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How To Do an Interval Workout

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Whether it's training for a 5k or for a marathon, most running training plans will include interval workouts.

Here we can go over precisely how to perform an interval workout.

Interval Track Workout in Iten, Kenya
Interval Track Workout in Iten, Kenya

Interval workouts, quality sessions, hard days, are the counterbalance to easy days in a training plan. 'Workouts' as they're known for short generally consist of a warm-up, the main set (which contains the sets, reps, intervals), and a cooldown. Examples could be something like 12x400m reps, 10x1 kilometer intervals, a 6 mile tempo, Hill reps, etc.


Let's go over how to set up the workout and how to properly execute each step!


The Setup


Often under looked, but the details and logistics of a workout can make a HUGE difference. When looking ahead at your training schedule and you see a faster session, it's important to start planning how to best do that workout.


Terrain: if the location isn't specified by your coach, start thinking where you can run this workout that will have your best performance. Is there a neighborhood or certain road where you've done really good sessions before? You can also look to see where other experienced runners in your area do their faster sessions. Strava is great for that! You also want to think about safety. At the time you're planning your session, is there a lot of traffic in that area, is the area known for erratic drivers? Feeling safe and comfortable is super crucial in having a good workout!


On the easy days leading into specific workouts, it's also advisable to jog in that area and scout out any new potential workout loops. Is there somewhere good to park? Can you stash your shoes or a water bottle if needed? Is there a good section to warmup and cooldown on outside of the main loop? Is there a bathroom close by that you can use?!


Shoes: It's common for runners to use multiple pairs of shoes during an interval workout. Often, runners will use a pair of regular easy day trainers for the warmup and cooldown, and will sometimes switch to either a light weight trainer or a racing flat for the interval/faster portion of the workout. It certainly isn't required to do so but in some situations it is a really smart idea. If you're getting close to running a marathon and haven't broken in or tried out the shoes you want to race in, you should use them in a workout to make sure they're a good option before race day. Personally I like to get 2 workouts in a racing flat before doing the actual race in them, but it varies from person to person.

Sometimes you just need a confidence boost and switching into your fastest shoes for a workout can often provide that! Ask your coach about footwear options!



The Warmup (jog)


Best advice I can give you on the warmup is that there's very little benefit to running it too quickly and A LOT to be gained by keeping it very easy and light!

The warm up is meant to literally warm up our muscles, tendons, and ligaments. As we jog, our core body temperature rises, blood flows around, and our body is slowly primed for the more intense session that follows. Experienced runners will start their warmup at a very very slow trot and let it naturally pick up as their body allows. Starting at a shuffle barely above a walk is encouraged and totally okay! Every minute that goes by your body will loosen up and the pace will naturally shift towards your regular easy day pace, but for the most part, just ignore the pace!


"The key is to listen to your body and adapt the plan, and the warmup, so that you can have the best workout possible!"

Transition


For the majority of workouts it's okay and advisable to take a short break in between sections of the workout. Sometimes these breaks naturally occur, like when a runner needs to use the bathroom, switch into a faster shoe, take off layers of clothes from the warmup, or needs to stop and do some drills or mobility before the faster running. All of those are encouraged and will make your workout BETTER.

Not always, but sometimes coaches will write in strides between the warmup and the harder parts of the workout.


Strides are short periods of higher intensity faster running. Usually somewhere between 8-25 seconds. They're used to be a supplement to speedwork, help you warmup before a harder workout or race, and they help improve your biomechanics and efficiency. The regular running of strides before high-intensity training sessions and races will ensure you have warmed up effectively and prepared your body for the quick start, lowering the risk of picking up an injury. To perform a stride: Find a straight stretch where you’re not likely to face any obstacles in the form of other runners or traffic! Start slowly and gradually increase your pace until you're running as fast as you can while in control and you're maintaining normal running form- not a full on sprint. Focus on feeling relaxed and in control, but fast. A slight forward lean of the upper body will help you feel relaxed. Jog or walk back to the start after every stride.


Even if the strides aren't explicitly written into the plan, it is always encouraged, that if you feel like you need them, don't start the workout yet, and add them in!

