What’s Better: Interval Training or Distance Running?

Emily Abbate
by Emily Abbate
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What’s Better: Interval Training or Distance Running?

Some days, you’re just in a mood. Maybe it’s a mood to listen to a podcast over music or drink oat milk in your coffee over taking it black. And when it comes to your run, your mood might dictate whether it’s a day for going fast or wanting to zone out and go long (or, on really special occasions, both). The good news? There’s room for both interval training and distance running as a part of your regular running routine. Here, the experts weigh in on both.

WHAT IS INTERVAL TRAINING?

The formula to make any run an interval run is pretty simple: Run hard for a bit, recover for a bit, do it all again. Of course, this speed work can come in a slew of different shapes and forms, from 4 x 800-meter repeats to fartleks — the goofy-sounding Swedish word for speed play.

“Interval training makes you a more powerful, efficient and faster runner,” says Thomas Watson, UESCA-certified run coach and founder of Marathon Handbook. “It can improve your base running speed and your running economy — basically the miles per gallon your body gets when it runs.”

Don’t just take Watson’s word for it, science agrees. 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 weight loss is one of your goals, picking up the pace can help with that, 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.

If you want to try out this modality on your own, there are plenty of ways to play with the structuring of a speed workout. “The possibilities are endless and can vary depending on your goals,” says Watson, who recommends doing this type of thing at a local track. “My recommended workout is to run 800-meter intervals — so you run a half-mile fast, then another half-mile slow — then repeat that a few times.”

During fast intervals, aim to be uncomfortable, roughly pushing yourself to 8–9 out of 10 on a perceived effort scale (RPE). On the slow intervals, dial things right back to an easy jog — try to keep running, but at a slow and easy pace, a 2–3 out of 10 on a perceived effort scale.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT RUNNING FOR DISTANCE

Distance running is on the opposite side of the scale from interval training, in that it’s mostly about running long and slow at about a 5–6 out of 10 on a perceived effort scale. While distance running can certainly be an activity you engage in for fun, it’s often part of a training plan for a longer endurance event — like a half- or full-marathon.

“Distance running typically comprises of going for one long, slow run per week,” says Watson, who advises his runners to be smart about how they build on mileage. “Be mindful, and do it gradually. Aim to increase it by no more than 10% week-on-week.”

Of course, running long has its fair share of benefits as well. According to November 2014 research from the American College of Rheumatology, it can prevent onset knee pain later in life. It can also lead to a longer life and increase overall happiness.

“Distance running’s purpose is to build up endurance,” says Carol Mack, DPT and distance running coach at Fleet Feet Sports in Cleveland. “It’s also used to build tolerance for long distance races, which require the runner to be on their feet for an extended period of time.”

IS ONE BETTER THAN THE OTHER?

This answer truly depends on what your goals are.

“It is ideal to incorporate both training styles into your routine, as they both complement each other,” says Timothy Lyman, director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh. “You cannot be an efficient interval runner without a steady-state base, and you won’t see improvements in your steady-state economy without utilizing intervals.”

And just like chocolate or time spent in the sun, make sure not to do too much of a good thing. Watson suggests keeping the frequency at once per week for both and try to — at the very least — leave at least two days between intervals and long runs.

“Otherwise, you may overdo it and suffer from burnout, fatigue or injury,” he says. “This will also allow your body time to recover after each one.”

About the Author

Emily Abbate
Emily Abbate

Emily has written for GQ, Self, Shape and Runner’s World (among others). As a certified personal trainer, run and spin coach, she’s often tackling long runs or lifting heavy things. In addition to that, she’s working on Hurdle, a podcast that talks to badass humans and entrepreneurs who got through a tough time —a hurdle of sorts— by leaning into wellness.

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