Why you need intervals in your training programme

Last week a friend reached out to ask my advice on his running training.  Whilst his specific question was unique to him, what was at it’s core was a goal that many runners strive for – getting faster.

In my experience, very few runners don’t aim to get faster or go further.  They seem to be the two Holy Grails of runners, and take us from 10k to half marathon to marathon and beyond, past Personal Bests and new records.

So, I happily gave my friend some advice around strength training, avoiding injury, the 80/20 approach, hill training and, of course, intervals.  I believe that intervals should form a part of all running programmes and most definitely those where the runner is aiming to improve their speed over a set distance.

What is interval training?

Put simply, interval training is a cardiovascular training system that intersperses periods of work and rest.  The length and intensity of those periods is dependent on your end goal.

And intervals don’t just work for runners.  They are great for building fitness and are heavily used in various sports.  You might have seen thinks like Insanity or Metafit (which utilise High Intensity Interval Training) as well as interval training on apps like Peloton for cyclists.

Many new runners or those completing the Couch to 5k programme will also have been implementing intervals, of the run/walk variety.

Why is interval training great?

Quite simply, interval training will increase your level of fitness more quickly than most, if not all, other types of running.  Not only that, it makes you a more efficient runner and, crucially, a faster runner meaning you can cover longer distances in less time.

For those of you who are running for weight loss, intervals help torch calories and encourage your body to continue burning calories long after the workout has ended.

Interval training allows you to work for a period at high intensity, close to your peak heart rate, then gives you a short recovery period at a much lower intensity to allow your heart rate to come back down.  This recovery is crucial as it allows your body to clear the built up lactic acid that has been produced during the period of effort.

Running intervals adapts your body to clear lactic acid more quickly and efficiently, as well as improving both aerobic and anaerobic systems.  And because it takes less time to complete an intervals session than, for example, a long run, it’s great for the time conscious among us.

How do I include intervals in my training?

The answer to this depends on what level you are currently at and what your goal is.

A beginner might alternate jogging/running and walking intervals with a ratio of 2:1 or 1:1 i.e. 1 minute jogging/running then 30 seconds walking or 1 minute jogging/running then 1 minute walking.  A total of 30 minutes, with a 5 minute warm up and cool down is likely sufficient at this early stage.

For more experienced runners, intervals by time or distance might be used.  For example, it might be an 800m run at 5k pace followed by 400m recovery at a steady jog.  You should consider your goal distance when deciding on the length of your intervals.  For example, if your goal is a quicker 5k your high intensity effort interval may be 400m or 800m, whereas if your goal is to improve your marathon time your intervals may be 1 mile at goal marathon pace with a 1 to 2 minute steady jog recovery between intervals.

Same goes for the number of intervals.  Of course, as fitness improves then the number of intervals can be gradually increased, so beginners may start with 3 to 4 intervals whilst experienced runners may be completing 8 – 10 intervals per session.

Of course, it goes without saying that all interval sessions should be preceded with a good warm up to get the body ready and prepared for exercise, and finished with a gradual cool down and stretching.

How often should I use interval training?

No more than once per week – this is a tough workout and your high intensity efforts should be just that, high intensity, which means your body needs time to adapt and recover.  After all, recovery is where gains are made.

For beginners, once every 2 weeks may be sufficient until base fitness has increased.  For experienced runners, I normally recommend alternating weeks for hill training and interval training, with the rest of your training sessions following the 80/20 concept.

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