The Power of Intervals

Alternating fast sprints with brief recovery time not only increases your speed, it builds strength and stamina for every runner – from racers to joggers.

As an avid ultrarunner, I enjoy running for hours on end at a relatively easy pace. The thought of running at top speed for a few hundred meters at a time, over and over again, is my idea of torture. I used to believe that as a long-distance runner, I could safely avoid interval training. I am not a sprinter, I reasoned, so why should I train for speed?

When I started preparing for my first 100-mile race, my coach recommended I incorporate some intervals into my regular running schedule. I reluctantly agreed. After just a couple of weeks, I began to notice the benefits. Soon I was running stronger than ever. I won that 100-mile race and ever since intervals have been part of my training regimen. OK, I still dread  interval training sessions, but I have experienced firsthand how much they can help.

What is interval training?

Interval training consists of periods of high-intensity effort followed by low-intensity recovery periods. In running, this usually involves alternating sprinting with walking or slow jogging. The length of the intervals can vary, but commonly fall between 100 meters and 800 meters.

Interval training is an extremely efficient way to supercharge your workouts, no matter what distance you are training for.

How will interval training help my running?

Interval training is an extremely efficient way to supercharge your workouts, no matter what distance you are training for. “Whether you are an elite distance runner or training for your first 5km race, you can benefit from interval training,” explains Ray Zahab, elite endurance coach and world-record holder. “Intervals and speed workouts provide tremendous benefit to overall conditioning and ability.”

By quickly alternating between periods of high- and low-intensity effort, your cardiovascular system and muscles learn how to work more efficiently at higher speeds, which will allow you to run faster over longer distances as well. Interval training can also be extremely time efficient. Scientists at Canada’s McMaster University found that 10 one-minute bursts of high-intensity exercise with one minute of rest in between, three times a week, provided the same physical benefits as 10 hours of moderate exercise over a two-week period.

How do I incorporate intervals into my training?

The good news is that when it comes to interval training, a little goes a long way. Start off with one interval session a week. Depending on how your body responds, you can swap one of your regular running sessions with another interval session later on.

If you are new to interval training, begin with a simple plan, such as 400m sprints followed by 400m of walking, repeating six times (6 x 400m). For more experienced runners, try incorporating intervals of different lengths into your sessions, such as 2 x 800m, 3 x 400m, and 4 x 200m. If you really want to take your workout up a notch, do your intervals on an incline, either on the treadmill at the gym or on a hill at a park.

If you run where it’s not easy to measure intervals by distance, measure them by time instead. Your recovery period should be approximately one to four times as long as your sprinting period, meaning that if you run for 60 seconds, walk for at least a minute afterwards before resuming your sprint. Most importantly, concentrate on pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone during your high-intensity sprints. You will hate it at the time, but your body will thank you later.

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