10-20-30 (Or 30-20-10) Interval Training

Three out of three formidable German women suggest you do 10-20-30's

So, what starts off slowly, then gets more uncomfortable, then downright painful, then proceeds to repeat itself over and over and over 'til you want to puke?

Why yes, it's a Cranky Fitness blog post!

But this also describes the exercise I love to hate, high intensity interval training, or HIIT. And there's a newish variation, getting all kinds of rave reviews of late, called the "10-20-30."

Curious about the why's, how's, when's, whether's, and whatevers? Let's check out this puppy out.

What is a 10-20-30?

Here's how it goes:

1. First you warm up.

2. Then you jog for 30 seconds, at a leisurely 30% of maximal intensity. Then you go 20 seconds at "training pace" of about 60% of your maximum. Then finally, you crank it up and bust your ass and go all out, over 90% of maximum, for 10 seconds. Repeat this minute-long cycle continuously 5 times.

That's "one."  (Even though it's really five).

3. Then, you go back to nice slow jogging for two minutes (120 lovely recovery seconds).

4. Repeat the above series 3 more times.

(And you don't have to start with 4 sets, you can work up to that many over time).

So to review:  4 x (5 x (30/20/10)) + 120)  = You Are Done.

Note: these should really be called 30-20-10's, right, since that's the order you go in? Whatever.

Why are people so excited about 10-20-30's?

This protocol came from a study out of Copenhagen that took "moderately trained" runners and had half of them do their normal workouts, while the other half spent half the time and instead did a series of these 10-20-30 intervals. After 7 weeks, the runners who did the intervals raised their Vo2 max by 4%, and got noticeably faster.  They also lowered their systolic blood pressure as well as their total and LDL cholesterol.

So, there were some impressive health benefits in already fit runners by doing sprints as short as 10 seconds.

The Peak Performance column at Runner's World describes it as "a controlled 'fartlek' workout, but with more rigor." Which I mention because, well, it's always fun to sneak in a gratuitious 'fartlek' reference.

Is it Magic?

Nah, as The Science of Running points out, any time you introduce anaerobic interval training to runners who've just been doing steady state running, there are impressive speed and physiological gains.

In fact, according to Runner's World Sweat Science column, recent research suggests the optimal duration for high intensity intervals may 3-5 minutes, not 10 measly seconds.

And there are many, many other protocols out there for introducing anaerobic interval training to your routine.   (Including my personal favorite, because I think it's better to do some kinda SHIIT than nothing at all).  The notion that the 10-20-30 is some sort of "perfect" or "ultimate" interval system is kinds goofy, yet some magazine articles are hyping it that way.

Wait, So if it's Not Magic, Why Bother?

Well, because duh, 3-5 minute intervals are serious torture if you are really trying to crank up to your max!  In fact, in choosing the studies to review, the researchers only included those with participants who were under 45 years old.  No old farts like me allowed!  And they noted that with the more rigorous 5 minute protocols, subjects were not exactly enthusiastic about continuing to train that way once the study was over. It apparently SUCKED to have to go through it.

So the fact that one can get significant benefits from doing 10 second sprints is encouraging.

Thoughts and Tips About 10-20-30 Intervals

So I've been playing with 30-20-10 intervals for the last few weeks, and here are some impressions.

Of course it wasn't until I decided to write this up that I realized I've been doing them wrong.  So, tip #1 would probably be "Try reading the directions first."

But actually I've been doing them "wrong" in a kinda good way: I've been approaching the 20 second "training pace" segment as an anaerobic interval in itself, just a slightly less intense one than an all-out sprint.  By the time the 20 seconds is up, I feel like I can barely keep going, so cranking things up even higher is difficult--but the beauty of these things is: 10 seconds is not a very long time to max out.

Which leads to my major takeaway: psychologically, this is a pretty awesome interval protocol. When I attempt longer intervals of several minutes, I can only do about 4 before I think, f--ck it, I've had enough.

But the fact that the "all out" phase is only 10 seconds makes it possible for me to do 20 of them, which, for a whiny slacker, is great progress.

However, these are still high intensity intervals, and as such there are unpleasant aspects to deal with.

Which leads to a few more suggestions, some directed to myself as much as anyone:

If you are not already in reasonably good shape, don't do these. You need a good solid cardiovascular foundation, and need to be strong and flexible and stable before playing with intervals or you may injure or kill yourself. Which is kind of a shitty reward for such a virtuous and challenging pursuit.

And keep safety in mind: If you are using treadmill to do intervals, sprinting at all out speeds when you're tired can be really freakin' dangerous.  Do you really want to be that over confidant ass we've seen on Youtube who tries to go too fast and trips and stumbles and goes flying off the back in to a writhing, moaning, ignominious heap of humiliation?

I tend to do these on an incline ranging from 7-9%, so my speed doesn't have to be very high to get myself to my max. I may still someday fly off the back if I'm not careful, but I think I'm less likely to trip at slower speeds, and I'm hoping it will be a slower, less catastrophic disembarkation than were I flying along at high velocity.

Note: treadmills can take a few seconds to respond to your commands, but they generally have nice big timers right in front of you, so it's not that big a deal.  You can just do the speed/incline adjustments 5 or so seconds before and/or run a few seconds over to make sure you get at least a 10 second maximum type effort.

Mix Up the Methods:   Once the novelty of any interval system wears off, you are left with a huge motivational challenge. For most of us, there is a unconscious but effective self-preservation mechanism that will kick in to keep you uninspired and demotivated.

Why is this? Well, my theory is: your caveman brain does not see any reason for you to voluntarily overexert yourself when you might need your maximum capacity for other things. If it senses what you are up to when you grab that interval timer, it's going to try to derail you.

It figures: if you are being chased by a large fanged animal? THEN you can have all the motivational chemicals you need to get your ass up to your Vo2 max. Your body will pump out adrenaline or whatever in sufficient quantities and you won't have any trouble finding the inspiration to keep going.

Alas, keeping your interval routine fresh and novel is not going to give you quite the same kick in the pants that impending death would, but it will help.

I've done 30-20-10's successfully on the treadmill and elliptical, but I'm already starting to face a certain amount of reluctance.  So I'm also wanting to get out outside on a track or other reasonably smooth nonhazardous running surface.  I may also try a spin bike, or even see if I can alternate a couple of godawful full body exercises.

Mix Up the Protocols:  10-20-30 is great! But there's no reason you can't alternate with longer intervals, or tabatas, or classes or dvds or other interval training systems.  (In fact, since I've been doing them wrong, I may take a step back and see what they are like with a less intense "20.")

And I think it's optimal to do some interval training, but also some endurance training, strength training, some balance and flexibility work, and of course some lovely long walks and "just fun" play sessions.  Unless you are some sort of competitive athlete or masochist, doing craploads of intervals seems counter-productive to mental and physical health.

What's the Payoff?

There are lots of health and strength and speed gains that I'm too lazy to dig up and repeat. But the reason I do HIIT?  Nothing makes you feel like more of a badass than going all out and pushing your limits now and then.  The smugness effect can last for hours or even days!

Do you guys do intervals or is does this all sound like crazy talk?

Photo Credits: Stamps: wikimedia; comic book cover: comics.wikia

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