If you want to improve your running performance in the long run, there is no way around an incredibly important form of training: interval training!

Intervals are the cornerstone for improving your anaerobic performance. Simply put, interval training is the only way to permanently improve your speed endurance while running.

That is, if you regularly integrate intervals into your training program, you will lay the foundation for getting faster. Whether you want to improve your best time in a five-kilometer race or in a marathon, regular interval training will bring you closer to your big goal.

How does interval training work?

First of all, the simple definition: In interval training, you alternate several times between intense exertion and recovery. This means that your intensity level, and thus the pace, varies greatly during the workout. Each tempo run is followed by a rest before the next tempo run begins. During the tempo runs you run fast, during the break the pace is reduced. How much the pace is reduced depends on the training target. The slower the pace during the break, the more I recover until the next tempo run. The same applies to the pause: the longer I pause between fast sections, the more I recover.

However, a feature of interval training for middle and long distance runners is that you should never fully recover during the break. That means your energy depots decrease from interval to interval. This way you train the body to use its energy depots efficiently. So remember: You should not fully recover during intervals (except sprinters).

Sequence of an interval training

  • Run in and warm up
  • 1. tempo run
  • Break
  • 2. tempo run
  • Break
  • 3rd tempo run
  • etc. ...
  • Run out

How many intervals you do, how long the tempo runs are and how long the breaks are depends on your training goal or your future competition goals. You will find a more detailed description below.

Warm up: Run in for about 15 minutes. After that, do a little running ABC and four to six intervals, in which you run about 50 meters at the planned interval pace. After that you can start interval training. You should not do static stretching before or after intervals. Dynamic stretching (swing gymnastics) is allowed, however.

When do I integrate intervals into my running training?

Amateur runners usually do interval training once a week. However, there are some guidelines to follow:

  • Don't schedule your interval training too close to a race. There should be three days in between, unless it is a preparatory race where time is of secondary importance.
  • If you are close to your most important competition of the season, you should not push yourself too hard in the last week. You can still include interval training, but please reduce the number of intervals or the intensity.
  • Try not to completely exhaust yourself during interval training. A rule of thumb is that after your last interval, you should still feel like you can do one or two intervals at your current pace.
  • Try to vary as much as possible. There are many amateur runners who do the same interval training week after week. This way you don't give your body any new stimuli and your performance will eventually improve.
  • Use light shoes for interval training - ideally also competition shoes.
  • Interval training should be done on a flat track. However, you can also incorporate uphill intervals into your training plan from time to time. However, you should not set a pace for yourself.
  • The breaks for long-distance runners should not be too long. The goal is increasing fatigue. This means that you should recharge your batteries during the breaks, but you should not be fully recovered. You can also vary the duration of the break and the pace during the break in interval training.
  • Controlling interval training by heart rate is not useful.

Competitive athletes and top athletes usually complete intervals several times a week. However, there is a lot of variation. Which variation possibilities you have, we will answer in the following question.

What variations do I have with intervals?

As mentioned earlier, you should definitely not do the same interval workouts all the time.

You have the following options for variation:

  • Length of the interval
  • Speed of the interval
  • Number of intervals
  • Duration of the break
  • Type of interval (standing; walking; trotting, brisk walking)

How long should intervals be?

The most important variation in intervals is the length. You can set it either by time or distance. The standard is distance. If you are training for a marathon, the intervals are longer than for a 5-kilometer runner. Intervals for marathon runners are usually 1,000 meters or longer. On the other hand, if you are training for five kilometers, the intervals are usually 1,000 meters or shorter. Read more about this in our examples.

How fast should the intervals be run?

Basically at the planned race pace or a little faster. For example, if you want to run a half marathon at a pace of six minutes per kilometer, your intervals should not be slower than six minutes per kilometer. But sometimes try to include intervals in your training program that are a bit faster than your race pace. After all, you want to get faster and give your body new speed stimuli. To do this, you can of course reduce the length or number of intervals.

How many intervals should I do?

Again, this depends on your goals. A marathon runner can do 12 to 14 1,000-meter intervals. If you are training for a 5-kilometer race, then six 1,000-meter intervals are enough. The shorter the intervals, the more you do. As a long-distance runner, you usually do more than ten intervals of 400.

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Rule of thumb: Don't run to maximum exhaustion. After the last tempo run, you should still feel like you can do one or two more reps at that pace. Because if you push yourself to the max every time you do interval training, your recovery will suffer. The consequence is in the worst case even a drop in performance.

How long should the break between intervals be?

This question is interesting and justified. Many runners hardly vary the length of their breaks. But you should. Basically, you pause longer after long intervals than after short intervals. After 400-meter intervals, 60 to 90 seconds is sufficient for long-distance runners; after a 1,000-meter interval, 90 to 180 seconds is common; after 2,000-meter intervals, it's three to four minutes. But try to break these standards once in a while. Try interval training with very short breaks. This way you train your fatigue resistance. If you have deficits in speed, build intervals into your training plan from time to time, where you pause for a very long time and start the next tempo run as refreshed as possible. Then you can tackle a slightly faster pace than usual.

How should I pause between intervals?

Most runners trot during the interval. So you run very relaxed without time pressure. But try to vary here as well. If you want to improve your speed, walk or recover in the way you feel is best for you. If you want to improve your fatigue resistance, then run as fast as possible during the breaks. This form is more like a tempo change run, where you alternate between endurance pace and competition pace.

Note: The term interval actually refers to the break between tempo runs. However, in running jargon, the interval is usually (incorrectly) referred to as the tempo run between breaks. Therefore, we have adapted to the "running jargon" in this article in order not to increase the complexity of the topic.

Examples of interval training

1) 6 - 8 x 1,000 meters

Pace: Slightly faster than 10-kilometer race pace

Rest duration: 90 - 120 seconds

Note: Marathon runners can increase the number of intervals (12 - 14) and adjust the pace (half marathon pace)

2) 4 x 2,000 meters

Pace: Slightly faster than the 10-kilometer race pace.

Rest duration: 2 to 3 minutes

Note: Marathon runners can increase the number of intervals (6 x) and adjust the pace (half marathon pace)

3) 12 - 16 x 500 meters

Pace: Slightly faster than the 5-kilometer race pace.

Rest duration: 60 to 90 seconds

Note: Marathon runners may increase the number of intervals.

4) 1 km + 2 km + 3 km + 2 km + 1 km

Pace: 10 km race pace

Rest duration: 90 seconds after the 1 km interval, 3 minutes after the 2 km intervals, 5 minutes after the 3 km intervals.

Note: This form of interval training is called a pyramid.

5) 10 x 400 meters + 10 x 200 meters + 5 x 400 meters + 10 x 100 meters.

Pace: 400 meters at 5-kilometer race pace, the rest of the intervals (200 meters and 100 meters) faster, but at a relaxed running pace.

Rest duration: 1 minute and possibly series break (5 minutes).

Note: Excerpt from Florence Kiplagat's training plan before her then half marathon world record in 2014.

6) 5,000 meters + 4,000 meters + 3,000 meters + 2,000 meters (very demanding).

Pace: Between 10-kilometer race pace and half marathon race pace.

Rest time: 1 kilometer

Note: Very suitable as a last intensive session before a half marathon race. Approx. 7 - 10 days before the half marathon.

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