Interval Workouts

Interval workouts consist of a series of short, fast-paced runs, generally a mile or less in distance, interspersed with recovery jogs. There are many variations of interval workouts, each with its own rationale but all with a goal of improving overall speed in race distances, from the mile to the marathon.

Prior to beginning any type of interval session, it is very important to begin your workout with a thorough warm-up featuring easy jogging, stretching, and striders. Equally important is the cool-down that concludes the workout.

While repeat interval workouts are most often run on a 400-meter track (commonly found on high school and college campuses), they can also be run elsewhere, such as on roads and trails. However, should you choose to do these on a course other than a track, you need to measure the route accurately (to the exact meter) so that the workout is meaningful.

There are three basic types of interval workouts: repeat intervals, pyramids, and ladders. Each is described below. First, though, some general concepts about intervals need introduction.

The theory behind the interval workout is simple. Let's use a 5K (3.1mile) race as an example. Rather than working on improving your speed over the entire 5K distance, it is more effective to run a bit faster than your present race pace over distances shorter than the 5K. Follow these speed intervals with brief periods of rest.

Interval workouts feature two major components. First, they have a fast-paced segment, called the repeat, which is run over a specified distance at a targeted goal time. That is followed by a brief rest period called the recovery.

First, you determine your present mile pace in a short distance race such as a 5K. There are several variables in an interval workout that you can tweak to change the level of difficulty. You can adjust the target time for the interval up or down, increase or decrease the recovery (time or distance), and increase or decrease the number of repeats. If you are a novice, an experienced runner or a coach can assist you in designing interval workouts appropriate for both your present ability level and your short- and long-term running goals.

The target time for the interval (the fast-paced segment) is usually based on your current race pace in a short-race distance such as a 5K. The most common interval distances for which to practice fast-pace efforts include 200 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters, 1,200 meters, 1,600 meters, and 1 mile. Although novices first attempting interval workouts might practice running the shorter segments at their current race pace, more experienced competitors would do these 20–30 seconds per mile faster.

The quality of your interval workout is affected by leg fatigue resulting from not getting enough rest or not warming up properly. You might require a longer warm-up jog or need to stretch a bit more. Environmental conditions such as warm temperatures and high humidity or stiff headwinds also can negatively affect your performance during these fast-paced workouts.

For the experienced runner, the recovery jog following the repeat is typically half the distance of the interval you run. The novice first attempting these workouts should allow a longer recovery period. The recovery period is expressed as a time approximately the same duration as the fast segment previously run.

Repeat Intervals

These are workouts in which the distance of the fast-paced segment remains constant. For example, the workout could feature 6 400-meter repeats with a 200-meter recovery jog after each. Or 4 800-meter repeats each followed by a 400-meter recovery jog is another type of workout.

It is important to run consistent times for the repeats. You should try to run the final repeat in approximately the same time as you ran the first. The idea here is to leave the track feeling that, if you wanted to, you could do 1 or 2 more intervals.

If you find that your speed really falls off after the first couple of intervals, your target time for these may be too fast for your current level of conditioning. You can either adjust the workout from the original plan by increasing your goal times for the repeats (running the repeats at a slower pace), allow yourself more recovery between the fast-paced segments, or bag the workout entirely and attempt it another day.

Abbreviations are often used in books, magazine articles, or by coaches to describe specific speed workouts. For example: 6 × 400M in 1:40, 200R means that you will be asked to run 6 400-meter repeats (once around the track) in 1 minute and 40 seconds, followed by a 200-meter recovery jog after each of the repeats.

Pyramids and Ladders

Pyramids and ladders are also considered part of the interval family. Rather than running the same distances for all your intervals, you vary the length of each interval, running longer or shorter intervals throughout the workout. Pyramid workouts feature fast segments increasing and then decreasing in distance. For example, your fast segments could progress upward from 200–400 meters and topping out at 800 meters before going down again to 400 and then 200 meters.

A ladder is a progression either up or down in interval length. For example, your intervals could progress upward with longer and longer lengths: 200 meters, followed by 400, 800, 1,200, and ending with 1,600 meters. Or you could run the ladder workout in reverse order beginning with the longest distance of your fast-paced segments (1,600, 1,200, 800, 400, 200).

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