Many athletes and recreational exercisers already know the benefits of interval training: short bursts of high-intensity exertion that can boost fitness.
For women, the strategy might be particularly helpful. Compared to men in a new study, women who ran intervals on a treadmill came closer to their cardiovascular limits, suggesting that their hearts got a better workout.
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"I think what our data show is that there appear to be meaningful differences in how men and women self-regulate their workouts," said Matt Laurent of Ohio's Bowling Green State University in a press release. "Specifically, in our case, men and women tend to work at the same level of perceived exertion and feel similarly recovered between each interval, however, as they perform the interval runs women tended to work ‘harder' from a relative cardiovascular standpoint than men."
To see how interval training might affect men and women differently, Laurent and colleagues gave a treadmill test to eight people of each gender, mostly in their 20s. During intervals that lasted four minutes, participants ran hard, followed by a recovery interval of easy running for one, two or four minutes. They ran a total of six intervals and were told to pick a pace that they thought they could sustain through all six.
Men tended to run at a faster pace, the researchers reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning. But women came closer to their maximum heart rates and oxygen consumption levels, even though both groups thought they were working equally hard.
It's not clear why men and women respond differently to interval training, though estrogen levels are one possible theory.
Similar to previous research, the new study also confirmed that intervals work best when the recovery periods are half as long as the exertion periods.
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Given their results, the researchers suggest that coaches and female athletes might want to be mindful as they plan interval workouts. Unlike men, pushing women for more speed when they are already feeling strained to their limits might be a bad idea.
For both men and women, it's also worth trusting how you feel over how fast you're going.
"Without having any feedback about their data, all the participants had to use to set their pace was how they felt during the run and how recovered they felt," Laurent said in the press release. "In that sense when runners perform high-intensity intervals, trust that if you push yourself to run what you consider hard, you are probably at the correct intensity, and if you maintain recommended work-to-rest ratios you most likely will recover appropriately to get the most out of your workout."