Interval Training for Runners

Interval training is a speed technique used regularly by elite runners.  Most recreational runners believe that it’s too difficult or perhaps too advanced for their own use, but this is not the case.  Runners of every level can benefit from interval workouts for the purpose of improving their fitness and also their race performance.

A simple explanation of the interval training technique is “high intensity running followed by a rest period”.  All this means is that you will run for a short period of time at a very fast pace – faster than you can currently keep up with over the long term.  Then you’ll have a short recovery period – usually a slow jog or walk to recover.  Then repeat several times.

The purpose behind this kind of training is to simulate what happens in a race when we are running at our race pace.  You get used to running at a faster pace so your body is more prepared for this come race day.

With interval workouts your neuromuscular coordination improves and you start to race faster because you are physiologically prepared for racing.  So it will improve your performance, no matter what level of runner you are.

Interval Training:  How-to Guide

Interval training is just one aspect of your running training program.  It is not the focus and you should feel comfortable about it, not competitive.  It’s a tool to help you prepare for racing.

Before you begin to do interval workouts, make sure you’ve been doing steady running for two to three months beforehand.  It’s important that you have a solid aerobic conditioning base before beginning.

Assuming you’ve got a solid aerobic foundation first, you can plan one interval workout per week into your schedule.  If you’re less than thirty years old and full of energy you can try two workouts per week into your schedule.

To remember the basics of interval training, it’s convenient to remember the acronym DIRT where D=distance of fast burst, I=interval recovery length, R=repetitions and T=time or speed.

Your first interval workout might look something like this:

Distance of Fast Burst (D) = 100 meters
Interval Recovery (I) = 200 meters walking or jogging in between
Repetitions (R) = 8
Time (T) or Speed = Slightly faster than your 200 meter workout pace

With each workout you would gradually increase these factors, first increasing the number of repetitions, then increasing the distance of your fast bursts and finally increasing the speed (time).  As you make the distance and time/speed increases you also want to increase the lengths of the recovery interval, but only up to a point.  You want to give your body enough time to recover in order to be ready for the fast burst of speed. 

(Note:  Eventually you will want to decrease the recovery lengths so that your body adapts to longer lengths of time at a fast pace with less recovery time – but that’s only after you’ve got some substantial experience under your belt.)

More Interval Training Advice

Now that you know what a beginning interval workout looks like, let me go over a few details so that you can fully benefit from this kind of training.

Before beginning each interval workout you should already be warmed up by jogging for 15-30 minutes.  Some fast stride-outs on the track up to about 50 meters each will also get you in the mood for the fast burst intervals.

Interval training is best done on the typical 400-meter track.  This makes it easy to figure out your distances and to be fairly accurate about it.

The amount of time for your fast bursts should start at about three minutes long when you’re beginning and build up to ten minutes long when you’ve become more fit and experienced with this technique.  Anything less than three minutes isn’t dipping into your aerobic system so you will not gain the benefits if it’s not long enough.

During your recovery intervals you can walk or jog, or do a combination of both.  When you begin doing interval training your recovery intervals are quite lengthy compared to the fast burst distances (twice the distance).  Over time your recovery intervals will be the same as the fast burst distances and then eventually be less than your fast burst distances (half the distance).  So while you are increasing repetitions, fast burst distances and speed of your fast bursts, you are decreasing the length of the recovery intervals.

You want to get to the maximum number of repetitions over various distances.  So if you’re starting at 100 meters and 8 repetitions, you want to increase those repetitions up to sixteen. 

When that feels comfortable and no longer feels challenging, then you’ll double the distance of your fast bursts to 200 meters but lower your repetitions to six to start out.  Eventually you’ll increase your repetitions to around 14. 

When this feels comfortable then double the distance again to 400 meters and 4 reps.  And each time you double the distance of the fast burst, pick up the pace by a few seconds.

Ultimately you might be running distances as high as 1600 meters for your fast bursts.  When your distances get this high, your repetitions will decrease to only one or two reps, your recovery intervals will be only 1200 meters and declining to 800, and you’ll be running your fast bursts anywhere from ten to twenty five seconds faster than your 10K race time.
But don’t hurry to get to this longer distance stage.  As long as you’re seeing performance improvements at the lesser distances, then your interval training is at the right level for you.

Interval workouts are intense but they should not be so exhausting that you can’t do your regular training the next day.  So gauge your workouts in this way to make sure that you are not overdoing it.  Build up slowly in the early phases and listen to your body.  You’ll know when it’s time to make increases to your program, and you’ll also know when you need to back off.  Pay close attention because it’s not worth the risk of injury or illness if you overdo it.

If you’re still unsure of how to go about doing interval training, talk with experienced runners or consult with a coach to help you get started.

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