Mind-Hack your Interval Training: Wild Cards

Less time.  More Fun.  Better results.  Now that's what I'm talking about!  Let's apply the brain power of neuroscience and game theory to the intensity of interval training to get some serious mind-body synergy going.

Fear of Not Finishing

you've heard of FOMO.  Well you probably also suffer from FONF too.  It sounds ridiculous that fear of not being able to finish could prevent you from even starting, but this is a common obstacle, especially when you set long-term fitness goals.  It can even play a role in preventing you from doing your daily workout.  It's one area where interval training has a huge advantage over standard cardio.

Here's a typical thought pattern of FONF:  "I'm probably not going to be able to run for an hour every day, so what's the point of doing it today?"  It sounds silly.  It is silly.  But HIIT overcomes this faulty logic by dramatically lowering the first hump, the barrier to entry.

Just get through that first interval - it's only 20 seconds - and you'll not only get a reward (a rest), and the personal satisfaction of having completed that interval, but you will also have momentum to continue.  The laws of physics help you here - Newton's 1st law of motion states that objects in motion tend to stay in motion - see James Clear's blog post on the physics of productivity, in which he quotes the "2-minute rule" (attributed to David Allen in his book Getting Things Done).

Find a way to begin your task in under 2 minutes

Wild Cards

Insert some wild cards, of varying durations, into your intervals.  A wild card can be used as a rest, as an intense interval, or an easy one.

To get the best results from this strategy, some of your intervals should be super-intense, at the outer limit of your capabilities, and some should be relatively easy.  This will allow you to further gamify your training session. 

Jump Yoga intervals in the app Seconds - jump rope moves are in green, yoga in black, wild card in yellow

I use the app Seconds, and build jump-yoga routines in which the app calls out a jumprope or yoga move and a duration.  I put a standard rest between intervals (11 seconds) and a few rest intervals at random points.  I also use 3 wild cards, and I randomize the entire series.  You can also set the order for gradually increasing or decreasing intensity - a strategy I call "intensity creep", which I'll detail in a separate post.  My workout is set up for timed intervals but you can set it up for any quantity you can measure, count, or detect: repetitions, distance, heart rate, breathlessness etc..
The app randomizes the order of the intervals, so I never know if the next interval is going to be intense, moderate, a rest, or a wild card.  I try to put each interval in only once, so I only get one shot to crush that interval.  This strategy focuses my mind intently on that interval, like it's the olympic gold-medal finals, or the 18th hole at Augusta.  Sometimes I'll narrate the announcer in my head, like Bill Murray in Caddyshack.


Neuroscientific studies of training to improve performance on cognitive tasks confirm that the regimens are much​ easier to follow if they are gamified and they embed regular rewards within the task.  So we are going to apply the same concept to interval training, using the wild cards to gamify interval training and provide different types of reinforcement and reward schedules based on the model of operant conditioning.  

Positive Reinforcement

​I get a rest as a reward for completing each interval, plus the personal satisfaction of having completed it.  This is consistent positive reinforcement, and it's strengthened by the fact that I have only one shot at each one, so the tough ones require increased mental focus.  The app can be set for voice command with warning ("up next ...") which contributes to the mental preparation for the tough intervals, and further reinforces the reward of easy intervals.

As I get through more intervals, I build up the stash of wild cards that are coming, which I can use for rest intervals.  If I don't perform well on a tough interval, I can use the wild card interval to repeat it, giving me a positive reward of achievement in one of the intervals that were pushing the limits of my capabilities.​  This positive reinforcement model gives me control over my goals which I can set each day based on my achievements the previous day.  These 2 elements, autonomy and mastery, are extremely powerful motivators, as Daniel Pink describes in his TED talk on the puzzle of motivation.

Variable Reinforcement

Studies show that the most powerful reinforcement schedule is when the timing and size of the rewards are unknown.  This is known as a variable ratio reward schedule.

This is where the wild cards are true game-changers.​  I don't know when the wild cards and rests are coming, but I can use them to "bet" on the rest of my workout.  Here's how it works:

If I'm struggling, I can spend a wild card early in my workout, but then I have to do an interval when one comes up.  So there is positive reinforcement for pushing through and negative reinforcement for resting.  If I don't perform well on my one shot to do a tough interval, I can use the wild card slot to repeat that interval - giving myself a "second chance" as a reward.  

Tearing through one of my challenge intervals is also a powerful motivator.  When I can perform with ease something that was a challenge just a few days ago I receive immediate feedback that my efforts are working - building strength, endurance, and agility. 

The fact that the wild cards and rest intervals come at random intervals is a variable reward schedule and ​it is combined with a predictable positive reinforcement schedule since I know the wild cards are coming and the chance of drawing one increases with each interval I complete.  This  arrangement amplifies the positive reward of each interval completed and amplifies the negative reinforcement of sitting one out.

I also have a much different type of control over the intensity of my workout than I would with standard cardio - because of focus.  With running, for example, if I get tired there are lots of ways to decrease the intensity, like slowing down, shortening my stride, not kicking as high, etc.  This overt or covert laziness could last the whole remainder of my run.   Random intervals with rests and wild cards interspersed allows me to focus on resting, then focus on intensity, thus allowing me to maintain intensity better. 


​I use a time management system called "The Pomodoro Technique", which forces you to focus on a single task for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break, then repeat, with a longer break between sets of 4 "pomodoros".  You count how many you complete each day (writing this is my 13th today).  It's like interval training for work.

 I was a procrastination machine before I started using it, and the day I started my productivity skyrocketed (actually it was the second day, my first day was a disaster).  I realized afterwards that I had always thought (or been told) that time management was about organization and prioritization.  It's not.  It's about focus.  Giving myself only 25 minutes to work on a task is like giving myself only one shot to crush a tough interval - it forces me to focus.  And it completely eliminates the fear of not finishing.

The Interval training system I detailed above forces me to focus all my energy on each and every interval.  ​And it forces me to reward myself with a break when I need one. 

Clearly, the reason that short bursts of exercise can confer comparable or even better benefits than much longer ​ones is that you can make up in intensity what you lose in time.  That is an awesome deal!

It drives me nuts when academic studies of interval training set a single protocol for every participant and repeat exactly the same thing every day of the study.  The real beauty of interval training is that it can be individualized in such diverse ways.  Neuroscience, motivational psychology,  productivity hacks, and game theory are just of few of the disciplines that can be adapted to optimize an interval training system for each individual.   I am sure that if systems were hacked and individualized in this way the measured results would blow away any standard cardio regimen.​


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