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Let’s Get Faster –– Part 3: Intervals

During the past several weeks, I have encouraged everyone who wants to get faster to develop their speed by doing fartlek training and hill work. Now, it’s time to tackle interval training. Like fartlek and hills, intervals of fast-paced running followed by recovery will help to increase your speed by making your body more efficient, developing aerobic capacity, and maximizing the efficiency of your running form.

Ideally, the interval workout should be done on a 400-meter track, so that you can easily run a predetermined interval distance plus a recovery interval. Tracks, with their even surface and distraction-free surroundings, allow you to really concentrate on your running when the effort gets hard. However, with the prevalence of GPS watches, it is easy to measure distance, so all you really need is a 400-meter stretch of path on which you can run back-and-forth. Intervals can also be done on the grass surrounding athletic fields if you are aiming to run on some softer surfaces. After you have identified a location for your interval workout, you are just about ready to begin.

Your New Best Friend

Before you start any faster-paced running, be sure to warm up. Take an easy one- to two-mile run to get the blood flowing and loosen yourself up. Follow your warm-up with some dynamic stretching. The goal here is to make sure that you don’t pull any hamstrings or calf muscles when you run more quickly. Make sure that you do what is required for you to be warmed up. You are now ready to go.

Interval workouts vary, but the rule of thumb is to gear your training to the distance you want to run faster. For example, if you plan to prepare for a 5K, you should stick to 400 meters to mile repeats for a total of three to four miles of hard running. Ultimately, a typical interval workout will consist of 4 x 1 mile; 12 to 16 x 400 meters; or 20 x 200 meters; or some mix of these. The workout I’ll walk you through would be a good one for someone looking to run a 5K somewhat faster.

Here we need to discuss the pace at which you’ll do your laps. You will want to be running close to maximum aerobic capacity. Close, however, is not your absolute aerobic capacity. If you are new to intervals, you should aim for your first quarter-miles to be at your race pace –– that means “a pace that I have actually run,” not “a pace that I ideally would like to run that will make me vomit after 60 seconds.” You need to run faster and complete your workout, not show your last meal. You will eventually work up to setting your interval speed for 400s at 8-12 percent faster than your race pace. For the moment, you just need to get around the track fast several times, hitting target speeds and getting a little faster as the workout proceeds. If you can complete the final interval a little faster than the first, it is a good sign that you have done the workout in the proper training zone.


What it Looks Like                                  What it Feels Like

After you have run your first 400 meters, recover at an easy jog for 200 meters. Recovery is actually essential to improving speed, so if you need to follow 400 meters fast with 400 slow, that is fine. If you are working on endurance as well as speed, however, shorten your recovery interval so that you are going into the next quick segment not completely recovered. (Be careful, however, with this technique. If you find that your running form is deteriorating, or that your interval time is ballooning, you will need to give yourself more recovery time.)

For your first interval workout, do four 400-meter repeats. Recover fully, then do another set of four 400-meter repeats. Follow these with two 800-meter intervals at race pace followed by easy recovery. Finally, to help cultivate efficient running form and quick turnover, do a final set of 4 x 200 meters a little faster than your race pace. DO NOT DO THESE TOO QUICKLY. Getting carried away with the shorter intervals can result in pulled hamstrings and calf muscles. Take a nice easy warm down for a mile or two and go home. You now have something impressive to post on Facebook.

A full interval session on the track is a workout that should only be done once a week, especially if you are doing other workouts to improve your speed, such as fartlek running or hills. As the weeks go by, be sure to vary the training stimulus by adding to the interval quantity (running more) or by improving the quality (running harder).

For example, you could add quantity by experimenting with “ladders.” Ladders consist of this type of interval sequence: one mile, 1200, 800, 400, 400, 800, 1200, and one mile, with adequate recovery intervals. The ladder interval session provides a new stimulus and doesn’t allow your body to get into a groove regarding the specific interval distance. You probably will notice when you are doing 400-meter repeats that the second or third segment of 4 x 400 can feel easier. This is an indication that your body is anticipating and adapting. The ladder interval does not really allow for this since the distance is always changing.

You also could go harder by trying a workout called a “cutdown.” Cutdowns purposely speed up the interval pace over the course of the workout. If you do your first four 400s at a pace of 90 seconds per 400 meters, the next segment you would do 85 second 400s, followed by 80 for a final segment. Again, make sure that your form does not deteriorate and that you are leaving yourself enough recovery time. The cutdown interval session makes sure that quality is sustained throughout the workout. There is little possibility for the body to get into a training “groove” as the pace gets faster over the course of the workout.

As you continue to shake up your workouts, keep your eye on form. Improvements in speed are linked to good form and injuries proliferate when your form deteriorates. It is better to end an interval session that is not going well than to struggle through to the end and risk injury.

Be sure to keep a running log so that you can look back and see what does and does not work. An interval session, for example, in which you were unable to hit your pacing goals may not indicate that your pacing was too optimistic; rather, it might simply reveal that you ran a hard tempo or hill session too close to your interval workout. Interval work is highly individualized and you will be able to figure out what works for you but nothing happens overnight. After ten days or so, you’ll start to see some training gains and you can tinker from there. Whatever you choose to do, try to tap into the joy of running fast when you are doing your speed work. The most successful runners can find some fun in any workout that they are doing. Try to avoid merely “putting up” with speed work because you know that it will be good for you in the long run.

So, to sum up:

  • Make a plan and keep track of what you are doing (You need to find out what works for you.)
  • Warm up well before starting your workout (You’re going to be running quickly from the start. There is no “working into it.”)
  • Run your intervals close to your maximum aerobic capacity (Start at your realistic race pace and as your workouts progress, start running faster than race pace.)
  • Always be sure to have an adequate recovery interval between your fast efforts (If your pace is slowing or your form is collapsing, give yourself more recovery time.)
  • Always be adjusting the training stimuli (Your body will adjust and adapt to certain sequences and paces during your interval workouts. Be sure to change things up –– ladders and cutdowns, anyone? –– to keep your body on its toes.)
  • Design your initial workouts so that you can finish strong and have fun (Workouts that are merely “survived” are a whole lot less likely to be repeated and will ultimately be less effective than an easier workout that you actually do.)

After incorporating fartleks, hills, and interval sessions into your training, you should start to see some speed improvements in a couple of weeks.

Does anyone have a favorite interval workout that helped make them faster? Please tell us about it in the comments.

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