The One Minute Workout


    Though mavericks like Ed Whitlock can’t be bothered with it on route to breaking record after record, for the vast majority of runners, interval training – that is short, intense bursts of work bracketed by periods of rest and recovery – is a crucial aspect of the training process. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely experienced the agony as well as the payoff of 800s or 400s.

    The dreaded track repeats can boost performance for long distance runners as highlighted by Dr. Gibala's new book.
    The dreaded track repeats can boost performance for long distance runners as highlighted by Dr. Gibala’s new book.
    Dr. Martin Gibala is an exercise scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario who has spent sixteen years studying exercise from a variety of perspectives, including its role in the promotion of health and fitness, the mechanics of building fitness, and human performance.

    Interval training has been Dr. Gibala’s most recent area of focus and is the subject of his new book, coauthored with Chris Schulgan, The One Minute Workout. Before you get excited, the title is not to indicate that only one minute of exercise is required for optimal health and fitness. Rather, the book outlines findings from a study conducted by Dr. Gibala and colleagues on the efficacy of short bursts of exercise in relation to key health indicators.

    Dr. Gibala says that the insights yielded by the study are equally relevant to two vastly different audiences, namely casual non-competitive individuals who may find exercise a chore as well as those with a constant focus on enhancing performance.

    The One Minute Workout

    As a background, (the full study has been published in PLOS One), Dr. Gibala’s study divided subjects into two groups – subjects were sedentary males in their 20s – each of which pursued a different exercise program over the course of 12 weeks.

    The purpose, Dr. Gibala says, was to explore the concept of “exercise efficiency” and examine if short interval sessions could provide comparable benefits to extended periods of moderate activity.

    The first group spent three sessions each week doing 10 minute cycling workouts that included a 2 minute warmup and 3 minute cool down. Sandwiched in between were three 20 second “all out sprints,” each followed by a 2 minute recovery. The second group spent their 3 workouts cycling for 45 minutes at 70% maximum heart rate, also with a warmup and cool down.

    In the end, the study saw each group experience similar changes in measures like peak oxygen uptake and insulin sensitivity, implying that the first group saw  excellent “bang for their buck” with similar benefits from five times less exercise.

    Vary up the Pace

    When it comes to general health and fitness, Dr. Gibala says that time often proves to be the biggest barrier. The “one minute workout” offers some hope for those who may be inclined to completely drop a workout if they can’t make it outside or to the gym for an hour. In such situations, Dr. Gibala says, it’s worth your time to maybe ditch the elevator and fire up your heart rate by charging up the stairs.

    Also emphasized in the book is that while cycling was used in the study to provide a clear and simple way to measure each workout, the broader principle of interval training, those short bursts followed by recovery, is applicable to a variety of workouts and exercises with many examples detailed in the book. Perhaps the casual jogger might kick up the pace once home is in sight. Maybe someone out for an evening walk pushes for a few light posts before recovering.

    Fartlek, another familiar term for interval training, after all, simply translates as “speed play,” and Dr. Gibala encourages playing with speed and throwing yourself out of your comfort zone, the payoff being a heightened metabolic rate and greater capacity for calorie burning afterward. In an interview with Maclean’s last year, however, Dr. Gibala urged that public health guidelines not be ignored, but finding those minutes where you can might still yield benefit, even moreso if incorporated into a well balanced regiment.

    For competitive or “serious” runners, Dr. Gibala emphasizes that a well balanced approach to training is ultimately best and that a runner is losing out if they don’t incorporate interval training into their program. Even if your goal is greater distances, your performance greatly improves with intervals. Indeed, he says, most elite coaches have long recognized this and that interval training already typically comprises 15-20% of most training programs. Ultimately, seeking advice from experienced coaches is best to sensibly incorporate speed training into a training program so as to avoid injury.

    Dr. Gibala says that most studies so far have been focussed on the short term and haven’t evaluated interval training in light of public health guidelines, but the concept is certainly worth exploring given findings so far. The next frontier is a long-term study, a year in duration perhaps, with a large number of subjects.

    The One Minute Workout is available from Penguin/Random House on February 7th.
    • Ravi Singh