How Much Rest Should You Take During Your Interval Workouts?

Your recovery is just as important as the work you put into each speed session.

runners resting on running track

Matt Lincoln//Getty Images

As a runner, you probably dedicate most of your attention to the work you put into training. But there’s another element of training that deserves just as much attention: rest. This not only includes your days off from running and the recovery you take between workouts, but also the rest you take between intervals in your speed sessions.

Just like the work period, rest is an important variable to take into account when designing appropriately challenging, race-specific interval workouts. Manipulating the amount of rest in a given workout changes the benefits you gain and physiological systems you target. Tweaking the time taken between intervals can greatly modify the overall intensity of a workout, so you need to put as much thought into the rest periods between your intervals as you do the hard running.

So, how much rest time should you take between interval sets? In general, shorter rest periods ramp up the intensity of a workout because recovery is incomplete, and your heart rate remains high when the next interval begins.

“Typically, no matter what distance you are training for, you use short rest to keep quality up in a workout and your heart rate high. In addition, short rests can be utilised to break up a tempo workout and allow an athlete to run a fair amount of volume yet maintain intensity,” says Benita Willis, three-time Australian National Champion in the Women’s 5,000 metres, now coaching with Lace Up Running.

Willis advises using longer rests in workouts consisting either of very long intervals or very demanding intervals. “Longer rest periods when used while training for shorter races are most beneficial so you can run a repetition almost flat out, then recover fully before you begin the remainder of the workout,” she says. “Quality is the focus here, not quantity.” In general, the more taxing the interval is, the faster it is, the more recovery you need.

Workouts with medium-length rests are a middle ground, where you can practise race pace yet also maintain it for a considerable amount of time.

To help you get the hang of it, here are three interval workouts for three target distances with varying amounts of rest: short, medium, and long. Research has shown that active rest (jogging or walking) is more effective at clearing lactate and preparing you for the next repeat than standing, but listen to your own body, and do what feels best.

Interval Workouts for 5K

Short Rest

The workout: 3 x (4 x 400m) at approximately 3 seconds faster per lap than 5K pace (somewhere between 1500m and 3,000m pace), with 30 seconds rest between each 400 and a lap jog between sets

Why it helps: Short rests between hard, fast intervals help teach the nervous system to adjust to faster running, promote stride power and efficiency, and allow you to practise maintaining form and speed when fatigued. “You use short rest in between hard, short intervals to generate some lactic acid in your legs, then practise running with heavy legs to increase your lactate threshold,” Willis explains. “This helps for the finish of a 5K when you are sprinting after having run almost five kilometres.”

When you should do it: Do this workout in the month preceding an important racing block, when you’re looking to peak in a series of races.

Medium Rest

The workout: 8 x 1,000m at slightly faster than 10K pace, with 60 to 90 seconds rest

Why it helps: This workout promotes, develops, and supports the specific endurance necessary for racing a hard 5K. Willis defines specific endurance as the ability to resist fatigue at goal pace and complete the entire race distance at that pace. Keeping the rest at a medium duration lets you accumulate a substantial amount of volume but doesn’t afford a complete recovery, thereby encouraging optimal preparation for a goal race.

When you should do it: Do this workout approximately six weeks before a target 5K race, when the focus begins to switch from more general fitness to race-specific fitness and the ability to maintain pace for the duration of a goal race.

Long Rest

The workout: 3K at 10K pace or faster, 5 minute recovery, then 4 x 200m fast yet relaxed

Why it helps: As mentioned before, longer rest periods allow you to complete an interval almost all-out, yet recover fully before beginning additional repeats. Quality is the focus here, not quantity. The 200s are performed at close to maximal speed.

When you should do it: Use this workout sparingly in early or mid-season. “Most distance athletes cannot handle more than four to five of these types of intense workouts because they generally take longer to recover from than tempo runs or intervals with a medium rest, so you need to carefully consider when to run a workout like this,” Willis explains. “A shorter, harder race can also take the place of a workout like this.”

Interval Workouts for Half Marathon

Short Rest

The workout: 10 x 800m at half marathon goal pace, with 1 minute rest

Why it helps: Nicole Hunt, two-time Olympic trials marathon qualifier and coach, has athletes do this workout so that they obtain volume and intensity and practice running goal race pace. However, the recovery periods ensure that the workout isn’t too taxing physically or mentally, especially compared to, say, a eight-kilometre  tempo run early in a training cycle.

When you should do it: It’s desirable to do this workout at the beginning of a half marathon cycle, when fitness is just developing, as it serves as an introduction to running at goal pace. The intervals are short enough that you can sample goal pace in an amount that isn’t overwhelming at such an early stage, yet benefit physiologically because the rest is kept so short.

Medium Rest

The workout: 3 x 3 kilometres at goal half marathon pace, with 2 minutes rest

Why it helps: The goal of this workout is to practise longer bouts at goal pace. “As the athlete progresses through the season the rest interval may decrease and/or the running interval increase, to optimally simulate race conditions,” Hunt explains.

When you should do it: Do this workout midway through a half marathon cycle, when fitness is somewhat established and you can handle increasing distances at goal half marathon pace.

Long Rest

The workout: 2 x 5 kilometres at goal half marathon pace, with 4 to 5 minutes of rest

Why it helps: “As the running interval increases, more rest is necessary for recovery and to enable the athlete to run goal pace for a longer amount of time,” Hunt says. Doing a total of ten kilometres at goal pace in this manner should increase your ability to lock into pace on race day and stay mentally focused.

When you should do it: Do this workout in the final few weeks before a half marathon, as it’s fairly taxing and requires a high level of race-specific fitness.

Interval Workouts for Marathon

Short Rest

The workout: 6-8 x 1.5 kilometre repeats at slightly faster than marathon pace, with 1 minute rest

Why it helps: This workout allows you to keep the quality up and your heart rate high, but the small rest makes it palatable and not overwhelming. “You can use short recoveries to break up tempo runs to keep up the quality. You want to keep your heart rate high but not lose intensity, so sometimes it is helpful to give brief rest periods to achieve both,” says Willis.

When you should do it: Three to six weeks out from a goal marathon is the best time to complete this workout, as it’s fairly strenuous and requires a high level of fitness and general marathon preparedness.

Medium Rest

The workout: 12 x 1,000m at faster than half marathon pace, with 90 seconds to 2 minutes rest

Why it helps: “The purpose of this workout is to have the athlete get used to the feeling of running a lot faster than marathon pace for a long period of time,” Willis explains. “This is beneficial because when the athlete gets into the actual marathon, they will feel that the pace is ‘slow’ after completing these workouts. Their running economy and efficiency at marathon speed will be increased, and they should be more comfortable maintaining their marathon pace longer and ultimately finish faster.”

When you should do it: “This workout is great if used toward the start of marathon prep, particularly in the first month,” says Willis. “You just want to make sure the athlete has a few easy days after it, as it is a little harder to recover from than some workouts due to both its volume and intensity.”

Long Rest

The workout: 10 x 1-minute hills, with jog down recovery for approximately 3 minutes

Why it helps: This is designed to get your legs moving fast but with plenty of recovery. This is good to do in marathon training to get the benefit of fast leg turnover and hill strength, Willis says. “Longer rest is needed to obtain quality and recruit muscle fibres to maintain the feeling of running faster during higher-kilometerage weeks,” she adds.When you should do it: Willis recommends doing this workout in a high-volume marathon training week. It’s designed to be a low-volume workout from which you can recover quickly, yet work on power and speed development.

Related Articles