For many runners, lacing up your sneakers and getting outside for a few miles is an accomplishment. After running becomes a regular habit and you’ve embraced the beauty of casual, easy runs, it’s time to shake things up. Looking for a way to level-up your go-to sweaty routine? Look no further than interval training.
Interval training can take on many different forms when it comes to running. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Running a distance at a higher than usual intensity, taking a break, repeat. These breaks, in which your heart rate has time to recover, are what makes the bouts of effort true intervals. Plus, picking up the pace can help you become a better runner overall.
According to a March 2018 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, interval training helped trail runners run 5.7% faster on a 3,000-meter track test. It also adds a bit of variety and adrenaline to your running workout. If you want to lose weight, intervals can help you slim down, too. According to February 2019 research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, intervals can help individuals lose more weight than moderate, steady-state exercise.
Granted, starting interval training without knowing the basics can be a tad overwhelming. Here, top coaches give you need-to-know tips for implementing interval-style workouts into your weekly running schedule.
Just like you wouldn’t put a turkey in the oven without preheating the oven, it’s important to give your body time to acclimate to a workout. “Make sure you warm up before a run, preferably with a dynamic stretch routine to prevent injuries,” says Jaclyn Fulop, board licensed physical therapist and founder of Exchange Physical Therapy Group. This could look many different ways, depending on the workout on deck for the day. Perhaps it starts with a dynamic warmup, and is followed by some easy walking or jogging.
“Listen to your body and do not run through pain,” adds Fulop. “If you try to increase your speed too soon, many new runners will end up with shin splints, tendinitis and other injuries.”
There are loads of ways to format intervals. Perhaps, your intervals are timed. This could look like running for 2 minutes, then walking for 2 minutes. Perhaps, your intervals are a specific distance, like 800-meter — or half-mile — repeats. If you have a specific race on deck, the general rule of thumb is the longer the race distance you are looking to compete in, the longer the intervals you want to perform, says Natalie Niemczyk, DPT, and an RRCA-certified run coach. “Intervals are less than 800 meters, while long intervals are considered 800 meters and up.”
Here, Niemczyk offers general guidelines on the best interval lengths for different races:
- 5K runners: Interval repeats of 200–800m at your goal race pace, for about 1–3 miles of overall distance
- Half-marathon and marathoners: Interval repeats of 800–2,000m at your goal race pace, for about 4–8 miles of overall distance.
When starting out with interval work, it’s one thing to pick up the pace. It’s another to try to run as hard as possible, potentially risking injury. “Intervals should not be performed as an ‘all-out’ exercise until the body becomes more comfortable with incorporating speed work,” says Niemczyk. Her rule of thumb? “As a beginner, they should be performed at a pace where you can still say a word or two but hard enough that you are not able to speak full sentences.”
If you’re going to be keeping track of your splits, then you want to make sure you have a good, trusty watch or app by your side. Good options to get you started are the Apple Watch Series 5 and Samsung Galaxy watch.
Rest is critical. You generally want a work-to-rest rest ratio of 1:1, says Niemczyk. With this strategy, your work bout is the same as your recovery bout. “Adequate recovery is essential for physiological changes to take place throughout the body,” she says. “Exercise performance has been shown to improve with rest following harder training sessions, which includes adequate sleep, hydration and fuel.”
On the rest note: Intervals should be performed when your body is ready to take on this extra stress. Avoid doing them the day after or day before a long run, suggests Niemczyk, adding that other high-intensity workouts should not be performed when you’re aiming for peak running performance.
“Rest is a key component to prevent injury to muscles and tendons and optimize your performance,” says Andrew Junak, DPT. “Muscles and tendons are sensitive to novel stimuli. If your body is unfamiliar with interval training, more rest days are needed in between workouts until your body adapts”
A healthy combination of rest and strategic programming prevent tendon overload and keep the injury bug away.
Different sneakers are made with different efforts in mind. The pair you choose for marathon training will likely be different than the pair you wear for a few quick intervals. That’s because if you won’t be out there running as long, then you won’t need that same amount of cushioning. If you have the option, check-in with the team at a local running specialty store to get their feedback about what the best option may be for you. Then, make sure to break them in before going all-out, suggests trainer Parker Condit. “You definitely want to break in your new shoes with lower-intensity training,” he says. “The ground force reaction of speed work versus slower distance running can be two or three times higher depending on your speeds, and extremely high impact is not the time to break in some new kicks.”
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.