Improve Your Running with the Interval Workout | The Sisterhood of the Shrinking Jeans LLC


A few weeks ago, I wrote a post highlighting a few ways to improve your running speed.  One of those techniques was the interval workout.  Intervals are one of those runs that spark a big love-hate relationship.  We all love to hate how hard they are but then love the feeling of accomplishment when we get finished.  Training with intervals allows you to improve your running form and efficiency, endurance, awareness, motivation, and burn more fat (source).

So what is an interval workout?  Intervals are short periods of intense effort followed by a recovery of an equal or slightly longer time.  You can complete interval workouts anywhere – outside, on the treadmill, or on a track.  These differ from a tempo run in that you are running well above your threshold (think gasping for breath at the end) for much shorter periods of time, followed by a period of time in which you allow your heart rate to come back down and breathing to return to normal.  In a tempo run, you are sustaining a slightly higher level of effort for a longer period of time, without the recovery element.  The magic is in that recovery time.  You need to develop the patience to recover long enough to still complete the next hard interval without recovering too long.  For most people, this hard/easy interval will be a 1:1 correlation of time, but for people just starting out with interval training, you might need a slightly longer recovery interval.

So how fast should you run your intervals and how long should they be?  This is going to depend highly on your current fitness level.  A good basic guideline is to know your current 5k time/pace and run your intervals at a slightly faster pace.  You want to get uncomfortable but not risk injury – running too easy of a pace won’t allow you to improve while running too fast and uncontrolled (especially if you are on a treadmill) could result in injury.  By the end of your interval, you should be out of breath and NEED the recovery.  With practice you will find that sweet spot.  There are some pacing charts in the book Run Less Run Faster or you can use a pace calculator like the one on Faster Running to determine some starting points.  Just make sure you are using a current 5k time, not your goal time, to calculate your intervals.  Your intervals can either be distance- or time-based.  For example, if you are attempting to improve your 5k time, you may want to run 200s or 400s (approximately 1/8 or 1/4 mile) or run based on minutes (90 sec or 2 minutes).  If you are training for a longer distance, adjust your interval appropriately.  For the half or full marathon, many people swear by 800s or 1/2 mile repeats.  A good time guideline for 800s is to train to run your 800s in the minute/second equivalent of what your goal marathon time would be.  For example, if my goal is a 4:30 marathon, I would work to get my 800 time to 4 min 30 seconds or about a 9 minute mile.  You may start with just 2 or 3 intervals on your first go.  Aim to get at least 6 intervals and work yourself up to 10 if you can and you have the time.

What about recovery intervals?  For a runner just starting out with intervals, you should plan your recoveries to last as long as your speed interval or slightly longer.  How you recover doesn’t really matter – you can walk, do a slow jog, or stand and pace.  I probably do a mix of all of those things.  The idea is to get back to a level in which you can complete the next speed interval as well as your first.  For more experienced runners, you may find yourself recovered and ready to go in half the time of your speed interval.  Again, practice to find your sweet spot.  Here is a great article from Runner’s World about how long to recover between intervals.

A few other things to remember:

  • Intervals are not for true beginners.  You should have a pretty good base of 3- to 5-mile runs on the majority of your runs before you start speedwork.
  • You MUST do a warm-up before beginning your interval workout.  I typically aim for an easy mile with some strides (very short, very fast bursts) at the end.  Don’t forget to cool down as well.  This is essential for preventing injury.
  • Don’t stress about your average pace, either.  With the recovery segments, it will look a lot worse than your effort.  The “meat” of this workout is what counts.  For example, if I can get in 6 intervals at about a 9:30 pace, I’ve had a very good workout.  The total pace of the 3.5- to 4-mile workout might average a 12-minute mile and that’s ok.

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