In light of a memorable first visit to Prague last week for Elasticom, I write this week on one of my heroes, Czech legend Emil Zátopek.

It was a dark, cold November evening, and the slightly built Czech runner could be seen doing endless rounds of the track. He would pick up a stone on one side, run one lap fast, drop it off, rest for 30 seconds, and then do the same thing again. And again. Coaches would laugh at what they perceived as mindless repetition. But there was method in the madness. The year was 1944 and the runner’s name was Emil Zatopek. He would go on to win the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, and the marathon at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the home of his hero Paavo Nurmi—a feat which has never been repeated.

Zatopek’s innovation of systematic interval training would transform track training, and eventually extend to other sports. If not quite as visual, it was certainly as transformational as U.S. high jumper Dick Fosbury and his ‘flop’ during the 1968 Mexico Olympics. More than 70 years later, similar interval training concepts are used for people in their 80s as well as those recovering from heart attacks. Training is not just for professional sports, and there is much that we can learn on both a practical and conceptual level from how athletes train, for business health, well-being, and performance.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has been a growing area of research in the past few years and applies just as much to previously sedentary groups as well as older demographics. Zatopek would complete monstrous interval sessions, often 40 X 400 meter repeats twice per day during one week. Yet recent research has shown that intervals of high intensity during just six seconds has a beneficial effect for elderly people. This is another key factor. Many of us are often frightened of attaining these high levels of intensity, believing it to be a heart attack waiting to happen, yet we are more likely to suffer a heart attack sitting on the couch on a Sunday watching the TV.

A BBC Horizon documentary from 2011 on the myths of exercise looked at HIIT in detail. One of the memorable clips included the documentary narrator, Dr. Michael Mosley, trying a HIIT session on a stationary bicycle under the watchful eye of Professor Jamie Timmons. His work looks at the benefits of this high-intensity workout for sedentary groups, finding benefits in only 4 weeks specifically related to improved insulin sensitivity. In other words, the pancreas releases less insulin, which in turn minimizes risk of metabolic syndrome, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes. Given the sedentary and sugar dangers that we detail in the SEP model elements MOVE and FUEL, and which are in response to typical workplace behaviours, this is a key advantage for the business athlete.

In the interval session, Dr. Mosley completes three bike sprints of 20 seconds at maximum effort. One minute of high-intensity exercise is repeated three times per week. Time efficiency is therefore one of the main benefits for a busy professional. Warming up and cooling down is necessary, yet even when doing both, an effective session can fit into a 10-15 minute time window.

So how can you fit intervals into your week? What about during your business travels? When booking a hotel, I look for a multistory building of at least seven stories. Even if I have only 10 minutes available, I will complete an interval session in the stairwell of the hotel sprinting to the top before jogging back down. I will easily enter anaerobic territory on such a session, which also significantly increases core strength, given the need to bound the stairs as well as mental concentration and coordination to ensure stairs are ascended and descended safely. Such a session may be completed at a lower intensity or take into account a lower level of fitness by walking up and walking down. The heart rate will exhibit the same high and low rhythms as for any interval session.

I believe the ‘business case’ for interval training to be clear. And the conceptual takeaway is also worthy of note in a professional life where we tend to be ‘always on’ as we detailed last week in the FOCUS element of the SEP model. Executive chairman and former CEO of P&G, AG Lafley said: 

I used to grind through a long day. Now I work really hard for an hour or an hour and a half. Then I take a break. I walk around and chit-chat with people. It can take five or 15 minutes to recharge. It's kind of like the interval training that an athlete does.

Who would have thought that slightly built Czech runner would influence today’s business leaders?