Interval training: my new favorite workout that hurts so good

Until this past summer, I had never really followed any structure to my training.  I would sign up for a full marathon, check Hal Higdon to see when I needed to do my long runs, and then run whatever I felt like in between with a few speedier runs that I liked to call speedwork.  Fast forward to my current training cycle where I am training for a distance that scared me into hiring a coach.  Plus, as a postpartum runner, I wanted to make sure that my training was appropriate for what my body had to give.

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My current training plan involves a lot of interval training, which I have grown to really appreciate (even though it is a lot harder to get out of bed in the morning when you know that your first hour awake is going to hurt so bad!).  That being said, I am much more likely to embrace a plan if I understand the reasoning behind it, so here are a few things I’ve learned about the nuances of interval training.  Before I get started–an interval is a workout that typically has a faster component, followed by a rest period, and this cycle of fast, recover, fast, recover is repeated for the duration of the workout.

Interval training:

  1. Teaches the body to recruit more muscle fibers as you achieve faster speeds.
  2. Stresses the cardiovascular system to a greater degree than if you were to run continuously.
  3. Teaches the muscles to more efficiently process oxygen (increases VO2 max).
  4. Improves focus, which helps with mindset on race day.
  5. Stimulates many of the same cellular pathways for endurance training, but in less time.  (Read about a study on a stationary bike that showed interval training to produce the same physical benefits as long-duration endurance training here.)
  6. Helps the legs feel different paces, which can help prepare for race conditions and teach the body to handle tough conditions.
  7. Helps increase our body’s ability to run at a sustained anaerobic pace for longer periods of time.
  8. Burns more fat than standard endurance training by increasing metabolic rate. (Read a study here.)

 Tips for interval training:

  1. Build a foundation of 6-8 weeks of running before going hard for the intervals.
  2. Run at a pace that can be sustained throughout the interval without dropping pace.
  3. Focus on perceived effort, working toward a 90% effort.
  4. Integrate ladders (ex: 3,2,1), pyramids (ex: 1,2,3,2,1) , or repeats (ex: 2,2,2) for variety.  A “step up” ladder improves strength and stamina, a “step down” ladder helps build speed by getting more work out of tired legs, and a pyramid can combine the two. All will help improve overall race times.
  5. The longer the interval, the more it works to improve endurance. The shorter the interval, the more it works to improve speed.
  6. Intervals on uphills have less impact on the legs.
  7. Recover adequately during the prescribed recovery time. Your goal is to run the strongest interval time, not keep the recovery fast.  This means that you may need to walk the recovery time.
  8. Always warm up and cool down for interval workouts.  Speed work tends to be harder on the joints, so a good warm up and cool down can help prevent injury.
  9. Keep up with strength training to help decrease the chance of injury when speedwork is involved.

There are a lot of variations to interval training that can be applied, and that keeps training interesting and gives the muscles different stresses for improvement.  As much as intervals hurt while they are being run, they also give some of the best endorphins after a tough sequence is achieved! It’s a love/hate relationship, but after seeing the improvements in just a couple of months, I’ll always have intervals as an integral part of my training plan.

What is your favorite type of training run?

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