Run-rest-run: Quick exercise is slowly catching on

High-intensity exercise punctuated by short rests can confer excellent health benefits

A proper warm-up is essential before any vigorous exercise; and those who have never undertaken vigorous exercise before should consult their GP first

A proper warm-up is essential before any vigorous exercise; and those who have never undertaken vigorous exercise before should consult their GP first

 

Slow food, slow radio and slow art have quickly assumed their rightful places in contemporary culture. By contrast, the concept of quick exercise is only slowly gaining traction.

Take the 10-20-30 training system, developed by Danish researchers led by exercise physiologist Jens Bangsbo at the University of Copenhagen.

A typical 10-20-30 session comprises:

  • 1,200m warm-up
  • Three or four five-minute running sessions
  • Two-minute rest between each session

Each five-minute session consists of five one-minute intervals comprising:

  • 30 seconds at 30 per cent of maximum effort
  • 20 seconds at 60 per cent of maximum effort
  • 10 seconds of flat-out effort

Prof Bangsbo explains how 10-20-30 arose: “For over a decade we experimented with the effect of very intense training – combined with a reduction in training volume – on performance, and discovered that it had a positive effect.

We found that after six weeks of 10-20-30 training, their 10km times had fallen by a minute

“For example, in one study participants performed between six to 10 30-second near-maximal bouts of exercise, with each bout separated by three minutes of recovery. They did two sessions a week and reduced their training volume by a third.

“We found that after six weeks of 10-20-30 training, their 10km times had fallen by a minute. Six of the 12 runners established personal bests for 10km during the six weeks even though they’d been running for more than five years.

“However, this training regime was demanding, both physically and mentally, so I reduced the intense exercise period to 10 seconds, and the 10-20-30 concept developed from there. It combines both anaerobic and aerobic training, and during the five-minute modules the heart rate can be as high as 90 per cent of maximum.”

Recreational runners

Prof Bangsbo has advice for recreational runners interested in 10-20-30: “In your first training session, don’t run flat-out during the 10-second phase. You can walk during the 30-second phase, jog for 20 seconds and then increase speed moderately for 10 seconds.

“And why not train with a friend? It’s no problem if you have different abilities, since you’ll be meeting up again during the 30-second recovery period, and can start another cycle together.”

Eight weeks of 10-20-30 training was effective in improving maximal oxygen uptake, running performance, and lowering blood pressure

In 2014, the Danish researchers published a paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, “10-20-30 training increases performance and lowers blood pressure and VEGF in runners”.

VEGF – vascular endothelial growth factor – is a protein that stimulates blood-vessel growth after injury and muscle growth following exercise; but its overexpression can be associated with some disease processes.

The researchers found that “eight weeks of 10-20-30 training was effective in improving maximal oxygen uptake, running performance, and lowering blood pressure when implemented in community-based running clubs without supervision”.

Further research into the concept of quick exercise continues.

“Most people think of exercise as a chance to pull on the walking or running shoes, joining friends to play sport, or lifting weights in the gym,” says Dr Liam Bagley, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University with an interest in skeletal muscle and metabolic health.

“These types of activities are good for our physical and mental health and should be completed by everyone, but family and work commitments can preclude participation for many adults leading busy lives.

“However, there is a time-effective alternative in the form of very high intensity but short duration exercise.”

Intensity study

A recent study by Dr Bagley showed that completing four sets of 20 seconds very high-intensity exercise separated by about two minutes rest conferred similar health benefits as longer, conventional exercise performed at a steady pace for 60-90 minutes a session.

“We asked young and middle-aged men and women to train in this way three times a week for 12 weeks, amounting to just four minutes of sprinting on a standard gym exercise bike each week.

“Our results showed that the VO2max [a measurement of total body fitness] increased by 10 per cent; the body’s ability to use fat to make energy increased by 15 per cent; and, related to this, total body fat mass decreased and the cholesterol found in the blood also decreased.”

The study’s main finding, published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, is that this type of short but intense exercise confers health benefits normally gained from longer, steady exercise.

Another outcome of the study was that men lost more fat mass than women

“We think that the benefits of this type of activity are due to the maximal recruitment of leg and other muscles in the body when sprinting or working very hard,” says Dr Bagley, “The very high intensity requires the body to adapt quickly to improve cardiovascular and muscle systems as well as metabolism and energy-stores.”

Another outcome of the study was that men lost more fat mass than women, but women showed higher VO2max adaptations than men. The reasons for the differences is undefined, but may be that women have lower relative muscle mass and higher relative fat mass. As well, during high-intensity exercise women are less reliant on muscle stores of the carbohydrate glycogen.

Time-poor implications

What are the implications for those who are time-poor but keen to get fit?

“This is great news for people aiming to get fit or lose fat, but struggling for time,” Dr Bagley says. “Running up a flight of stairs or a hill; sprinting between lamp-posts while out jogging; or boosting the intensity to complete short but intense sprints lasting around 20 seconds on a cycle are examples of very high intensity exercises. This adapts our muscle by increasing the amount of fat that is used as energy in the muscle during subsequent exercise. It means we use more fat as energy throughout the day during normal activities.

“Alternatively, they can be added to our usual training programmes to offer a competitive edge for more experienced runners or cyclists looking to boost performance.”

A proper warm-up is essential before any vigorous exercise; and those who have never undertaken vigorous exercise before should consult their GP first. Qualified coaches/trainers can advise novices on how to safely include high-intensity exercise in training programmes.

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).

First, pick the programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: This programme is an eight-week course that will take you from inactivity to being able to run 30 minutes non-stop.
- Stay On Track: The second programme is an eight-week course for those of you who can squeeze in a 30- to 40-minute run three times a week.
- 10km Course: This is an eight-week course designed for those who can comfortably run for 30 minutes and want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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