Commander's fit tip: The need for speed

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Now that I'm back in the "workout" mode, I'm getting a lot of questions about my program, and how someone can improve their aerobic fitness.

While no "template" will work for everyone, one thing is for sure...you just can't beat "interval training" if you are trying to build aerobic capacity.

As I explained in the last edition, repeating a single workout is not the answer. It takes a "portfolio" approach. Like any stock portfolio, diversity is key, but no "growth" portfolio is complete without interval training. Here's why.

We explored "hard-day, light-day" recently, and hopefully that theory made sense. Interval training would count as a "hard day." Since most of us run as part of our program, "wind sprints" are a classic application of interval training.

The basis for interval training is very simple: take your level of effort to unsustainable levels for short periods, with rests between the intense periods. It's like "hard day, light day" repeated in a workout session. Again, the heart rate monitor is the key. For interval training, you are working up to 90-95% of max heart rate.

If you are just starting a workout program, or working out for the first time, DO NOT go there! Every trainer will tell you to start a workout program with a trip to the Doctor, not a trip to the gym. This is very important as you increase the intensity of your workout. And only a heart rate monitor will tell you precisely where your effort stands. As your fitness level increases, and you start to "know your limits," interval training is the next step. Why stop at 95% of max? There's just no real benefit for going any farther. Play it safe.

For runners, the term "wind sprints" can conjure up really bad memories of track coaches driving them into the ground. Good news is those days are behind us. A properly executed interval session is not exasperating. In fact, it's my favorite workout. It's short, intense, and focused. The "interval" part is much better understood now. For fitness training, the training interval should be no longer than the rest, and at the other extreme, the rest should be no longer than twice the training interval. A "1:1" ratio is the target, but it's pretty tough to execute that right off the bat, so try starting at 1.5 : 1. That would mean training for one minute, recovering for 1.5 minutes. Keeping with the wind sprint theme, you would run, then walk. But here's where "wind sprints" got a bad name. You don't actually need to sprint.

Remember, we're trying to get to 95% max heart rate. You just won't get there in 50 to 100 yards. For this technique, you need a much longer training interval. I like the classic "440" or quarter mile to start. How fast? I call it "unsustainable." It's not a sprint, but it's much faster than you would run a mile or more. So for a 1:1 ratio, you would run your 440, look at the time it took, then walk that length of time. For speedsters out there, that would work out to around 90 seconds on, 90 seconds off. If your 440 took two minutes, you'll probably find the two minute walk a little too long...OK, adjust accordingly. If you have the heart rate monitor going, you walk until your heart rate recovers to around 60-70% of max.

For me, that gets me back running at 130 BPM. I know some of you are thinking that you are "wasting your time" while you are walking. Let's just say the science is on my side. You see, while you are walking, you are still breathing very hard, and your heart rate is decreasing slowly. These elevated rates continue while your legs recover almost immediately. Your heart and lungs are working while you legs (and your psyche!) are resting. You need to let your legs recharge so they can put the load back on the heart and lungs in the next round. Without these rest periods, you eventually lose intensity, and the whole workout falls apart. Plus it hurts!

Another key aspect of the interval pace relates to your muscle fibers. We know now that you have two kinds...so called "fast twitch" and "slow twitch." The high pace intervals work and develop the fast twitch fibers a bit more, completing your muscle "portfolio" as well as your cardio profile. Remember the sources of energy pitch a while back? These higher pace intervals increase your ATP efficiency, while expanding your physical lung capacity. All these benefits make the interval set the MVP in the roster.

Let's talk execution. Mine are based on a quarter mile, or "440" for those track stars out there. If you start with the quarter mile, soon you will not be able to keep up a challenging pace, No worries. That's not an issue with interval training. You can just shift to a shorter interval. I target four discreet distances, aiming to increase the pace slightly during each event, and for each distance. So my "interval day" includes 4 x 440, 4 x 330, 4 x 220, and 4 x 100. I switch to the next distance when I can't hold the pace for the entire length. Sometimes I only get three in. That's OK, Just add one to the next round, or increase the rest period a bit. These work out perfectly on a track. The 440 is a whole lap. I start at the beginning of the straight. When the lap is over, I walk the length of the straight. When the next lap is done, I end up at the start of a curve. Walk the curve. That ends up at the start of another straight. Get the idea? For the 330, I run the curve and two straights, walk the curve. For the 220s, run the straight and a curve, walk a curve. The 100s are running just the straights. If you don't have a track (I know, we don't have one...I'm working on that!) your clock is your friend.

One more thing, the best advice I ever got about "sprints." Leave your last sprint on the track. That means that as you fatigue, don't try to get in "just one more." It's not worth it. If you can't sustain a fast pace, all you are doing is adding injury risk.

Intervals are perfect on the road, but you can do the same thing on the elliptical, stationary bike, and even the stairmaster. If you are VERY CAREFUL, you can do them on the treadmill, but that's spooky for me. If you want to try these on the treadmill, use the elevation to increase the intensity some...there's no safe way to "go hard" on a treadmill. A 5% grade will get your HR up much more safely than mashing the pace button down.

I do these at least once a week in my "hard day, light day" routine. Done properly, you won't be sore the next day. If you are, you were likely "pounding" a bit. If so, just back off the rest period a little to keep the HR up. Done right, you'll be amazed at your progress. A month of these, and you'll feel some real power on your next long run.