Interval Training for Runners: Why, How & Techniques to Use!

If you are a marathoner looking to increase your speed, interval training is the way to do it. It is highly beneficial and results are easy to see, however you must be careful with not to over-do it with this type of speed training. Here are some guidelines and tips.

The Reason You Should Be Running Intervals

The idea behind the interval is to run a shorter distance at a faster pace, jog to recover and repeat. Each week of interval training you increase your speed and your repetitions to simulate a demanding race. With an interval workout though you are taking recovery jogs so the demand is not quite that of a race. This keeps your muscles from becoming as fatigued as they do during a race where you would not want to run recovery jogs.

That is the whole point of interval training: to train your legs to carry you farther and faster even when tired.

When are You Ready to Run Intervals?

Although speed workouts are very effective if you aren’t ready for fast training then you are almost guaranteed an injury. So how do you know when you are ready?

As a beginner runner, or a marathoner with no time goal, you really have no need for interval training. It just adds extra stress on your body and in fact can cause greater damage than a long run. Wait at least 6 months to a year before incorporating interval into your workouts.

For more advanced runners, who have been running for a year or longer and who have a weekly mileage of about 20-25 miles ease into interval training slowly. This will reduce the risk of injury on your body. Another good idea is to have completed some kind of hill repeats/training which give you strength in your legs that is needed for speed.

How to Run Intervals

Intervals are to be run at set distances or times unlike fartlek where you run fast at varying times and distances.

The most common interval distances to run are 200 meters, 400 meters, 800 and 1,200 meters. (Once around a standard track equals 400 meters.)

  • The recovery jog in between each interval, for an advanced runner should be about half the distance of the interval that you just ran. A runner just starting this type of training are doing this workout for the first time though should take longer recovery breaks - about the distance of the interval. You can set up your Gymboss Interval Timer to tell you when to run and when to rest so that you don't have to worry about timing yourself!
  • Run at a faster pace than your goal pace.(If your goal pace is 8:30 per mile then try running your repeats at about 8:10-8:00 per mile or about 2:00-2:02 once around the track.) Slowly jog or fast walk for your recovery after each interval. 
  • Before you start running intervals at any time the most important thing to remember is to warm-up. If you jump into intervals without warming up your muscles you are running a huge risk of becoming injured as it puts a lot of stress on your cold body. Not only this but the quality of your interval training will decrease and you won’t be able to perform as well or as long. So do yourself a favor and warm-up (jog about 10-12 minutes and THEN, only after jogging, stretch slightly) and cool down (easy jog and stretch out your muscles) properly!

Types of Interval Training

  • Interval Repeats: Interval repeats keep a constant distance instead of increasing the distance of each repeat. For example you will run eight 200 meter repeats and recover for 100 meters. (This can also be written as 8x200M, 100R.) The goal with this type of interval is to keep your times consistent as well. If you find that you can’t keep consistent times then you may need to adjust your time goals for each interval or go a shorter distance.
  • Pyramids: Pyramids are intervals that are run at increasing and then decreasing distances or vice versa. For example you begin running 200 meters and increase your interval distance until you reach the farthest distance you want to go (800, 1,200, or 1,600 meters) recovering after each interval. Once you reach your farthest distance you will begin to run decreasing intervals back down to 200 meters. (1,200, 800, 400, 200 meters)
  • Ladders: Ladders are intervals that are run at either increasing or decreasing distances but not both like pyramid workouts. For example, Run 200, then 400, 800, 1600 then stop instead of running decreasing.

Interval training can be tedious at times so mixing up your workouts by doing different types of intervals will help alleviate some of the monotony.

How Long Can You Include Interval Training in Your Running Routine?

Any kind of speed training is highly fatiguing and so should NOT be carried on for months on end. Your body needs a rest. Interval training should only last about 8-12 weeks.

At the end of speed training your body should be ready to pound out a fast and hard race. Speed training for much longer than 8-12 weeks can actually cause you to regress in your performance since your body keeps being put under too much stress.

Tips for Running the Interval

  • If you are running a marathon your ideal goal for total distance of speed training will be about 12 miles of running 1 mile intervals at slightly faster race pace and recovering after each.
  • Interval training will be very tiring but leave your workout knowing that if you wanted to you could do more. Never push yourself to your absolute limit.
  • Keep your recovery jogs very slow . Walking is best if you are doing intervals while marathon training which requires you to do more.
  • Make sure you get plenty of rest. Never do two days of speed work back to back and it is good to rest for at least two days after an interval training workout. Too much makes your body too susceptible to injury and sickness.
  • The most common place to run an interval is on a track as it you can be sure of the distance you are running. If running on the track is too boring for you then pick a spot, road, etc. where you know how long the distance is. Knowing the distance makes your workout meaningful and is the main difference between fartlek and interval workouts.

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