A good interval running workout is any running workout where you are intermittent running and recovering. There is a multitude of variations when it comes to interval running. The focus can differ, sometimes it’s about speed, sometimes it’s all about hills. But the key is that it involves bouts of trying hard, and bouts of recovery jogging, standing, or walking.
Depending on your goals, there are different interval variations you could focus on. If your goal is a fast 5k your workout may be quite different than if your goal was to increase endurance for a 100 miler.
No matter the goal though, all interval workouts should start and finish with a proper warm-up and cool down. This is critical with any kind of higher intensity workout to ensure our body is ready to perform, and to limit the risk of injury. Below are 5 workouts you can start integrating into your weekly routine. Pick one and take it easy the first time around, then build from there…
5 best interval running workouts:
1. Fartlek Runs
Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. So as you may deduct from that, it’s all about speed. Unlike a lot of other workouts that tend to be structured around distance or pace, Fartlek runs are meant to be free-flowing and based on perceived effort rather than a measurable unit of data.
A Fartlek workout should start with a warm-up. Once you’re ready to get going, start playing with speed by targeting markers such as trees or the end of the block and alternate between hard efforts and easy efforts. If you are running with others, it’s fun to assign a leader that you have to keep up with and alternate every few intervals.
This type of workout is fun and pressure-free and can be performed anywhere; on trails, roads, or track.
2. Standard HIIT Intervals
We’ve all most likely heard about HIIT training. You might think of HIIT as circuit training, but the same principles can be applied to running. It’s all about going hard for a set number of intervals with rest in between.
Once you are warmed up, run at a very high intensity near max capability for 30 seconds to 3 minutes (this will depend on your current level of performance, initially just see what works best and make changes if you need to). A workout could range from 3 to 6 of these high-intensity efforts with 1-2 minutes of recovery in between.
This type of training is shown to improve endurance capacity faster than any other type of training.
To get the most out of this type of work-out, stick to consistent/easy terrain, road, or track as this will allow you to focus on pushing your limits without worrying about tripping over.
3. Hill Repeats
Running up hills is so good for building strong legs whilst reducing the impact of running thus minimizing the risk of strains and muscle pulls which can be common with high-intensity training. Running hills is said to have a huge effect on speed ability as it builds muscle power.
If you have hills available to train on, lucky you! For those that don’t, you can still train hills using a treadmill with an incline set to between 5 and 15 degrees (depending on your current ability to run steep, again just see what feels good at first and work your way up).
Start with a few 30 seconds of running up-hill, with either walking in between or jogging back down. If you’ve never trained hills before, this won’t be easy! Work your way up to longer and more intervals such as 6 x 1 minute all-out up-hill efforts with 1-minute rest walking or jogging down-hill in between. Over time you can keep adding more intervals and target steeper terrain to keep challenging yourself.
4. Technical Trail Intervals
Tricky terrain adds potential strain on your muscles so ease into trail intervals with moderate intensity rather than going all in. A good starting workout if you’ve never done intervals on trail is (once warmed-up) incorporate 4-6 bursts of higher intensity effort during a 20-minute run. It’s harder to structure trail workout more specifically as the terrain can influence where you should be going for high effort.
For example, you should maybe not aim to go for a high-intensity interval if you’re on a technical part of the trail and there is a huge drop and a high risk of serious injury/death if you were to fall.
Work up to 40 minute runs with 6-12 bouts of high-intensity running, alternating with easy running/jogging. And watch where you place your feet!
This workout is not just about muscle gains and endurance, depending on how technical the trail is, there’s a huge focus on coordination, awareness of trail features, and confidence in foot placement.
If you are just getting started on trails, I would recommend holding off on this workout until you’ve gained more confidence with inconsistent terrain, it’s a huge injury risk to go too hard too quickly and slip on a rock. It’s also important to make sure you are running with good trail running shoes to ensure you can hold your ground and avoid slips.
