Variable Speed Training is commonly used by advanced to elite athletes to prepare for competition, but there are numerous benefits for the beginner too!

As well as physical benefits of this type of exercise, there are also astounding neurological benefits which can help people with neurological diseases.

A word of caution: As with any discussion/promotion of a new exercise, it’s important to first seek the advice of a doctor or medical professional. They will assess you using a fitness test or a physical activity readiness questionnaire (PAR-Q) . That will let you or any fitness professional know if we have to take extra precautions so you can do the exercise safely.

This is the 1st of 2 such posts. In this post, I’ll give you a basic overview. In the 2nd part, I’ll give you some examples of exercises you can do.

What It Isn’t

The average exerciser uses what’s referred to as steady-state exercise. Steady-state training (SST) involves cardiovascular training at low-moderate levels at a consistent speed and rate of work. Typically, this would include walking/running on a treadmill, use of a stationary bike or maybe elliptical machine.

Due to its relatively low intensity, however, SST will take a longer period of time for results to be achieved. It may take you 20-30 minutes to burn the same amount of calories you would in a 4 minute Tabata session.

It’s not that steady state training is bad necessarily. It should be used for specific purposes.

I would suggest that the best use of SST would be in preparation for a variable speed training program. A steady-state training regimen would make sense for someone new to fitness, or someone during the preparatory phase of their weight training program.

This is mainly because advanced interval training is physically taxing (and sometimes stressful) and could be harmful to someone who is not adequately prepared for it.

Interval Training 101

Interval training involves alternating between high-intensity (work interval) and lower-intensity (active/passive recovery or rest period).

The work-to-rest ratio should be determined by your fitness level. A heart rate monitor is one simple way of measuring intensity.

Now, there are three energy systems in play here. If you have a certain goal in mind, that will help you identify which system you should focus on and in turn, what you work-to-rest ratio should be.

The three energy systems are:

  • ATP-CP – 10 to 20s work intervals, 30 to 60s rest, 2 to 8 min. total work time. FOCUS: sports like soccer, football, baseball, etc;
  • Anaerobic – 20s to 2 min. work intervals, 40s to  2 min. rest, 2 to 12 min. total work time. FOCUS: sports like boxing, MMA, Downhill Skiing etc;
  • Aerobic  – 2+ min. work intervals, 5 to 10 min. rest, 20 to 60 min. total work time. FOCUS: endurance activities like marathons or triathlons, etc.

EPOC

Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) helps your body repay the oxygen debt incurred during your exercise session. You know that feeling when you finish an exercise and you kind of struggle to catch your breath, breathing deeply? That’s EPOC.

Essentially, for 24-48 hrs after a high-intensity exercise session, your body works overtime to restore your body to a resting state (homeostasis)

The higher the intensity, the greater the EPOC.

One of my friends in the Parkinson’s community (and HIIT advocate), Christian Banda offers this great explanation:

“Understanding the EPOC effect can give you a better understanding of why this has positive effects. There are many different variations of HIIT training. From cycling to running intervals to many other forms etc.

Here’s an example of what EPOC can do: What happens to your engine at the end of a long car trip? It doesn’t require a degree in automotive engineering to know that once you’ve reached your destination, your car’s engine stays warm as it gradually cools to a resting temperature.

Here’s a cool fact: The same thing happens to your body after exercise. Similar to how a car’s engine remains warm after being turned off, once a workout is over and you’re back in your daily routine, your body’s metabolism can continue to burn more calories then when at complete rest. This physiological effect is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Also known as oxygen debt, EPOC is the amount of oxygen required to restore your body to its normal, resting level of metabolic function (called homeostasis). It also explains how your body can continue to burn calories long after you’ve finished your workout.

