4 Low-Stress, High-Intensity Intervals for Runners

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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4 Low-Stress, High-Intensity Intervals for Runners

If your running performance is feeling stalled or you’re hoping to PR in a race this year, it might be time to add a little structure to your weekly routine. These intervals don’t have to be done on a track (though that might work best for you), and they don’t need to involve a ton of fancy gear. There are plenty of hassle-free ways to incorporate intervals into your run — and you’ll be happy with the results.


If you really hate the idea of running on a track or going really hard on flat surfaces, intervals don’t need to be about speed, says Jason Koop, author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning.” Rather, warm up and attempt a long climb. Climbing is easier on the body than pounding the pavement on flats, it provides great muscle adaptations, and there’s no way to cheat. Choose a set time to go up — say, 10 minutes — and then go hard (think: sustainable, not deadly) for that 10 minutes. To recover, jog or walk back down for half of the duration of that interval, in this case, 5 minutes. You’ll make slow progress up the hill, Koop says, and when you’re done, use the downhill and cool down on your way back home or to the car. Pro tip: Keep your downhill pace chill to avoid serious muscle aches later.


Tracey Drews, a Carmichael Training Systems coach, is a big fan of having clients do fartlek runs (that’s Swedish for speed play). Do a 10–20 minute warmup — and, if you’re feeling it, add a few strides of about 10–15 second all-out bouts of running with a minute of recovery between. These speedy movements will help “to develop neuromuscular adaptations for higher intensity efforts and to focus on run mechanics for foot strike, knee drive and arm swing,” says Drews. Then, get into the fartleks: pick something like mailboxes or street lights, something relatively evenly paced, to be markers for interval efforts. These should be done a little above your 5K pace — hard, but not so hard that you’re dying after 10 seconds. Go fast between mailboxes, recover by jogging or walking between the next set, and continue this way for between 10–20 minutes, depending on your running experience. Your VO2 max energy system will improve with a few of these workouts, and you won’t even have to check your watch!


Just because intervals are traditionally done on a track doesn’t mean you have to do yours on a track. Koop says that for trail runners in particular, practicing running fast on the track may do more harm than good. You should practice on the terrain you’ll be racing on, he says. If you’re a trail runner, your intervals are best done on trails so when you are in a race on technical terrain, your feet aren’t faster than your eyes. If your speed comes from the track and you try to apply it to gnarly, root-y trails, your body will want to go fast, but you may not be able to navigate the terrain with any kind of skill — and face-planting into a rock is never pretty.


You might dread the idea of hitting the track; however, it might be more fun than you realize. Even if you know you won’t spend much time on the track, you should at least try a few track workouts just to get a feel for it, and you might just fall in love. Grab a couple of runner buddies or seek out a local group, and hit your nearest track (often found at high schools or colleges). Drews is a fan of negative-split intervals on the track. “I feel like negative-split intervals aid runners and triathletes in mentally and physically preparing for competition by really dialing in pacing just below and slightly above race pace,” he says. This is a great one to use on a track to get a feel for running on a track without a constant stream of heart rate, pace or timing data, since there are only two times required. Warm up, then pick your distance, like a 5K, for example, and try to do the first half slightly below your race pace and the second half slightly above race pace. Aim for only 10–20 seconds faster for the second half: it’s not a major shift, but it will teach you to push a little harder toward the end of a race. If you’re a trail runner and you’re a fan of Koop’s no-tracks-for-trail-lovers method, you can still try the negative-split style interval on an out-and-back section of trail, or a 5K loop.


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About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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