Interval training is how good runners get faster. In a world where we all want a short-cut, magic pill or easier path…sometimes there’s no good substitute for practice, practice…and more practice. Just like any sport, practice is what makes us better. And the best way to practice for a race is to do interval training that pushes your pace up to or faster than your race goal.
When runners hear the word, “intervals”, most of them cringe as they anticipate the hard and often grueling work-out that lies ahead. This intimidation alone keeps many runners from doing these workouts past the collegiate level. But there’s often a misconception about what interval training should be. The sprint ‘till you puke mentality is not the best approach. In high school, runners will usually push themselves as hard as they can on each interval because they’re running against their peers. So each interval becomes a race, and while this competition can be good sometimes, it can also lead to burnout and injury. When there are no competitors for the intervals, it’s just you against the watch and this when specific interval pace plan come in handy. The plan should cover the interval distance, pace, the number of repetitions, and the rest and recovery periods. This plan will be your road map to become a faster runner.
As mentioned above, interval training has four critical components that each warrants some forethought and planning: distance, pace, repetitions, and rest. Depending on your goal race, these factors can vary significantly. Below are some thoughts on how to use these factors in your interval training to meet your racing goal:
Intervals should be a lot shorter than the goal race distance. For example, ¼ mile intervals are ideal for a 5k race while 1-mile intervals are a good interval training distance for a marathon. If you’re running a much shorter race like the 800m or the 1600m, I’d suggest trying 200m & 400m intervals, respectively. The interval distance should be long enough to pace yourself (not an all-out sprint like a 40m dash), but short enough to run at your goal pace or faster without going to the point of exhaustion.
Pacing for intervals is where most runners have the biggest challenge. Your goal pace should be fast enough to really push yourself, but not so fast that you collapse at the finish. If your goal is to break a 20-minute 5k…that equates to approximately a 6:24 pace per mile or 1:36 per ¼ mile. So if you’re doing ¼ mile intervals to train for a 5k, your goal pace should be around 1:20 – 1:25…for all of them. You may be able to run a lot faster than this for ONE of them, but the key is to run strong on ALL of them. One way I hold myself back from spending all of my energy on interval #1 is to allow myself to go for broke on the last interval. It’s much better to finish with your last interval being your best, than it is to start off fast and slowly tail off from there. Make sure that you pick a good interval training pace to start with. You can always revise it as you progress through your training plan.
Number of Repetitions
Your interval workouts should be laid out in such a manner that you gradually build up the number of repetitions until a week or two before your goal race. For a marathon, I try to get to 10-13 1-mile intervals. For a 5k, I aim for my last interval workout to have 8-9 ¼-mile intervals. The number of repetitions will get your body used to that fast race pace and your muscles will get more proficient at processing lactic acid and working in a near-anaerobic state. Running 2-3 intervals is a good starting point, but you’ll need to run a lot more to than that to prepare for a race. And the key to all of this preparation is the rebuilding and strengthening of your muscles…which occurs during rest
Rest & Recovery
If you’re running on a track, you should plan your interval training to include recovery distances between repetitions. I try to walk / jog 200m between ¼-mile intervals; and walk / jog ¼-mile between 1-mile intervals. You want your recovery periods to be long enough to re-gain your breath, but not so long that you lose the cumulative benefit of the interval workout. You should also plan a warm-up and cool-down jog for 5-10 minutes each. Interval training can take a lot out of you and it’s going to take some time to recover. I typically take the day off before interval training and plan an easy short run on the day after. I also try to limit interval workouts to once a week or once every other week, depending on my goal race. Rest is the most important factor of the four…it’s essential if you want to get stronger & faster.
Whether you’re trying to attain that elusive PR or just trying to get faster, intervals will help your running performance and your overall cardiovascular health. You can run intervals at your local track, in a park, around the neighborhood, or even on a treadmill. Add some intervals to your training schedule and chase your dream!