Your metabolism is how your body converts the nutrients you consume in your diet to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel your body uses for muscular activity. ATP is produced either with oxygen using the aerobic pathways or without oxygen relying on the anaerobic pathways. When you first start to exercise, your body uses the anaerobic energy pathways and stored ATP to fuel that activity. A proper warm-up is important because it can take about five to eight minutes to be able to efficiently use aerobic metabolism to produce the ATP necessary to sustain physical activity. Once a steady-state of oxygen consumption is achieved, the aerobic energy pathways are able to provide most of the ATP needed for the workout. Exercise that places a greater demand on the anaerobic energy pathways during the workout can increase the need for oxygen after the workout, thereby enhancing the EPOC effect.”

Risks

As with any endeavour, there are risks and rewards. Risks can be minimized or rewards can be maximized through proper education, training and implementation. I’ll list the benefits of interval or variable speed training below.

  • High-intensity exercise increases mechanical damage on muscle tissue, which could increase soreness and the perception of exercise as “painful” in deconditioned individuals;
  • Anaerobic metabolism results in an accumulation of metabolic stress that limits a muscle’s ability to function;
  • The high mechanical stresses of HIIT can increase the risk of a muscle strain;
  • The higher exercise intensities required to improve aerobic conditioning with HIIT may be uncomfortable or painful for some people;
  • An extended period of HIIT could deplete glycogen stores and result in gluconeogenesis, which is the metabolic process of converting protein to produce glycogen. This limits the amount of protein available to repair muscle tissue damaged by exercise.

Source: www.acefitness.org

Training Styles

There are several popular methods of interval training – specifically high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

You may have heard of 1 or all of them. They all use the same basic principle. There’s research backing them, but going into detail would be beyond the scope of this post. I’ll just tell you a bit about them.

Burst – 30 to 60s of work followed by 30 to 60s of rest. Do this for 10-20 min. Click here for some ideas.

Fartlek – Besides the funny name, Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play”. Unlike other interval training, it is unstructured. You are encouraged to vary your work and rest times. It is a training mode used predominantly in the running world. If you’re into running marathons or triathlons, check out this article.

Tabata – 20s of work with 10s of rest. Repeat 8 times for 4 minutes. See my article on Tabata for more info.

Benefits For Your Body

Anti-Aging Possibilities

Here are the highlights from a recent survey of almost 6,000 men and women in the US:

  • Telomeres are nucleoprotein caps positioned at the end of chromosomes;
  • Aging causes telomeres to shorten significantly and results in gradual cell deterioration;
  • Regular physical activity reduces disease risk, possibly due to the preservation of telomeres;
  • Results showed that regular activity accounted for significantly longer telomeres in U.S. adults;
  • The longer telomeres found in active adults accounted for 9 years of reduced cellular aging.

Men’s Fitness talked to the co-author of the study and this is what he said:

“If you want to see a real difference in slowing your biological aging, it appears that a little exercise won’t cut it,” said study co-author Larry Tucker, Ph.D., an exercise professor at BYU. “You have to work out regularly at high levels. We know that regular physical activity helps to reduce mortality and prolong life, and now we know part of that advantage may be due to the preservation of telomeres.”

A study published in the online journal Cell Metabolism found similar results:

  • High-intensity interval training improved age-related decline in muscle mitochondria;
  • Training adaptations occurred with increased gene transcripts and ribosome proteins;
  • Changes to RNA with training had little overlap with corresponding protein abundance;
  • Enhanced ribosomal abundance and protein synthesis explain gains in mitochondria.

Other Physical Benefits

According to a brochure published by the American College of Sports Medicine, high-intensity interval training has been shown to improve:

  • aerobic and anaerobic fitness;
  • blood pressure;
  • cardiovascular health;
  • insulin sensitivity (which helps the exercising muscles more readily use glucose for fuel to make energy);
  • cholesterol profiles;
  • abdominal fat and body weight while maintaining muscle mass.

EPOC

Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) helps your body repay the oxygen debt incurred during your exercise session. You know that feeling when you finish an exercise and you kind of struggle to catch your breath, breathing deeply. That’s EPOC.

