Walking and running burn the same number of calories per mile. It is an oft repeated mantra that we have all heard thousands of times. This idea is rooted in eighth-grade physics, specifically the equation “work = force x distance.” For those who were distracted or otherwise missed that lecture, the point is that it takes a defined amount of energy to move a body of mass over a measured distance. The speed of the object is not taken into account. Therefore, running and walking should require the same amount of energy to cover the same distance.
This is usually presented as great news for walkers. “Take a stroll around the block,” the thinking goes. “It’ll burn just as many calories mile for mile as if you sprinted it.” The only problem with this doctrine is that it is absolutely not true.
In 2004, four researchers in the Department of Exercise Science at Syracuse University designed an experiment to test the theory. They hooked strangers to a device that measures calorie burn by analyzing breath. We have both been subjected this peculiar device, although under different circumstances. It involves wearing a facemask connected to small backpack. Andrea likened the experience to running wind sprints in a Darth Vader costume.
Over several days, the test subjects repeatedly ran and walked one mile on both a track and a treadmill. Their calorie burn was measured throughout. The results were astounding. Running not only burns more calories than walking, the difference is enormous. “[T]he cost of locomotion was [approximately] 55% lower for males during walking than running, and [approximately] 52% lower for females.”
In other words, running instead of walking earns you 50% more calories over the same distance. This goes a long way towards explaining why all those folks doing slow laps around the inside of a shopping mall don’t appear to be losing much weight.
Clearly intensity matters. The best part is that you don’t have to be a runner to take advantage of the metabolic lift intensity provides. A 2012 study out of Colorado State University found that two and a half minutes of all-out effort on an exercise bike can burn up to 220 calories. For comparison, it would take Steven nearly an hour of slow, casual bike riding to expend that same number of calories.
All of these data are confirmed by numerous studies showing the calorie burning power of interval training. For those unfamiliar with the concept, interval training is a methodology that breaks up cardio workouts into periods of near-maximum effort and periods of low effort or even pure recovery. In other words, you might run 400 meters as quickly as possible and the walk the same distance slowly in order to let your breathing and heart rate recover. A standard interval workout might consist of performing this run/walk routine four or five times in a row.
There are thousands of variations on the interval workout, but they all share short duration high effort work with defined periods of recovery. These workouts tend to be quicker than a traditional long, slow cardio sessions and they definitely offer outsized benefits for their length. Another study out of Colorado State University found that people who did intervals not only saw faster improvements in overall fitness, but they continued burning calories at a high rate long after each workout ended. According to the authors, “[study participants] burned an average of an extra 200 calories on the sprint interval workout day.”
Say Hello To Your New Best Friend: Intervals
Intervals can be done on virtually any piece of cardio equipment. Biking, swimming and running can all form the basis of an interval workout. We have done interval workouts that involved lifting weights over and over as quickly as possible. Some of our most taxing intervals were performed on a Concept2 rowing machine. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to design an effective interval workout around a Shake Weight or Thighmaster. Just about everything else is fair game.
Here are a few of our favorite interval workouts. They are short, but do not expect them to be easy. Interval training is hard work. Try mixing them into your program a couple of time a week. We assure you that the additional bump in fitness and calories burned will make the suffering worthwhile.
Classic Intervals: 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5:
Some interval workouts require Doctor Who level math. Calculating the ratios of work to rest can be maddening. We tend to simplify our intervals because we prefer to focus on exercising rather than trying to calculate two-thirds of 47 seconds.
The Classic Interval workout is dead simple, easy to follow and works with just about any type of cardio. Running, rowing and biking all work. We have done this successfully on an Elliptical trainer. Steven tried unsuccessfully to do this workout in a pool; swimming will work, but in Steven’s case he hadn’t swam laps in years and he just couldn’t sustain the effort.
The goal of this workout is to choose a hard pace you can maintain for all five intervals. We will use running in our example, but feel free to mix it up.
20 Seconds Of Hell: Tabata
Professor Izumi Tabata developed a system in the mid-1990s for training the Japanese speed skating team. On paper it sounds easy: 20 seconds of all out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. This sequence is repeated 8 times. A full Tabata session is only four minutes long. When we were first introduced to Tabata we thought, “How bad can four minutes be?”
