4 Interval Workouts to Spice Up Your Training

Gain big fitness benefits in a fraction of the time with these short sessions.

Whether you’re crunched for time or you want to shake up your marathon training routine, you should try intervals. These quick but structured workouts can save you time and help you become an even better runner.

Research shows that intervals improve your health and make you both faster and fitter in less time than steady-state cardio. Plus, depending on where you begin, interval training can increase your stroke volume (how much blood your heart pumps out per beat) by 10 percent after eight weeks of training, boost your VO2 max (how much oxygen you can use) up to 46 percent in 24 weeks, and even significantly lower your resting heart rate, a key indicator of your overall fitness level.

But before you go to pick up the pace, there are a few things to keep in mind, especially when planning for intervals.

Make time for the warm-up

Your muscles aren’t ready for peak performance the second you walk out the door. “It may seem like you don’t need to, and [if it’s warm out] you may feel hot, but it’s important to increase circulation to muscles, ligaments, and tendons you’ll be stressing,” says Polly de Mille, exercise physiologist and the director of Performance Services at the Hospital for Special Surgery.

Plan ahead

De Mille adds that even though the duration of your effort may be shorter than usual, it’s important to plan for the right time of day. If it’s summer time, get up and out early in the day, or hold off until later in the evening to avoid the high heat. If it’s winter, you may want to wait until the afternoon when it’s warmer.

Also of importance: Knowing what you’re going to do before you get out there so you can get it done without delay. “You want to know exactly what’s on deck,” she adds. Adjust your effort for the weather. You may not be able to hit the same paces when it’s hot as in cooler months and vice versa— but that’s okay. Have plenty of water on hand to stay hydrated regardless of temperature.

Focus on form

Form and function take center stage when running intervals. “Due to the stress that is placed on the body, both cardiovascularly and biomechanically, a strong foundational training base is required,” says Mindy Solkin, founder of The Running Center. “Learning correct running form will position the body to withstand the impact of the workout and help to prevent injuries.”

Know when to call it

“There’s nothing to be gained by forcing yourself to complete a workout if you’re not feeling well,” says Solkin. “It’s one thing to power through it if it just feels a little tough, it’s another to feel woozy and crappy and overheated.” If your form falls apart or you don’t hit your interval paces, that’s a sign to call it a day, cool down, and head in.

Make time for rest breaks

It can be tempting to keep moving once you get going, but the point of interval training is to do just that: run intervals. The recovery portions are just as important as the efforts. “The amount of time you take between intervals and what you do during that time can greatly impact the workout,” says Roberto Mandje, New York Road Runner’s Senior Manager of Training and Education.

Equally important: Deciding if you’ll be doing active recovery or passive. With active recovery, you slow down drastically but you keep moving in the form of a walk or jog. With passive, you stop and completely rest to bring your heart rate down until the next interval is up.

10 x 400 metres

  • 10- to 15-minute warmup with dynamic drills
  • 400-meters at your goal mile pace
  • 60-seconds of active rest, walking or jogging slowly
  • Repeat 10 times*
  • Cool down

*If the volume of this workout is too high, don’t stress. Mandje suggests starting with 4 x 400 or 6 x 400, then gradually build up from there to 10 intervals.

Note: Keep the recovery time the same, regardless of how many intervals you run. As you get fitter and better with pacing, you’ll be able to really improve your speed-endurance from this type of workout, which will help your overall speed at distances 5K and below. To find your current mile pace, use stats from a recent run and our pace calculator.

The ladder

  • 10- to 15-minute warmup with dynamic drills
  • 400 metres at 15 seconds faster than goal 5K pace,* 3:00 rest
  • 800 metres at 10K pace, 4:00 rest
  • 1600 metres at 30 seconds slower than 10K pace, 5:00 rest
  • 800 metres at 10K pace, 4:00 rest
  • 400 metres at 15 seconds faster than goal 5K pace,* 3:00 rest
  • Cool down

For this workout, you will need to know your current or goal paces. If you have a recent 1K, 5K, 10K, half marathon, or marathon time from the past month or two, you can pull your average kilometre pace and then use a pace calculator to determine your other goal times.

4 x 1600 metre intervals

  • 10- to 15-minute warmup with dynamic drills
  • 1600 metres at goal 5K or 10K pace
  • 2:30 minutes of active rest, walking or easy jog
  • Repeat 2 to 4 times
  • Cool down

This workout can be done on a track or road, and is a great option for anyone looking to improve their endurance and race times at distances from 5K and above. Depending on your fitness level, you can start with 2 or 3 intervals and build from there.

Light pole pick-ups

  • 10- to 15-minute warmup with dynamic drills
  • Light pole pick-ups fast
  • Slow running recovery
  • Repeat as desired
  • Cool down

This is a continuous 4- to 6-kilometre run with intermittent fast and slow running, meant to be done around your streets or park with street light poles. Depending on the distance between the poles, Solkin recommends you run the distance from 1 to 3 poles fast, then follow that by running the next 1 to 3 poles slow. Do this for the entire run.

Solkin defines “fast” as about 85 percent to 90 percent of maximum heart rate — or an 8.5 to 9 on a perceived exertion scale of 1 to 10. “Slow” is 70 percent to 75 percent of maximum heart rate — or 7 to 7.5 on the RPE scale.

EMILY ABBATE Emily Abbate is a freelance writer, certified fitness trainer, and host of the podcast Hurdle. You can find her work in GQ, Shape, Runner’s World, and other health and fitness publications.  

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