Essentially, for 24-48 hrs after a high-intensity exercise session, your body works overtime to restore your body to a resting state (homeostasis)

The higher the intensity, the greater the EPOC.

One of my friends in the Parkinson’s community (and HIIT advocate), Christian Banda offers this great explanation:

“Understanding the EPOC effect can give you a better understanding of why this has positive effects. There are many different variations of HIIT training. From cycling to running intervals to many other forms etc.

Here’s an example of what EPOC can do: What happens to your engine at the end of a long car trip? It doesn’t require a degree in automotive engineering to know that once you’ve reached your destination, your car’s engine stays warm as it gradually cools to a resting temperature.

Here’s a cool fact: The same thing happens to your body after exercise. Similar to how a car’s engine remains warm after being turned off, once a workout is over and you’re back in your daily routine, your body’s metabolism can continue to burn more calories then when at complete rest. This physiological effect is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Also known as oxygen debt, EPOC is the amount of oxygen required to restore your body to its normal, resting level of metabolic function (called homeostasis). It also explains how your body can continue to burn calories long after you’ve finished your workout.

Your metabolism is how your body converts the nutrients you consume in your diet to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel your body uses for muscular activity. ATP is produced either with oxygen using the aerobic pathways or without oxygen relying on the anaerobic pathways. When you first start to exercise, your body uses the anaerobic energy pathways and stored ATP to fuel that activity. A proper warm-up is important because it can take about five to eight minutes to be able to efficiently use aerobic metabolism to produce the ATP necessary to sustain physical activity. Once a steady-state of oxygen consumption is achieved, the aerobic energy pathways are able to provide most of the ATP needed for the workout. Exercise that places a greater demand on the anaerobic energy pathways during the workout can increase the need for oxygen after the workout, thereby enhancing the EPOC effect.”

Neurological Benefits

And now for the really cool stuff.

As someone with a neurodegenerative disease, this is exciting stuff.

BDNF And You

BDNF stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Neuro means ‘related to the nerves or nervous system’. Trophic is a suffix meaning ‘promoting cell growth, differentiation and survival’

There is a BDNF gene that encodes a  protein of the same name. That BDNF protein exists in the nerve cells in our brains, spinal cords, retina, motor neurons, kidneys, saliva and prostate.

If you want to read all about it, you can click here to go to the Wikipedia definition with full citations.

Studies have found that some neurological diseases such as Huntington’s

Disease Occurrence

In fact, in some neurological diseases, such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease, BDNF levels are low or deficient.

In Friedrich’s Ataxia News an article was published a while back involving gene therapy and some promising results. Although they didn’t investigate any co-relation with high-intensity interval training, it is an indication that enhancing BDNF could prove beneficial.

BDNF and HIIT

A study last year by some researchers at the University of Texas checked out the effect of high-intensity exercise on BDNF levels. They found that the intense level of exercise was linked to higher BDNF levels and improvements in cognitive function.

According to Dr. Sara Gottfried “These increases in BDNF levels are transient, meaning they return to a baseline level within minutes to hours after exercise. But those increases in BDNF are associated with memory improvements.”

Yet another study established how high-intensity interval training improved results on selective attention and memory test.

Personal Experience

Based on my personal experience, start slowly and ramp up.

There is a lot of evidence that shows that variable speed training could help in our (neurodegenerative/chronic disease) cases. It isn’t 100% rock solid. However, the situation is never going to be perfect. I think it’s good enough for us to give it a go.

All we can do is educate ourselves so that we have enough confidence to jump in the deep end.

If you find you are waiting for irrefutable proof that you’re doing the right thing, truthfully you might not want to improve. It’ll take a leap of faith. And maybe it won’t work for you, but give it some time.

I will provide you with some interval routines that you can do at home in the 2nd post on this topic.

 


I’d love to know if you do any interval training and how it’s helping you. Let me know by leaving a comment below!

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