at a slower pace. Think of a puppy's activity: He races across your lawn, stops to sniff a lamp post, tears across the yard in pursuit of a squirrel, then pauses under a tree before sprinting off again. Interval walking follows a similar pattern: You alternate between easy strolling and power walking.

What Are the Benefits of Interval Walking?

Research has shown that regular interval training can boost your endurance, calorie burn, and overall cardiovascular health—and you can do it in less time than if you exercised at a steady pace. One study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that women cyclists who biked for 10 hard sets with two minutes of rest between each burned a higher percentage of fat than riders who pedaled at a slower continuous pace for the same total amount of time. The reason: Interval training stimulates change on the cellular level and enhances the body's ability to break down fat and carbs. An extra bonus is that since it's a more effective way to exercise, you can shave time off your workouts. "If you commit to a 30-minute interval walk, the results would be the same as if you did a steady 40-minute walk," says Michele Olson, PhD, a researcher at the Human Performance Laboratory in Montgomery, Alabama.

Can I Handle Interval Walking?

Though it was conceived for Olympic runners, interval training is no longer just for elite athletes—or super-fit moms. A 2008 study in the journal Cardiology Today reported that intervals provide health benefits to seniors as well as people with chronic conditions, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Since your personal fitness level determines how fast or slow you go during your walks, virtually anyone can do intervals. (Though it's always a good idea to check with your doctor before you start.)

What's a Typical Beginning Interval Walking Plan?

Warm up with three to five minutes of slow walking. Then, start 20 minutes of intervals: Speed walk for a minute or less, then scale back to a slow, easy stroll for three minutes. Repeat seven times. If you don't want to time your intervals, measure them by the distance between telephone poles, mailboxes, driveways, or other fixed objects, suggests Mark Fenton, a former competitive race walker and author of The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness (Lyons Press). Cool down with three to five minutes of slow walking and a few simple stretches. Try standing with your toes on the edge of a curb or step, dropping your heels down, and holding this calf stretch for five seconds.

How Fast Should I Walk During the Intense Intervals?

Move briskly, about twice your normal pace. You should breathe faster, feel strain in your muscles, and get a little sweaty. It's totally normal to be a bit uncomfortable. "You're taking your body to a new place," says certified athletic trainer Ralph Reiff, director of St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis. Use the "talk test" to see if you're walking at the right pace: If you can't speak without gasping for air, you're going too fast. If you can easily hum a tune, you need to up your effort.

Don't be afraid to listen to your body, either. Your rest periods will get longer as you progress in a single workout because you become tired. You might start by walking fast for two minutes and slowly for two minutes. But later in the workout, you may walk quickly for 45 seconds and recover for four minutes. Many coaches recommend varying the duration of activity and rest intervals based on what feels right.

How Often Should I Do Interval Walks?

Since intervals push your body harder, avoid doing them on back-to-back days—you need time to recover, says Olson. A good schedule is: Intervals on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; walking at a steady pace Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; and resting on Sunday. See our detailed interval walking plan on page 11 in this story.

Can I Get Hurt Doing Intervals?

"Any time you make a transition from one pace to another, the risk of foot and lower-extremity injury increases," says Reiff. The muscle on the front of the shin (the tibialis anterior) lifts your toes and lowers your foot, so it's especially prone to fatigue and tightness. The good news: Injuries are easily avoidable. "If you're having shin problems, throttle back on the fast pace and the total distance you're walking," says Fenton. Proper walking shoes are also key. Look for comfortable, supportive sneakers with low, rounded heels, and firm, flexible soles.

What's an Easy Way to Increase My Pace?

A faster walk starts with good posture. Slouching restricts your speed, wastes energy, and can potentially lead to injury. Fix your form by standing up straight with your shoulders back and chest forward. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Bend your arms, and push off on the toes. Walk as fast as you can go, aiming for at least 135 steps a minute. Once you've mastered that, go for 150 steps a minute. Focus on quicker, not longer strides. "Strive for greater turnover," says Olson. But don't try too hard to walk properly. "Fast-walking technique should come naturally, and not be strained," says Fenton.

How Soon Will I See Results?

You won't drop weight overnight, but you'll see—and feel—progress quickly. After about three weeks of following our plan (see page 11), you'll be able to exercise more vigorously during the intense intervals without feeling like you're breathing too hard, says Olson. It's possible to drop up to one or two pounds a week and see a slimmer butt and thighs in about four weeks.

Can I Do Intervals on a Treadmill?

Yes, and it can be super-easy, thanks to the machine's ability to track time and distance. Many treadmills have an interval feature that lets you program when and how fast the belt speeds ups and slows down. One interval treadmill routine might be walking for five minutes at normal elevation, cranking up to five percent grade for three minutes, then scaling back down to a 1 percent grade for five minutes; repeat at least four times. Looking for a new challenge? Try intervals on an elliptical trainer, stationary bike, or stair master.

