Interval training: the key to effective speed work for runners

What exactly is interval training and how can it benefit your running routine? Expert running coach Tom Craggs from RunningWithUs breaks it down.

Interval training: the key to effective speed work for runners

You will no doubt have heard the term interval training, which can apply to various sports in the world of health and fitness. In simple terms interval training involves a series of efforts called ‘repetitions’, interspersed with a series of rest or easy active recovery periods.

Runners normally use the term to relate to fast running at 5K-10K pace or faster, with the terms ‘tempo’ or ‘threshold’ running used to describe the more controlled 10K to half marathon paced area of training.

What are the benefits of interval running? 

Interval training is not just for elite runners. Most runners have the tendency to ‘just run’. We each have our favourite routes around the block, park or local streets and our measure of progression is if we can do it a little faster than we did last week. Aiming to ‘just get faster’ without a method of making this possible and sustainable for your body often sees runners plateau early.

Interval running gives you a structured, progressive way to get fitter and faster. By breaking a session down into smaller chunks, interval training gives you the latitude to push that bit harder, knowing that you will have a recovery period after each effort. It will help show you aren’t just ‘one paced’ and will also help your mental strength – making tour race paces feel that bit easier. 

How do you start interval running?

There are hundreds of different combinations and uses for interval training for runners; here are a few examples:

1. Bottom up race pace

Interval sessions at or near race volume – all run at your goal race pace can be great. Start with short efforts and build up the length or reduce the recovery as the weeks go by. 12 x 400 metres with 45-60 seconds rest might develop into 6 x 800m with 75-90 seconds rest. Eventually this could progress to 5 x 1K at race pace with 90 seconds rest a few weeks down the line. 

2. Build your engine

If you want to feel strong and like you’ve taken your 900cc mini and turned it into a Aston Martin, look to include longer efforts between 2 minutes and up to 4:30 minutes or 800m, 1K or 1200m efforts into your training. For example 5 x 1200m or 4 minutes run between 5K and 10K pace with 75-90 seconds recovery or 4-5 sets of 1K at 5-10K pace + 400m at 3K pace.

3. Build your speed

Efforts between 15 seconds right through to 2-3 minutes can be used to develop speed if used with a longer recovery. By taking more recovery between efforts sometimes up to 3 minutes can allow you to push harder and faster.

4. Stress your energy systems

Mixing paces in the same interval session can be a great way to add variety and test your body’s ability to work with more or less oxygen.

A great session to try would be 8 x 3 minutes with a 75-90 second recovery where the odd numbers are run at a controlled discomfort of perhaps 10K pace, and the even numbers are run faster at 3-5K pace.

5. Test your race pace

Running your goal race pace on tired legs at the end of an interval session can be a great way of getting used to the final few miles of a 10K, half or even full marathon.

One way to do this would be to ‘sandwich’ blocks of race pace either side of harder intervals. 10-15 minutes at half marathon pace + 5 x 3 minutes + 10-15 minutes back at half marathon pace would be a great example. 

6. Sharpen up

It can be quite effective to include some shorter controlled interval sessions to just get the legs running over a little quicker in the final couple of weeks before you race. Something simple like 10 x 90 seconds all run at 5K pace with 45-60 seconds rest can be great 2-3 weeks out from a half or full marathon.  

7. Care free speed

If you find all this structure stressful fartlek sessions are a different style of interval training where you mix up different length efforts, more randomly into run. Try something like 45 minutes with a mix of efforts from 30 seconds hard though to 5 minutes at 10K effort – also varying the terrain and recovery.

 Interval training: things to consider 

  • Race specific: Harder isn’t always better – remember your training should be race specific so just going out and running lots of short hard intervals wont necessarily give you a good marathon performance. Intervals give you the icing – make sure the cake is there as well!
  • Mix up the terrain: You don’t have to do interval running on a track. Get creative and run on grass and include some hills – this will likely leave you stronger and have a reduced injury risk. Try these treadmill interval tips
  • Injury prone: If you are injury prone or just stepping back into running after a period of injury take care with short hard intervals which can be quite hard on your body. If you are worried consider using cross training for your interval training until you have a base of running fitness back.
  • Recovery time: Most runners should be including more than one hard interval session each week and you certainly should be looking to do hard interval sessions back to back with other hard days such as threshold running to your long run.
  • Baby steps: If you’re new to interval running, start small. A few weeks of simple sessions such as 5-6 x 3 minutes or  8-10 x 90s running at a controlled 5km effort is a good place to start. Most runners try to hit their interval sessions too hard. Remember you’re an endurance athlete and not a sprinter. Aim to finish the final 2-3 efforts at least as fast as the first.
  • Warm up and cool down well: Aim to have a good 15-20 minute warm up before running hard intervals and consider adding running drills and strides. Leave time aside after to cool done well and stretch. Try these warm up tips

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