NEW INTERVAL TRAINING
“The only similarity between the original Interval Training and New Interval Training is that the training effect
takes place specifically in the interval between the faster repetitions.”
Old Interval Training - What was the original ‘Interval Training’?
Woldemar Gerschler - centre
To find the origins of the special form of repetition training known as Interval Training we must go back in history, over 70 years to the late 1930s. At that time a German coach, Dr. Woldemar Gerschler, was a pioneer attempting to base his training methods on solid physiological and psychological principles. For the physiology, he teamed up with cardiologist Dr. Herbert Reindel and they applied Gerschler’s understanding of the importance of cardiovascular conditioning in the search for a training method which would maximise the size, fitness and efficiency of the heart.
Gerschler and Reindell initially carried out experiments with 3000 subjects, each of whom completed a 21-day period of precise heart rate controlled training. They found an increase in the heart volume by one-fifth after this short time period and significant improvements in performance. From this experience they devised a form of repetition training where an athlete would run over a relatively short distance, such as 200m, at a relatively fast pace, a number of times. The name of the system, 'Interval Training', was because the rest or recovery period between the faster runs was considered the most important and vital part of the training. It is during the interval that the heart adapts, growing larger and stronger.
In its original form, the faster repetition, whether of 100, 150 or 200 metres and occasionally up to 300 or 400 metres, would be run at a pace to achieve a heart rate of around 180 beats per minute, bpm. The next faster repetition run would start as soon as the heart rate had returned, in the interval, to 120 bpm. The training principle was based on the fact that the volume of blood in the body is constant for a given individual. As the heartbeats diminish in the interval for the same volume of blood, the quantity of blood pumped at each beat is increased in volume – the training effect comes then as the heart rate decreases.
If this reduction of the heart rate to 120 bpm did not occur within 90 seconds of the end of the previous faster run, the workout was considered too difficult and had to be adjusted. Otherwise, the heart would be overworked, leading to fatigue and exhaustion, rather than to the desired training effect.
Gerschler’s interval training gave very rapid improvements in performance and as the heart became fitter and returned to 120 bpm more quickly the recovery intervals became naturally reduced. This natural reduction in the recovery interval due to increased fitness was combined with increasing the total number of repetitions to progress the training, rather than increasing the speed of the repetitions.
You can see from this description that Gerschler used a very scientific approach to his training. It is reported that when he was asked, "What do you think of the Swedish Method (Fartlek)?" He answered, "It is not exact."
What was the impact of this interval training all those years ago? On July 15, 1939 Rudolf Harbig, having been trained by Gerschler using interval training, raced 800m in 1:46.6. This represented a massive 1.6 seconds improvement on the world record and is still recognised as one of track's landmark performances. Less than a month after his 800m record, Harbig covered 400m in the world record time of 46.0.
Many world record-breaking athletes and Olympic Champions attended Gerschler’s ‘school’ in Freiburg where, to quote the Spanish athlete, Tomás Barris, “Winter training was a real calvary. The training track was an interminable straight track 400 metres long, almost always covered with frozen snow. Divided into 100 metre sections with stakes driven into the ground parallel to and beside the River Breisgau. There was a continuous buzz of activity, in freezing temperatures that usually oscillated around 8 to 10 degrees below zero. Apart from being monotonous, this training was truly tough and based, fundamentally, on a series of 100 and 200 metre sprints. Every day, more of the same.”
Josy Barthel in the 1952 Olympic 1500m Final
In 1952 the Gerschler-coached Josy Barthel from Luxemburg surprised many by becoming the Olympic 1500m Champion. Almost forgotten for thirteen years, the name of Woldemar Gerschler and his ‘Interval Training’ was once again the talk of the track. Rudolf Harbig's 800m record itself endured an incredible 16 years until Belgium’s Roger Moens, again coached by Gerschler, ran 1:45.7 in 1955.
More significantly, these performances really raised the world’s attention to the new method of training. ‘Interval Training’ now became well and widely known, spreading from Athletics to all other sports. The original interval training is still used by many coaches and athletes today but rarely matches the precision of heart rate control that Gerschler proposed. But, the essential thing is that Gerschler and Reindel innovated the concept that it is not necessarily the speed of running repetitions that can provide the primary training effect. In ‘Interval Training’ this primary training effect clearly takes place during the ‘recovery’ intervals between the faster repetition runs or efforts.
The advantage of the original interval training was that it brought about very rapid and significant improvements in performance. The disadvantages were that it could be incredibly monotonous and the rapid improvements in fitness were matched by an almost as quick loss of fitness on cessation of training. It is now recognised that a longer lasting fitness can be achieved if the original interval training is combined with sufficient aerobic endurance development to stabilise the improved cardio-respiratory response.