Interval Walking Plan

Start interval walking today. This 12-week plan, developed by Olson, is for beginner as well as intermediate walkers who are already active on a regular basis. It's geared to improve your cardiovascular health and overall fitness level, as well as tone and strengthen your muscles. Stick to this schedule and watch your calorie intake and in four weeks you'll have more energy, walk faster, and lose weight.

 

Interval Walking Program

For every workout, walk briskly for the first 5 minutes.  KEY: Walk = Steady Walk; EZ Walk = Easy Walk; SP Walk = Speed Walk

  Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Week 1 SP Walk 1 minute

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 7 times

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 1 minute

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 7 times

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 1 minute

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 7 times

Walk 20-30 minutes Day Off
Week 2 SP Walk 2 minutes

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 6 times

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 2 minutes

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 6 times

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 2 minutes

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 6 times

Walk 20-30 minutes Day Off
Week 3 SP Walk 3 minutes

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 5 times

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 3 minutes

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 5 times

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 3 minutes

 

EZ Walk 3 minutes

Repeat 5 times

Walk 20-30 minutes Day Off
Week 4 SP Walk 4 minutes

 

EZ Walk 2 minutes

Repeat 5 times

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 4 minutes

 

EZ Walk 2 minutes

Repeat 5 times

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 4 minutes

 

EZ Walk 2 minutes

Repeat 5 times

Walk 20-30 minutes Day Off
Week 5 SP Walk 5 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

Repeat 5 times

Day Off SP Walk 5 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

Repeat 5 times

EZ Walk 15 minutes

SP Walk 5 minutes

Repeat

SP Walk 5 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minutes

Repeat 5 times

Day Off EZ Walk 15 minutes

SP Walk 5 minutes

Repeat

Week 6 SP Walk 6 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

Repeat 5 times

Day Off EZ Walk 10 minutes

SP Walk 6 minutes

Repeat

SP Walk 6 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

Repeat 5 times

SP Walk 6 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

Repeat 5 times

Day Off EZ Walk 10 minutes

SP Walk 6 minutes

Repeat

Week 7 SP Walk 6 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 7 minutes

Walk 2 minutes

Repeat

Walk 20-30 minutes SP Walk 6 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 7 minutes

Walk 2 minutes

Repeat

EZ Walk 5 minutes

SP Walk 5 minutes

Repeat 3 times

Day Off SP Walk 6 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 7 minutes

Walk 2 minutes

Repeat

EZ Walk 5 minutes

SP Walk 5 minutes

Repeat 3 times

Week 8 SP Walk 7 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 8 minutes

Walk 1 minute

Repeat

Walk 3 minutes

EZ SP Walk 8 minutes

Repeat 3 times

SP Walk 7 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 8 minutes

Walk 1 minute

Repeat

Day Off SP Walk 7 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 5 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

Repeat

EZ Walk 3 minutes

SP Walk 8 minutes

Repeat 3 times

EZ Walk 2 minutes

SP Walk 8 minutes

Repeat 3 times

Week 9 SP Walk 9 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 9 minutes

EZ Walk 2 minutes

Repeat

Day Off SP Walk 9 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 9 minutes

EZ Walk 2 minutes

Repeat

EZ Walk 2 minutes

SP Walk 9 minutes

Repeat 3 times

Day Off SP Walk 9 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 9 minutes

EZ Walk 2 minutes

Repeat

EZ Walk 2 minutes

SP Walk 9 minutes

Repeat 3 times

Week 10 SP Walk 10 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

Repeat 3 times

EZ Walk 1 minutes

SP Walk 10 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 10 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 10 minutes

Day Off SP Walk 10 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

Repeat 3 times

EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 10 minutes

Repeat 3 times

Day Off EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 10 minutes

Repeat 3 times

Week 11 SP Walk 12 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 12 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 8 minutes

Day Off SP Walk 12 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 12 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 8 minutes

SP Walk 12 minutes

EZ walk 30 seconds

Repeat 3 times

Day Off SP Walk 12 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 12 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 8 minutes

SP Walk 12 minutes

EZ walk 30 seconds

Repeat 3 times

Week 12 SP Walk 14 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 13 minutes

Walk 1 minute

Repeat

SP Walk 14 minutes

EZ Walk 1 minute

SP Walk 13 minutes

Walk 1 minute

Repeat

Day Off SP Walk 14 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 14 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

Repeat

SP Walk 14 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

SP Walk 14 minutes

EZ Walk 30 seconds

Repeat

Day Off SP Walk 14 minutes

EZ Walk 15 seconds

Repeat

Workout by Michele Olson, PhD, Professor of Exercise Physiology at Auburn University, Montgomery, and creator of the exercise DVD Fitness Prescription: Perfect Legs, Glutes, and Abs. www.micheleolsonphd.com

Originally published on FamilyCircle.com in May 2010.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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