One beautiful thing about Professor Tabata’s system is that it can be applied to nearly any exercise. Running, rowing, squats, sit-ups and pushups all work. Pretty much any exercise you do can be set to the Tabata tempo.
We often add Tabata sit-ups to the end of a cardio session. We also occasionally design full workouts using the system. We might pick three or four movements such as rowing, body-weight squats and push-ups. We then do each one as a Tabata set. If we are doing three Tabata sets or fewer, we keep moving from one exercise to the next. We sometimes lose a few seconds to the transition, but we like to keep moving when a workout is only eight to twelve minutes long. If we do more than three Tabata sets, we add recovery time in between the sets. We have found that without additional recovery time our work intervals tend to slow, which defeats the entire purpose of Tabata.
The easiest way to time a Tabata workout is to download a Tabata timer to your smartphone. There are dozens of apps available on every major platform. The timer will chime to indicate that you are supposed to begin 20 seconds all out work. If you are running, you should be at a full sprint. If you are doing push-ups or sit-ups, do as many as possible as quickly as you can. Rest for exactly 10 seconds when the timer chimes again. Do your best to recover as much as possible before the next chime restarts the cycle. If you follow Professor Tabata’s advice and go as fast and as hard as you can during all of the 20-second work intervals, eight rounds will be more than enough time to leave you panting on the floor vulnerable to even the slowest monsters Hollywood has cooked up.
Remember, the key to an effective Tabata workout is to push yourself to your absolute limit during the work intervals. For example, we occasionally do Tabata on a treadmill. We typically do three four minute sets moving straight from one into the next. The first set is done with the treadmill set to an incline of ten or more; we set the speed such that we are barely able to stay on for the full 20 seconds. We then lower the treadmill to half the incline and increase the speed for second set. The final Tabata set is run with zero incline as fast as safely possible. The entire workout takes 12 minutes. Afterward, we feel more wrecked than if we had run five hard miles.
If you are doing a Tabata set of push-ups, squats or other exercises where it is easy to count repetitions, try to hit the same number in each 20-second interval. In the first set 15 to 20 squats may not feel particularly difficult. With each successive set, however, hitting that same number becomes seriously challenging. Don’t be surprised if you fall short. In the case of Tabata, failure is a sign that you are doing it right.
Adding Intervals To An Existing Workout: Fartlek
Fartlek is Swedish for “Speed Play.” At its most basic, Fartlek involves throwing intervals into an otherwise ordinary cardio workout. For example, imagine heading out the door for a short run. Instead of holding a steady pace, you add in occasional sprints.
Fartlek is as easy to do as it is fun to say. Warm up of three to four minutes and then choose an object a short distance ahead: a tree, a car, a dog tied up outside of a café, anything. Sprint hard to that object. Then allow yourself to recover for about the same distance keeping an easy—but not walking—pace. Don’t worry about perfectly matching the sprints to the recovery. The point of Fartlek is that is does not have to be heavily structured.
After you have recovered, pick a new object and race to it. Try to choose objects that will have you running hard for around one to three minutes. The key is to spike your heart rate and then allow it to come back down between intervals. This is easier than it sounds: simply run your sprints hard and then take enough time to recover before you begin again.
The first time you Fartlek, add in no more than a couple of sprints. Over time, work your way up to five or six. Once you have the system down, 25 to 30 total minutes of work is more than enough to earn you a full day of high-speed calorie burning.
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Are comments moderated? Tried to submit one earlier and don’t see it.
Another interesting interval structure I used when training for the 5K race in high-school cross country is called the “steady-state”.
Simply put it is a 4mile run where you negative split every 200meters. The pace is set so that at the end of the 3rd mile you are running at your PR time. Then that 4th mile you are to run as fast as you can. It’s a brutal workout.
Sorry about the delay in answering. We do moderate comments. We don’t censor, but we do have to approve them because the site would otherwise be overwhelmed with SPAM. I was slow to check this week and a few comments, including yours, were delayed. I will try to do better.
(This is the comment I tried to post earlier.)
Here are my two favorite intervals.
For short distances (generally under 10K):
2 min fast, 1 min slow, 1 min fast, :30 slow, :30 fast, :30 slow; repeat
For longer distances:
3 min medium, 2 min fast, 1 min slow; repeat
Add warm-ups and cool-downs to taste.