Interval Training: How to Get Started

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 28, 2013
From the WebMD Archives

Looking for a way to drop extra pounds and get in shape ASAP? Then it may be time for you to start interval training.

Interval training combines short bursts of intense activity, called intervals, with periods of lower intensity, or rest periods. Switching between the two makes your body work harder, burning more calories faster than it would at a steady, moderate pace.

"You’ve got to be disciplined with it, but you don’t have to do it much, or for too long," says Doug Katona, a strength and conditioning coach who trains world-class athletes at his CrossFit Endurance gym in Newport Beach, Calif.

"Instead of 45 minutes on a recumbent bike, reading a magazine, give me 15 minutes of interval work," Katona says. "It will be more challenging, but the workout will go by a lot faster and you’ll really like what your body starts to look like. After a few sessions, you’ll actually enjoy the workouts."

How to Start Interval Training

In some sports, including swimming, you’ll stop between intervals. In others, such as running, you may keep running, only at a more relaxed pace. Or you may walk. It depends on your level of conditioning and what you hope to accomplish.

It's not just about how fast your heart is beating.

"The important thing about interval training is not the rate of activity; it’s the rate of recovery," Scott Nohejl, a champion rowing coach and founder of the Chatham Area Rowing Association in Savannah, Ga.

If you're not active now, talk to your doctor before you start an intense exercise program.

  • Walking or running: Warm up first, then mix short bursts of speed of varying lengths, or sprints, into your walk, run, or jog. Those bursts of speed may last 30 seconds to a minute. After each interval, slow down and let your heart rate come back down.
  • Swimming: Swim a length, rest for 30 seconds, swim another length, and repeat until you've swum six lengths, suggests Guy Edson, technical director of the American Swimming Coaches Association. Two days later, aim for seven lengths with 30 seconds of rest, and so on. Then begin shortening your rest. Eventually, you'll do 10 lengths with 15 seconds of rest between lengths.
  • Rowing: Row hard for two minutes, then rest for one minute, and repeat that cycle 10 times, Nohejl suggests. After two weeks, move up to three-minute intervals with one minute of rest.

You can also do intervals on a stationary bike or with a jump rope.

Show Sources


Doug Katona, certified personal trainer and founder and co-owner, CrossFit Endurance, Newport Beach, Calif.

Michael Banks, certified personal trainer and founder/owner, Body by Banks Corporation, Salt Lake City.

American College of Sports Medicine.

Guy Edson, technical director, American Swimming Coaches Association, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Scott Nohejl, founder/president, Chatham Area Rowing Association, Savannah, Ga.

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