The Ins and Outs of Interval Training For Runners

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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The Ins and Outs of Interval Training For Runners

There comes a time in every runner’s career — and, yes, that includes even the most casual 5K runner — where logging mileage alone won’t get you to the finish line faster. When you first get started in running, just getting out to jog a mile or two is an interval in itself. In fact, even a run/walk beginner plan is essentially taking the idea of intervals and making it fit a beginner. But many runners skip these workouts because they don’t understand the concept, they assume they aren’t ready, or they just don’t know what exactly to do.

The biggest takeaway for interval training is intervals don’t just involve hard bouts of effort, they involve recovery periods between those bouts of effort. Often, these recovery periods are forgotten, cut short, extended or not done at the proper pace, but the quality of the recovery period impacts how well a workout goes.

Here’s what you need to know about creating an interval workout that suits the running you want to do.

HAVE A PLAN

Timing the workout within your training matters: Typically, an interval session should be done after an easy day, not after a long run or another run workout. So, plan to do your interval session the day after a rest day or an easy run. You’ll also want to make it as easy as possible by choosing the right time of day when you typically feel your best.

From a mindset and mental standpoint, if you’re the kind of runner who loves the pre-sunrise quiet, aim for that time rather than heading to the track in the evening. From a weather standpoint, opting for early or late runs on hot days helps avoid the worst of the heat.

DISTANCE VERSUS TIME?

It can get tricky when a workout waffles between distance and time, especially if you don’t have a watch with a lap button. Decide which is right for you, then stick to it. For example, if you have access to a high school track or you know a certain hill or section of road that’s 1 mile long, distance makes sense. Alternatively, if you have a lap function on your watch and like the structure of timed workouts, commit to that.

  • Distance sample workout: 8 sets of 400 meters hard, 200 easy
  • Time sample workout: 8 sets of 2 minutes hard, 1 minute easy

DETERMINE YOUR EFFORT

If you’re doing a set of 10-minute intervals or mile-repeats, your pace and effort will be slower than if you’re doing 1-minute hard intervals. This seems obvious, but many runners start long intervals at a pace that’s impossible to maintain. However, the goal of an interval is to stay steady throughout. The systems used differ between sessions as well: Shorter intervals push you into the anaerobic zone, while longer intervals are in the high aerobic zone and feel more sustainable.

KNOW YOUR RACE PACE

An easy way to start interval training is to simply do mile-repeats or half-mile repeats at race pace with 2–3 minutes between efforts. “Most of the time people are using intervals to help to get them race ready, so as the date approaches, I recommend practicing doing race pace in intervals, and then doing some work that is slightly faster than race pace in order to be able to handle the faster speeds throughout the event,” says Cari Setzler, an RRCA and USATF-certified running coach.

Knowing your race pace comes in handy for more than just your race. A marathon runner, for example, might be doing mile-repeats at their projected race pace with a 2-minute easy run between repetitions.

MIX UP INTERVAL DURATION

“The longer the race you’re preparing for, generally, the longer the interval, the shorter the race, the shorter the interval,” says Setzler. “But there are benefits to doing a range of intervals.” You may assume only a 5K runner should be doing a set of 1-minute hard efforts, but ultra-runners can reap major benefits from going fast for short bursts.

Shorter intervals teach runners to be more efficient, to clean up their stride and run tall, and even marathoners without a serious time goal may need to occasionally speed up. The opposite is true as well: 5K racers can use longer intervals, like mile repeats, to focus on hitting their goal race pace so they can understand how to pace themselves on race days.

SET YOUR TIME BETWEEN INTERVALS

“The time in between the intervals is what prepares you to do the next bout of hard work. And the faster you’re running your interval,,” says Setzler. “So if you’re doing work that is at or closer to your half-marathon to 10K pace, you tend to have a shorter recovery in between because your goal is to maintain a steady heart rate and give yourself just a brief break. On the other hand, if you’re doing stuff that’s faster close to 5K race pace, or what we often equate with the VO2 max pace, you want to have more complete recovery and most folks look for equal time, so a 2-minute effort will have a 2-minute recovery, or even up to twice the recovery time.”

Either way, respect the recovery. The problem with skimping on the recovery is it makes doing the next repeat harder and doesn’t allow for recovery. The problem with stopping between repetitions is you lose the race-specific workout effect, since you won’t typically stop or walk during a marathon.

WARM UP AND COOL DOWN

Budget at least 15 minutes for each — too little time spent warming up means stiffer legs and a harder time getting up to speed. Skip the cooldown, and you run the risk of cramping. You also may end up more sore, and you’ll lose out on an extra few minutes of work. Bonus: The cooldown after an interval session often feels smooth and significantly easier than a normal easy run, because you’re so relieved to be done with the hard work! Take advantage anytime a run feels less difficult.

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.

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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