Interval training is a great way to boost your race performances, primarily because it's the best way to actually simulate the demands of racing. Research by Peter Snell has demonstrated significant faster 10K times following a period of interval training when compared to a tempo trained group of runners.
Keep in mind that beginners need to proceed with caution when considering the addition of interval workouts. Here are some basic guidelines and recommendations to get you underway.
For starters, do not begin an intense interval running program unless you have been running at least 8 miles per week for a period of 2-3 months. Running at faster speeds undoubtedly increase your risk of injury, so build into it slowly.
You'll need a stopwatch and a measured distance, preferrably 400-800 meters if you are training for distances of 5K and up.
Beginners should only do one interval session per week. Since most of us use the weekend for long runs, I suggest running intervals mid-week sandwiched by a couple of easy days.
The pace of your intervals should be slightly faster than your 5K average. If you are a 9 minute miler, your goal pace for 400 meter intervals would be just under 2:15. Be conservative at first, running in the 2:05-2:10 range.
Try to keep them all within 5 seconds of each other. Most of the time beginners burn through the first couple too fast, leaving them too exhausted to maintain the prescribed pace. For this reason, it's a good idea to hold back on the first 2.
Here are the 4 options for making an interval workout tougher:
- increasing the number of intervals
- decreasing the rest interval
- increasing the length of each interval
- running them faster
Below is a sample 6 week progression that a beginner who averages 9 minute miles in a 5K might apply to interval training using all 4 variations .
Week 1: 6 x 400 in 2:05-2:10 2 min rest
Week 2: 6 x 400 in 2:05-2:10 90 sec rest
Week 3: 8 x 400 in 2:05-2:10 2 min rest
Week 4: 8 x 400 in 2:05-2:10 90 sec rest
Week 5: 4 x 800 in 4:20-4:25 2 min rest (longer rest is ok!)
Week 6: 6 x 400 in 2:00-2:05 2 min rest
Snell believes that runners should spend as much time as possible training at their race pace, and his study revealed that the interval trained group improved more despite spending much less time at intense training than the tempo-run group. Besides getting more comfortable at running faster, interval training is a great time-saver! Including warm-up and cool-down, you should finish up most interval sessions within 30 minutes!
To avoid burn-out, use the periodization principle when you start intervals. Select 2 or at most 3 races that you would like to peak for, and start your interval program no more than 10 or 12 weeks prior. Then take a break from intervals for a month or so before resuming another build-up. This is the time you can spend taking your aerobic base to another level with longer, easy runs.