The benefits of short sharp sessions


AN ENTIRE industry has been built up on the basis of selling diets and exercise regimes that result in weight loss and increased fitness. Despite the sugar coating of science that tends to accompany the sales pitch, most are little more than the modern day equivalent of snake-oil schemes. Still the dream endures, especially when you’re slugging your guts out in the gym or along the side of a road somewhere and you can’t get the thought out of your head that there simply must be an easier way.

A few months back, the BBC’s Horizon highlighted scientific work being done on both sides of the Atlantic which suggests that there may at least be a faster way. Given the problems that many people have fitting long bouts of exercise into busy schedules, the hope is that many would settle for that. The question is: does this new type of workout work?

Essentially the idea is to use high intensity interval training to pack more into shorter sessions and so maximise benefits. Those leading the research such as Prof James Timmons at Nottingham University and Dr Martin Gibala at McMaster University, Ontario, believe that as little as three minutes of highly intensive exercise per week over a relatively short space of time can produce significant improvements in fitness and result in weight loss that is, at the very least, out of proportion to the amount of time invested.

Dr Giles Warrington, the chair of the Sports Science and Health Programme at Dublin City University as well as a base camp team manager with the Irish Olympic team in London, is positive about the research and, having seen the potential benefits to elite athletes, how it might apply to the wider population. “There is a growing body of evidence to show that the hit can have significant benefits for the sedentary population as well,” he says.

Having completed, with some difficulty, a two and a half hour run recently but struggling to squeeze the wider training plan for my fourth marathon into my schedule, I could certainly see the attraction of the regime which, at its entry level can be taken as involving several minutes of low-level exercise between the high intensity spurts and so took myself off to a local gym last week to give it a go.

The results were, to say the least, mixed.

For a start, the session which lasted barely 23 minutes in its entirety left me rather more flattened than I had anticipated. The 30 second bouts of furious peddling (the use of an exercise bike is considered ideal, particularly for those carrying excess weight as the risk of injury is minimised) were surprisingly exhausting and my growing fatigue between the first and fourth bursts would have been fairly obvious to any onlooker. Much worse, though, I felt terribly nauseous for a couple of hours afterwards, much as I had done when I crossed the finish line after completing my first marathon a few years ago. It all felt like a major shock to the system.

“Yes,” said Warrington, entirely unsurprised when I tell him about it afterwards, “that would be the effects of acidosis.” This, he explains, is the flooding of lactic acid into the bloodstream. Along with sore muscles for those unused to regular exercise, it would be expected to be a fairly common factor for those starting out but, he says, the problems should pass as the body gets used to the sessions.

“I think there is a problem in that people might find the effects of their initial sessions unpleasant and give up on it but these should be fairly short-lived,” he says “Common sense should come into play as well, though. In the television programme the presenter went for 100 per cent effort but the research suggests that operating in the 80 to 100 per cent range would work and so you would probably look to have some basic level of fitness to start with and then, particularly starting out, go for closer to 80 per cent. Really you would probably look at using this as part of a wider exercise programme too.

That said, he says, “the evidence is that you can get a double bang for your buck with high intensity workouts. It seems to produce both aerobic and anaerobic benefits and there is evidence to suggest that your heart rate can remain elevated for up to 24 hours after the session finishes.”

The upshot of all that should be that your fitness and endurance are improved while you continue to burn calories at a faster rate well after the session has finished.

Michael McGovern, the head coach at Dublin athletics club, Crusaders, remains unconvinced, suggesting that the session described might be of far more benefit to a serious 800 metre runner than a rank amateur marathoner. “It sounds to me like it would train the body of an athlete like that to cope with all of the lactic acid and that a person starting out would really only benefit from the less rigorous parts of the session,” he says. “As it is you see people pushing themselves for 20 minutes on a treadmill with a bottle of Lucozade when really they’d be better off going for a 40 minute walk.”

Warrington feels that the evidence to the contrary is beginning to stack up and that higher intensity exercise can have its benefits. Me? I hope he’s right. After the gym, still feeling awful, I squeezed in a visit to the dentist before work. What I’d give for more mornings like that.

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