Interval training gives runners a level of fitness you’d find hard to achieve through regular distance mileage. This training method involves alternating running hard and fast for set periods or distances with interval rests for recovery.
Resting is not necessarily stopping, but rather, slowing to a very conversational pace. Understanding how and why this method works helps you tailor your training to gain maximum benefits.
Types of Interval Training
At one extreme, high-intensity interval training involves running very fast, nearly full out, for between 10 to 60 seconds with a rest period of around one to four times the duration of the running burst. However, Joe McConkey M.S., exercise physiologist and coach at the Boston Running Center, believes that running your fastest is best suited for seasoned runners with good strength and flexibility.
For most endurance runners, it’s more about pushing out from your comfort zone at each interval rather than sprinting and repeatedly hitting top speed. For example, try four sets of 1-mile runs at around a 10k race tempo.
Active.com suggests mixing it up by varying the pace for each set or using a ladder approach such as moving from 200m to 400m to 800m and increasing in 400-meter intervals up to 1600m before reversing the sequence. Apps like Runtastic and Strava can help you manage and monitor your workout.
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Walking between sets helps maximize muscle development during recovery, while jogging helps build endurance, according to Active.com. Active running where you slowdown 15-20 percent for recovery is tough and can be demotivating. See this article for the pros and cons of walking and running.
Benefits of Interval Running
Interval training strengthens your cardiovascular system. According to McMaster University researcher Martin Gibala, it increases VO2, or the rate at which the heart, lungs and muscles consume oxygen, by pumping richly oxygenated blood through your body and into your muscles. This improves your blood sugar control and may reduce your risk of chronic diseases.
It also builds up muscle strength. Traditional distance running preparation maintains the motion of the leg muscles within a certain range and focuses on the slow-twitch fibers. Running in bursts of faster speeds exercises all the leg muscles and helps improve flexibility, making race-runners better-equipped to cope with the rigors of pace running and the demands of a sprint finish.
Finally, interval training can increase motivation by achieving excellent results in a fraction of the time taken by regular distance running. In a recent University of Copenhagen study, runners halved their training mileage and added in interval training sessions during a seven-week period. By the end of the study, participants had improved their 5k run times by nearly a minute, despite running fewer miles.
As with all exercises, you risk your health by ramping it up so high that you over-train. The generally accepted rule for endurance athletes is to carry out 80 percent of your training at a level below your lactate threshold and 20 percent above. Active.com explains that if you do too much training at high intensity, your body can’t cope with the lactic acid buildup, leaving you physically exhausted and increasing the risk of injury.
Each runner is different, so aim to find the interval training method that works for you. If you enjoy your workout, you’re more likely to maintain the motivation to keep on running and enjoy the benefits of a healthier life.