The power of interval training

I’ve mentioned before the danger, as someone who actually enjoys running, that all I will ever do is medium length runs and medium intensity. For me, few things are nicer than a fairly gentle jog of 5-6 miles. Good for the soul, certainly, but actual training value is pretty low. Of course, there’s a place for runs like that – recovery, or maintaining fitness off-season, or just because it’s fun – but by and large you’re not going to improve your running unless you are somehow pushing yourself.

This is why most long-distance running training programmes split into roughly four types of runs: the long slow run (LSR) to improve your endurance, the tempo run to improve power and ability to sustain a higher pace, intervals to improve your speed, and then the recovery run.

Most serious runners, then, already know about the power of intervals, but a lot of novices don’t. They are still inclined to assume that just running further or faster is the way to improve their running. Part of the problem is that beginner runners actually aren’t always encouraged to do interval training; not because there is any reason why they shouldn’t, but because interval training done properly is a lot more painful than just going for a jog, and so it’s seen as potentially off-putting.

The benefits, however, are so significant that they really shouldn’t be ignored. By having relatively brief ‘on’ periods interspersed with ‘off’ periods during which you can drop your pace as low as you want, you are able to keep pushing your pace up to levels well above what would normally be comfortable, but with a reduced risk of injury, overtraining, or simply being unable to maintain the pace. The mix of high intensity and low intensity periods causes the body to adapt far more effectively, and you will see improvements in your speed and endurance more rapidly than with almost any other kind of workout.

Some sample interval workouts to try

Fartlek

A Swedish word meaning something like ‘speed-play’, Fartlek is just random intervals done by setting yourself random sprint goals as you run. For example, that you’ll sprint to the end of the road, then jog to the next lamp-post, then sprint to the junction, etc.

The great thing is how flexible it is, meaning it doesn’t require much pre-planning. You can build it into any run pretty easily and with no forward planning. The only slight issues I have with it as opposed to a pre-defined interval training plan are that firstly it is hard to track any improvements and, secondly, that if you are at all lacking in self-discipline it is too easy to subtly slacken off either by reducing your pace on the sprints or simply stopping when you get tired.

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Hill Sprints

Doing hill sprints, sometimes known as Kenyan Hills, is a type of interval training. It’s pretty simple – find a hill, sprint up it, jog slowly down it. You get the benefits of high-intensity interval training, but with the added difficulty of hills. It’ll get your heart-rate up and your lungs burning even faster than a normal HIIT workout which also means you can keep it relatively short if you are pushed for time.

Time-based intervals

My favourite properly structured interval is 5 x 4 mins on / 1 min off. In the ‘off’ I try to maintain a jog but it is usually only barely above a walk, and in the ‘on’ period I either work to a specific heart rate, to perceived exertion, or to a pace. Your own requirements will vary, of course, but I find trying to stay under 6 minute miles for the intervals is just about doable, while difficult enough that it stretches me, particularly by intervals 4 and 5. The nice thing about intervals is the feeling that almost anything is bearable for 4 minutes, and usually by the time it starts to hurt it’s only about 3 minutes left, so you can push yourself almost as hard as you like, knowing that it’s never going to be too long until you can have a break. That psychological ability to really push yourself is another thing that makes interval training so effective.

 

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