Run, Rest, Repeat: How Interval Training Can Make You a Better Runner

interval running

Switch out your constant pace for heart-pumping interval runs instead. Learn why interval training can help you pump up the volume on every workout.

What are your limits, and when’s the last time you pushed them?

If you find yourself shuffling your feet, coasting along your regular route, it might be time to revitalize your workout regimen with interval training running.

An interval running plan will help you torch calories and shred fat.

Even if you’re a well-seasoned runner with an impressive BMI, intervals will amp up your fitness to the max—delivering a number of bonus benefits along the way.

Not sure what an interval running program is, or how to get a plan started? That’s what we’re here for. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about interval training and prepare to take your workouts to new heights.

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What is Interval Training Running?

An interval running plan alternates between periods of intense, fast paces followed by less intense recovery periods.

You push yourself close to your peak heart rate during a brief sprint, then allow it to fall back down as you slow to a jog.

High intensity interval training (or HIIT, as you may have heard it called in the gym) is a hot fitness trend—promoted by personal trainers and fitness bloggers galore—but few people actually understand the mechanics behind this form of exercise and why it’s so effective.

Travel back in time to circa 1930, when German coach Waldemer Gerschler teamed up with physiologist Hans Reindell on a mission to increase fitness in his track athletes. “Repetition training” had been a thing since the early 1900s, but these two were determined to figure out exactly why intermittent exercise worked so well.

They were convinced that the recovery period in between bursts of hard work was vital to the training effect—and they were right.

Stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped by the left ventricle of the heart in one contraction) peaks during the recovery interval; the higher the volume, the more your heart goes into overload, and the stronger it gets.

Multiple recovery intervals means multiple stroke volume peaks and maximum stimulus to the heart.

Gerschler and Reindell created the first official interval running plan. Their method consisted of 30 to 70 second periods of running at an intensity that elevates the heart rate to 170 to 180 beats per minutes (bpm). These would then be followed with sufficient enough recovery time for the heart rate to drop to 120 bpm, which signifies readiness for the next work period.

Note: The results were incredible, but these numbers aren’t definitive. As you begin an interval running program, it’s important to consider your own abilities. Use your age and fitness level to determine your target heart rate for interval running.

Take a look at the chart below to see where you clock in.

High Intensity Interval Training Running: the Benefits

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits offered by interval training running before explaining how you can create a workout plan of your own.

Greater Anaerobic Capacity

Anaerobic capacity is the point at which your body turns to anaerobic metabolism to generate energy. During high intensity interval training, your aerobic system can’t keep up with the demand, and your body is forced to use anaerobic energy pathways to make ATP, the chemical that provides energy to cells.

As a result, lactic acid builds up in the bloodstream—that’s that burning feeling you know and love oh-so-much. This explains why high intensity interval training is so fatiguing, and why rest intervals are definitely necessary between work periods.

However, this also means that by doing regular interval runs, your body becomes more efficient at removing lactic acid. You expand your anaerobic threshold, or the intensity at which you can exercise without building up lactic acid (measured as a V02 max).

Interval training running requires you to give it your all for repeated periods of time, and even the best runners in the world are susceptible to fatigue.

The next time you think about quitting, remember these benefits and what they offer.

It might hurt now, but you’ll thank yourself later.

Better Performance

Your body is pretty awesome. It adapts impressively fast to the continuous stress of training, such as long distance running. Although it’s great that our bodies can evolve to keep up with us, it also means that the effect of your regular workout will fade over time.

In essence, you plateau in terms of progress and performance—which is where interval training running comes in.

To improve your cardiovascular system and speed up your metabolism, you need to incorporate new challenges into your workout, and interval running is the perfect fit. Interval running keeps your body guessing, and doesn’t let it get accustomed to a routine.

Fast interval sprints enhance the body’s maximum oxygen absorption, transportation (heart), capacity (lungs), and utilization (cells). Altogether, this dramatically enhances your body’s performance, allowing you to run faster and further for longer.

Marathon runners: don’t discount interval training running.

Adding these workouts to your regular routine can effectively lower your lactic acid levels. You’ll have better endurance and will be able to log even more miles without feeling the added stress and fatigue. Say goodbye to those awful muscle cramps that always seem to plague you on your final stretch.

