In the lead up to my postponed half marathon and 10k races this year, my coach put me on a training plan that involved something I’d never done before off the track – interval training. In fact, two of my three planned running sessions a week were interval sessions, which baffled me at the time. Surely to get better at running longer distances I should be doing just that? But, trusting my coach, I went out and did the sessions (clocking less mileage than I thought I ‘should’ be doing) and the results spoke for themselves. At around the time I was supposed to run my races, I manage to get half marathon and 10k pbs in solo time trials. So it turns out intervals do work.
What is interval training?
An interval training workout or run involves periods of high intensity work alternated with periods of low intensity work, the recovery.
What are the benefits?
According to the NHS, the benefits gained from interval training are similar to those gained from longer, more moderate runs. These are numerous, and not limited to performance benefits – interval training could be better for your health, too.
- Intervals can improve your VO2 max (the amount of oxygen able to be utilised by your body, i.e. aerobic capacity) significantly, improving your efficiency as a runner. This will also mean your body is better at clearing lactic acid buildup – useful in your next race!
- Interval training can provide health benefits similar to doing up to twice as much more moderate training. These include lowering the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
- Variety builds strength. If you’re used to plodding around your same route at the same pace, incorporating intervals can quickly make you a better runner. It will challenge your cardiovascular system and muscles in new ways, triggering adaptations and improvements.
- When you learn how to run fast for extended periods of time through interval training, more moderately paced runs suddenly feel much slower. You’ll likely end up feeling more comfortable at a faster pace, and all your runs will end up faster.
- Although interval training is tough on the body, switching out a long run or two for interval training can reduce the risk of injury. Increasing mileage too quickly can lead to a greater risk of injury, so incorporating intervals sessions means you can gain the same benefits of long runs, but doing less overall mileage, thus reducing risk of injury.
- Enjoyment! There are several studies that suggest that runners, especially those just starting out, enjoy intervals sessions more than steady state running. If this means you’re more likely to get out and get a session done, this can also lead to greater performance benefits. Win win!
- Fat loss. Interval training of any kind can induce the ‘after-burn effect’, or EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). This increases the amount of calories burned by your body after a session, even at rest. This can promote fat loss over time.
- Less stress. Long runs can actually increase your cortisol (stress hormone) levels for days afterwards, lowering the immune system temporarily. Interval sessions reduce cortisol levels, reducing the overall load and stress on the body each week. This, coupled with the endorphin hit of a good workout means you’ll likely leave each session smiling!
- Mental discipline. Running closer to your maximum pace is tough, both physically and mentally. However, if you’re looking to run faster overall, this mental strength will be needed in races. Training closer to threshold can prepare you for your races mentally as well as physically.
- For the benefits you get, interval training can take considerably less time than a steady run. Sure, the whole thing is more painful, but when you only have to endure it for 20 or 30 minutes, how bad can it be? This leaves more time for other things you want to do.
How do I do intervals?
There are more types of intervals than I could possibly include in a blog post, and calculating what works best for you will be dependent on your goals, strengths and weaknesses. As someone who isn’t a coach, I am reluctant to give specific advice, but some good advice I found is shared below. You can read the rest of the article here, which discusses how to build your own interval training sessions.
While there’s no across-the-board pace prescription, there are some rough guidelines that can help get you started. For instance, if you’re running 1-mile intervals, try to complete them at your goal 10K pace. For shorter intervals, like 800m, execute those at 5K pace, and 400m intervals should be slightly faster than that. This is where a coach can come in handy, but there are also online resources, such as Rickerman’s calculator, that can help you figure out a pace range.
I hope this encourages some of you to try interval training sessions! The benefits are numerous, but for me what I love is that it doesn’t take all day. I love my long runs, but convincing myself to get out for several hours multiple times a week is never going to happen. My interval sessions usually last 30 minutes maximum, rest periods included, so there’s really no excuse not to get out. They’re also super fun and always leave me feeling positive, which after all, is what running’s all about!
Let me know if you give interval training a go, and come and find me on Instagram to share your experience!