5. Pyramid / Ladder Workout
Aptly named because it builds up and then back down. This type of workout is a variation on the standard interval working, and a great way to get faster.
Once you’ve warmed up, start your first interval by running (at a high intensity) 200m, followed by rest, then 400m, rest, 600m, rest, 800m, and rest. Then repeat going backward to 600m, rest, 400m, rest, 200m, rest.
You can also use time as a measure rather than distance and apply the same concept of increasing the time and then decreasing it.
One complete “pyramid” counts as a set. Over time you can build up to doing multiple sets, or making your intervals longer.
Benefits of interval workouts for runners:
There are a number of benefits to incorporating interval running into your training. Higher intensity effort versus steady-state effort is a much talked about topic. High-intensity training is exactly what interval training adds to a training schedule, ensuring that balance.
Whereas steady-state running is about building the cardio engine, higher intensity training is how we can build strength and power, by stimulating both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.
Interval workouts will improve your running form, make you more efficient, work your coordination, and improve your endurance.
Not only will interval workouts improve your running fitness and strength, but they will keep things interesting during training blocks. Not everyone enjoys the same running workout day-in-day-out, running intervals can add an element of creativity and excitement.
A proper warmup and cooldown are critical…
All workouts should start off with a proper warm-up. A solid warm-up could consist of 10-20 minutes of easy jogging, some dynamic stretching, and a few strides with recovery time in between. Strides are short bouts of running, moving quickly but stopping before any effect of tiredness is felt.
Don’t skip the warm-up! If you want running to be a sustainable part of your life, a good warm-up is one of the best ways to prevent common running injuries.
Your workout should end with a brief cool-down. 10-15 minutes of easy jogging is usually enough and allows your heart rate to gradually return to a resting beat. A cool-down may not seem important, but ending a high-intensity workout abruptly will usually leave most runners feeling pretty tight the following day.
How I started integrating interval workouts
When I first started running trails, I was also new to running all-together. My training, initially, was simply to run. Progress happens pretty fast initially for most new runners, and before long, we naturally start wondering what we need to be doing to get the most out of our workouts and improve performance.
As a complete beginner, running should not necessarily be about going far or going long, it was about being consistent in running 2-5 times a week (however many times you’ve decided works for you and your schedule).
Once the consistency is there, and you’ve worked up some cardio fitness and a bit of endurance, the next step is to start incorporating some cross-training, and some running-specific workouts such as intervals.
Endurance is usually a big part of running trails of course with a lot of ultra distances usually happening on trails. But where trail running and road running start to become different sports is the strength required to get up and down steep terrain, and bouts of explosive power to get over rocks/logs/creeks.
We can’t improve strength and explosive power significantly by simply ticking off runs, this is where targeted workouts and interval training comes in.
Tips and Tools For Running Intervals
The most obvious/ necessary tool when doing any interval workout (other than a Fartlek run) is a stopwatch or a smart-watch with a timer. You can set your watch to your planned interval time and when it goes off you know it’s time to rest, start the timer again to measure rest time.
Although it can be enough for some, I find it tedious to set anything other than the same time I had just set. Which makes it not as smooth if you are doing 5 minutes running, 1-minute rest for example. Or even worst if you are doing a pyramid workout and every interval is of a different length.
Interval Training Running Apps
Here’s a couple of interval timer applications that you can use.
In both apps, you can create custom timer intervals and set the times. For example 30-seconds on, 1-minute rest, 1-minute on, 1-minute rest, 1.5-minutes on, 1-minute rest. And the app will show a clock countdown and beep when it’s time to switch from high-intensity to rest and vice-versa.
Some smart-watches also have interval timer applications built in such as Garmin’s Interval Timer which allows you to set intervals. But as of July 2020 when this article was written, Garmin doesn’t track the activity when the Interval Timer is in use, so the run will not be uploaded to Garmin Connect.
Fitbit also provides an Interval option but similarly to Garmin, this will list the activity as an interval workout and not a run. So they are both good for your workout, but not as good if you love keeping all your running data!
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