Over time runners gain an intuition with warmups, drills, strides. Sometimes the plan might say to do 4x20 second strides before the workout but you might feel like after 3 your muscle tension is exactly where you want it, so you can skip the last stride and start the workout. Personally, it takes me a while to get going so I often need to add in a few extra strides or a couple minutes on the warmup. The key is to listen to your body and adapt the plan and the warm up so that you can have the best workout possible!


After the warm up jog, and either before or after the strides, many runners will include some dynamic flexibility drills and movements, often just referred to as drills. Not a requirement, but over time you'll learn your body might have certain areas that it would benefit from utilizing these. Here's a good example video of some of these drills and how to do them.


If you know you have certain areas or muscle groups that take extra work to get loosened up, or that you feel like you run faster and better workouts when those areas are given some extra attention to- then play around with some drills and see which movements need to be in your warmup routine for every workout.


Sometimes right after the warmup jog, or sometime before the workout I'll notice I might be a little bit hungry or have slightly low blood sugar. Keeping a couple gels, or a granola bar, or a piece of fruit around to use in these situations has saved me MANY times. I now keep a Go-Bag for workouts. If I'm doing a workout away from home I will keep a ton of extra gels, bars, multiple waters and electrolyte mixes, extra gloves, toilet paper, backup socks, backup shoes, extra clothes, literally anything I can think of that I might need. It has saved me so many times and taken certain workouts that might have just been average or needed to be cut short, to great confidence building days. I take it to races as well. It's become my first aid kit to help me have a great run!


The Workout


We made it! Now it's time to do the fast running! Hopefully, your body is primed and ready to go! By this point we want to have on the right outfit and shoes so that we can run the workout to the best of our abilities.


Rests- Most workouts will contain some sort of rest, recovery, or OFF portion. How we perform the rest really influences and changes the workout. The ON portion and faster part of the workout is usually the more important part but we can change how we perform the rest to match how our body is responding on that day. If the ON paces are really challenging, we might walk a good portion of the rest. If the workout feels a touch too easy, we can keep the recovery jog on the quicker side while making sure it doesn't take away from the effort we're able to give on the interval. As a coach I am always watching how athletes run their OFF/rest portions of the workout so I can adjust the training appropriately.


For the harder parts of the interval workouts, it's important to be adaptable. Some days it might just feel impossible to hit the paces given. Make sure you leave a note about that, and why that might be. It's VERY common for our bodies to just be flat or off some days. On those days, adjust the workout to just effort, and try to forget about the paces as much as possible. Our bodies aren't robotic, and we can't force our biology to just run whatever pace is written down. It's a very natural part of the training process to have fluctuations in our fitness and how we're able to perform harder sessions.


Cooldown


After the intervals are completed, it's more likely than not you'll have a cooldown listed as part of the session. The cooldown, or warm-down, is just another short bout of easy jogging done following a workout. There's a couple of reasons they are almost always included in a workout.

Many years ago, people thought it was actually dangerous to let your heart beat drop too quickly, going straight from a harder session to rest was thought to be risky. That's been debunked in several different ways. While not dangerous, going from an intense interval session to complete rest could leave you feeling dizzy or lightheaded. Cooling down after a run isn't just to avoid getting dizzy though, there are many other benefits related to our running fitness.

After a session our blood is pumping and our heart rate is elevated. While we might be sore and fatigued, from a cardiovascular standpoint, it is a fantastic time for jogging! We don't need to get warmed up and our body is fairly limber and ready to move. Our hormone levels are raised in a positive way, that it's a good time to absorb some lighter training; In comes the cooldown. We're gaining a little bit of fitness and we're keeping that blood moving really well. With that increased blood flow, we're oxygenating our muscles, ligaments, and tendons, carrying nutrients into the tissues, and expediting our recovery process for the next run.

The cooldown jog can also help us practice running composed with fatigued, sore, and tired muscles, which will often happen towards the end of most races.


Now sometimes we don't have time to add in all of these elements. Some workouts, we just head out the door, and we don't have time for all of the extra stuff. That's fine! It's all about getting the work in the best way we can with the time we have each day.


I'm very curious if I missed anything important or if you have any thoughts or questions based on what I wrote! If so, please reach out to me at willbaldwinok@gmail.com

Would love to hear from you!

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