How Interval Running Helps You Become a Better Runner

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Too often runners find themselves just going through the motions. Sure, anytime you get yourself moving it’s better than sitting on the couch. There is certainly no doubt about that. However, if you’re running the same distance and route at the same pace, likely you won’t see much in the way of improvement. If you have goals beyond just spending some time outside in the fresh air, there are things you can do to improve your running. One of those things is to include interval running into your workouts.

What Are Intervals?

When you run intervals you are completing some portions of the run at a considerably faster pace. There are many benefits to adding intervals. There are many different types of interval workouts and we will discuss those. First, however, let’s tackle the benefits of running intervals.

Benefits to Intervals

One benefit of running intervals is that you can trick your body into burning more calories. When you engage in any type of high-intensity interval training your body becomes a fat-burning machine. In addition to burning more calories than if you are working out at the same steady pace, there is science that points to HIIT training as shifting your body into focusing on burning fat. If your goals include weight loss or body sculpting, intervals are a great choice!

Many people believe that intervals create a hotter and longer afterburn. If you are running at an easy pace for 30 minutes or so your body will not rev up your metabolism the same as if you do a warm-up, followed by 20 minutes of intervals, followed by a cool down. Sure, it is the same time commitment. However, the interval run is going to make different use of your time on task.

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Intervals are an efficient use of your time. If you plan things outright you can burn as many calories in 30 minutes of intervals as you could running at a steady pace for 45-60 minutes. The plain truth is that intervals are a great way to get more bang for your buck!

An interval run also has a greater cardiovascular benefit than a steady paced run. In addition to challenging your heart, you can potentially challenge your mental toughness. It is far easier to run at a steady pace than to bust it hard and fast, even for shorter periods of time.

Interval Run Benefits

There are also benefits specific to running. What’s that? Well, the above-mentioned benefits of intervals apply to any type of HIIT training. These benefits are running specific.

  • Build Strength – You will get stronger if you run intervals.
  • Speed – Running intervals will help you to get faster.
  • Endurance – Adding intervals to your workouts will absolutely help you to build endurance.
  • Improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity.

Intervals for Everyone

A good rule of thumb for intervals is that you need to properly warm-up. You should never get your motor running into high gear without warming up first. Trying to go fast without proper preparation is a good way to get hurt, and nobody wants that!

Beginners

Anyone new to interval running should start out cautiously. A coach’s rule of thumb is that if you are looking at hard efforts, you should start at :30 seconds. When you are exerting yourself for :30 seconds at a hard pace, you should take double that amount of time of complete rest. That should give you ample time to get your heart rate back down to normal.

As a new runner, you may be unsure how to determine what your hard pace should be. To start out, think 80-85% perceived effort. Try to pick a pace that is challenging but that you can complete 10 of at a similar pace.

Beginner Interval Workout

  • 5 – 10 minute warm-up
  • 10 x :30 seconds hard running
  • :60 seconds rest (standing or walking) between intervals
  • 5 minutes cool down

Track Workout

Another great workout for people who are fairly new to intervals can be done easily on a track. This one just requires you to know where the marks on the track are for tracking distance. This is a great workout to challenge yourself and you don’t need a timer or anything!

If you have a tracking watch like a Garmin, hit the lap button each interval.  Your goal should be to run the second hard effort as fast as the first. Try this one out:

  • 800 warm-up
  • 100 meters hard / 100 meters walk
  • 200 meters hard / 200 meters walk
  • 300 meters hard / 300 meters walk
  • 400 meters hard / 400 meters walk / 400 meters hard
  • 300 meters walk / 300 meters hard
  • 200 meters walk / 200 meters hard
  • 100 meters walk / 100 meters hard
  • cool down

5K Training Interval Workout

If you’re training for a fast 5K, you might want to try something different. Assuming you are not a brand new runner you should have a better idea of what pace you are hoping to stay at for each interval.

As always, remember to warm up. Each person varies on how much warm-up time they need. While half a mile may be fine for some people others might need two full miles! The goal is for you to get a feel for what that 5K pace feels like as you lean into the burn.

Try this workout for 5K training: 

  • Warm-up
  • 5 x 3:00 at 5K goal pace
  • 3:00 active recovery (slow jog) between intervals
  • Cool Down

10K Training

Since it is a longer distance, your 10K training will look different. The basic makeup of the workout is similar. However, you might warm up longer to add mileage to the workout.  When working on 10K pace you will want a longer interval at race pace, such as 5-7 minutes.

Try this for 10K training:

  • Warm-up
  • 7 x 7:00 at 10K pace
  • 3:00 active recovery between intervals
  • Cooldown

Longer Distance Training

If you are training for a half or full marathon your intervals might look differently.  Mile repeats are a favorite for distance runners. The goal of a mile repeat is to choose a pace and try to stay within :10-:15 seconds of that goal time each repeat you run.

You don’t want to run super fast in the beginning then slow down at the end. Consistency is key!

If you’re training for a distance race your workout might change up your speed work to include 800s, 1200s and 1600s. You might even have what some call a run within a run.

Run Within a Run

When you run within a run, the coach breaks the distance up. You might run 2 miles easy then the next 2 might be at a goal pace, followed by 2 easy miles again.

Another fun run within a run is to do pick ups. When you do pick ups, you just set out to do a certain distance (say 3 miles) and do a set number of intervals where you pick up your pace for a certain amount of time. You might tell yourself every half mile or so you will do a :60 second pick up.

How To Time Intervals

There are many ways to keep yourself on target while running intervals. One is to run on a track. If you’re on a track then you know exactly when to walk and when to run.

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Another tactic is to run wearing a running watch like a Garmin. You can set your Garmin to beep to alert you at certain intervals. Using the workout planning tool, you can not only track distance intervals but also time. For example, your watch could alert you to run hard for 3:00 minutes and to run easy for 2:00 minutes.

Another example, it could be set to beep to alert you for a workout like this one:

  • 1600 easy warm-up
  • 400 meters hard
  • 2:00 minutes walk
  • 800 meters hard
  • 4:00 minutes walk
  • 1200 meters hard
  • 5:00 minutes walk
  • 1600 meters hard
  • 2:00 minutes walk
  • Cooldown

There are apps you can download onto your phone such as GymBoss. These apps let you know it is time to run hard by beeping at a preset time.

There are also specific workout apps such as Nike Running Club. In this app, for example, you can choose a specific workout. You pop in your headphones and just do what the Nike coach asks of you. It might be :60 on by :60 rest. Sometimes it’s longer intervals. You can read a description of each workout before you commit to it.  Apps like this give you a challenging workout and you don’t have to think: just do the work.

Can I Do Intervals on a Treadmill?

You bet you can! Any of the above workouts will work on a treadmill. In fact, my favorite way to keep my brain engaged on the ‘mill is to use the Nike Running App. Word of advice is to pick a workout before you jump on. A treadmill can be a real test of mental toughness and discipline. If you have a plan ahead of time that can be helpful.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your fitness and get faster, running intervals is a great way to do it. Whether you are a novice runner or a veteran who has been logging miles your whole life there are workouts out there for you. Challenge yourself today by picking up the pace for a change of pace! You won’t regret it!