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Interval Training

Splitting some of his training sessions into sets and repetitions is familiar territory for the track athlete who wants to run faster or boost endurance. Yet it can usefully be adapted for conditioning athletes in any sport. Even though interval training is far from a new concept, coaches still lack the courage to be imaginative and stick to traditional sessions to boost fitness. These may often be sound in nature, but there is a danger of the athletes becoming bored and stale when the same workouts at the same venues are repeated time after time. Once you understand the principles, you can tailor your activities to maximise your benefit.

VO2 max

As a soccer player, you may already perform high-intensity shuttles separated by short recoveries to improve your speed endurance. This may also have the added benefit of boosting your aerobic system because research has shown that the best way to lift your VO2 max (an index of aerobic fitness) is to train at an intensity close to or above VO2 max (an index of aerobic fitness) is to train at an intensity close to, or above, VO2 max. Realistically, this work has to be done in an interval format if the session is going to last any extreme length of time-otherwise, after one hard burst for a few minutes you may end up collapsed in a heap of fatigue. This is where the real benefits of interval training become clear: by separating your efforts with short bouts of recovery, you can keep the intensity high, yet extend the volume.

Plan the session first

Our soccer player, however, may be guilty of the cardinal sin of all training: not thinking about and planning the session sensibly beforehand. The very nature of the session working at high intensity leads to the belief that the athlete should be thoroughly exhausted at the end. Yet it is the route to that exhaustion that is often ill-considered how to make the session more than running flat out for as long as possible and then going again on command. The coach should have a clear idea of the physical demands of the sport concerned, particularly the metabolic demands about which energy systems are utilised during the performance. Most coaches can gather this information from books and articles about their sport, but individual measurements can also help build up the picture. Video analysis of a match can determine typical activity patterns for game players, or heart rates and lactates can be monitored in a race. Armed with such information, you can ensure that the session you are considering is geared to the demands of your sport.

Getting the recovery time right

With the demands of the sport in mind, the coach should carefully consider each of three critical aspects of the session: intensity, duration and recovery. Each can combine to govern which energy system is utilised to provide the bulk of energy in the muscles used during the mechanical work. If, for example, our soccer player wishes to improve his speed off the mark, he should choose a session with short but explosive activity such as 30m sprints at maximal speed. Here intensity is the critical factor, so High Energy Phosphates (HEP) will be the immediate major source of the ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) needed to fuel such activity. In such short intensive work, the recovery should be long enough to allow repletion of the HEPs. If the recovery is too short, an alternative energy system will have to be recruited, and the session quality will be impaired.

Judging the exact recovery time to perfection is not always easy. Research has shown that the depletion of HEPs, after a sprint, starts very quickly and then slows. It takes about 20 seconds for the HEP stores to return to half of their resting level but a further 170 seconds to be topped up to normal. Therefore, if our player wants to keep the quality high, the recovery period should be about three minutes. In winter, this may mean putting on and taking off clothing between the short reps.

Sprinting is only one aspect of soccer, and a session may need to be dedicated to the ability to repeat high-quality sprints in rapid succession. This will require a different type of interval session because the player is working on the recovery aspect. Here he should cut the recovery between bursts so that the work is repeated before the HEPs are fully back to resting levels. Such activity requires a more significant contribution from glycolysis, a different energy pathway that breaks carbohydrates down, producing ATP very quickly. A series of such sessions may well improve lactate tolerance and the time required to replenish the HEP stores, both of which should enhance soccer fitness.

The type of recovery between efforts is also of paramount importance. Standing around with hands-on-hips, or bent double, is far less effective than walking or, better still, jogging. This active recovery helps to remove and disperse lactate that accumulates in the working muscles during intensive exercise. Indeed, active recovery can almost halve the time taken for muscle and blood lactate to return to resting levels after an intense burst and is likely to be even more effective in the aerobically training athlete.

Fartlek for games players

Another session can work on both of these aspects and the oxidative system. Although not a structured interval session split into reps and sets like those already described, "fartlek", mixing fast with slow work, can significantly benefit those who play field sports. Fartlek comes from the Swedish for "speed play" and has been used by distance runners for years. But for game players, the session should not just use running but also jogging and walking to fit in with the demands of the sport. After all, no soccer player runs for 90 minutes of a match. The pace is varied. Similarly, the direction of work should not always be straight ahead. It may be necessary for the track runner to cover the ground as quickly as possible in one direction, but the player has to go forwards, backwards and from side to side.

This must all be considered if the training session will accurately mimic the pattern experienced in a match. Remember, if you are a game player, you are not training to be a better sprinter. You are preparing to be better at your game. Therefore, sprinting should not just take the form of back and forth shuttles but should make you change direction or even imitate a slalom. This is where the imaginative element comes into play.

Progression is another aspect you need to consider. If you are to improve your condition, there should always be some element of progress in your schedule. With interval training, you have plenty of options to work with. For instance, you can lengthen the distance of your efforts. This is fine if you are a runner, a rower or a cyclist because you can build up the distance closer to your actual race distance. However, this may not be appropriate for the game player or sprinter. In field sports, sprinting more than 30m in one go is rare, so it is questionable whether long sprints are a suitable focus in training.

You can improve the intensity, which usually involves performing your reps a little faster. Here you must be careful to keep things specific because if you are a 10K runner, it may not be appropriate to be running reps too fast in training. For example, you may be performing aerobic intervals, where the idea of the session is to give an optimal stimulus to the aerobic system. The session might be 5 x 1 mile, where the intention is to work at your maximum aerobic steady state. You can use heart rate in such sessions to control the intensity and ensure you are not going too fast.

However, heart rate may not be the best guide if you perform quicker, shorter repetitions on the track. In such super-maximal intensities, the heart rate does not entirely reflect the high intensity encountered, partly because the reps are too short, and the heart rate needs time to reach a steady state. Here it may be more appropriate to use split times to set your goals, with a gradual reduction from session to session to ensure an element of progression.

You can cut the recovery time allowed between reps to improve your endurance. You can do this systematically - for example, by reducing the recovery time by five seconds each week. Alternatively, you can use your heart rate to determine your recovery. If you use a set recovery period, your heart rate before each rep will rise throughout the session. If you want to maintain quality in a session of 3 x 800m, rather than use a specific time for recovery, you can try waiting for the heart rate to drop to a particular level, such as 120 or 100. As individuals vary enormously in both their resting and maximum heart rates, it is impossible to give a general figure for everyone. Still, trial and error should produce a heart rate that works best for you.

Another way to build endurance is to add to the volume of your session. You can increase the number of reps performed in various sets during the session or even build on the number of sets performed. As long as this is part of a structured plan and conforms to the demands of your sport, it should work well, being a tried and tested method for improving fitness in most sports.

Finally, if you intend to start interval training or rethink your schedule, remember:

  1. Think about the aims of the session first, before you go to exhaustion
  2. Make sure the session is specific to the demands of your sport in terms of intensity, duration and volume
  3. Consider the model and length of recovery carefully
  4. Keep the movement patterns similar to those used in your sport - you don't always have to run
  5. Make sure there is a progression from session to session, but avoid improving more than one aspect at a time
  6. Be imaginative in building your sessions - you don't always have to use sets of 10

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Dunbar (1993)[1] with the kind permission of Electric Word plc.


  1. DUNBAR, J. (1993) By separating your efforts with short bouts of recovery, you can keep the intensity high yet extend the volume. Peak Performance, 50, p. 7-9

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2005) Interval Training [WWW] Available from: [Accessed