Time Efficiency

Some people love slapping on their running shoes and taking off for a steady jog that spans over an hour or more.

Other people shove those begrudging feet into their trainers and force themselves out the door to get their prescribed exercise in.

Whichever camp you fall into (no judgment either way!), interval running allows you to pack a ton of exercise into a shorter amount of time. A 30-minute interval run with repetitive high intensity bursts accomplishes the same effect as your leisurely, lengthy jog.

If cruising on a stroll is your thing, more power to you, but sometimes life just doesn’t afford such indulgences and forces you to get your run in quickly. If running altogether sounds more like torture than a treat, great news: interval training running lets you get more done in a shorter amount of time.

Your workouts will fly by—we’re willing to wager that you might even start to enjoy it.

Faster Weight Loss

A proper interval running plan significantly boosts weight loss by burning more calories than you would on a comfortable run. During work periods, your body is spending more energy to move the same mass but at a higher speed.

Your fast twitch muscle fibers come into play, which burn a higher amount of energy than other muscle fibers because they work so explosively. Burn 50 percent more calories in 50 percent less time? Yes, please.

More Afterburn

Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC): a long-winded term for what’s generally referred to as “afterburn,” the legendary effect that allows you to burn calories long after your run has ended.

Burning fat and torching calories all day long might sound like the next empty promise from a fad diet pill, but there are no gimmicks here. It all comes down to oxygen deficit and composition.

During the work periods of your interval training running, your muscles start to burn and you feel out of breath. What’s really happening is the buildup of lactic acid depletion of the body’s oxygen stores.

Your body is then forced to work harder to replenish its depleted oxygen—for a period of 16-24 hours post-work out, according to research. You burn more calories paying back your oxygen debt than you would burn from a lower intensity exercise.

Activated Hormones

If you’re looking to change your body’s appearance, hormones are the driving force. Catecholamines are hormones that are activated thank to the intense nature of interval training running. These guys are important because they mobilize fat stores to be used as fuel, helping you blast calories. High intensity interval running also maximizes the release of the fat-burning growth hormone.

If you’re looking for interval training running for weight loss, you’ll be happy to hear that these workouts might help curb cravings.

The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine reports that people who perform cardio in intervals eat about 500 less calories per day than those who perform cardio from one day to the next. And thanks to the massive amount of calories you burn during interval running, you can afford to answer those cravings if you so choose.

Less Stress

This one’s true of exercise in all shapes and sizes, but applies to interval training running as well. A good workout can help significantly decrease stress hormones in the body. Conversely, when you perform sustained exercise for an hour or more, your cortisol level actually rises.

You don’t want that. Cortisol is responsible for breaking down muscle tissue, increasing your appetite as well as cravings for high-carb foods. People with high cortisol levels also put on more belly fat—not ideal in your quest to shed pounds. An interval training running weight loss program helps reduce cortisol and curbs those concerns.

Not only will you stress less, but you’ll feel great too once those floodgates open and your endorphins are released. When you keep up with a high intensity interval training running routine, you’ll stay active, which can help solve any sleep woes. Just your motivation in general will go a long way on your body and mind.

Interval Running for Beginners

Anyone can start an interval running program. In fact, it’s the perfect way to ease yourself into the world of running if you’re more of the couch potato-type. However, the intensity of your interval running training will be key.

Taking off too fast, or too soon, can lead to injury. You need to start slow and build up your endurance before you can knock out fast sprints, and always be mindful for signs of dehydration.

Below are several different types of interval running plans you can try on for size, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned vet. Trust us when we say that these intervals will definitely keep you from getting bored.

Note: When you start interval training running, you’ll feel a few things happen. At first, the muscles in your legs will probably start to burn. Soon you’ll feel out of breath and be ready to double over. Breathe. Keep pushing just a few seconds longer. This pain is good.

Interval Training on a Treadmill

The treadmill is a great place to start your high intensity interval training running. If you’re a beginning runner, hopping on a treadmill allows you to begin at a slow pace and work your way to higher fitness. You can still get an interval workout in by just walking if you vary the incline on the machine. Start by warming up with a slow stroll then increasing your pace to a slightly brisk walk at an incline of 1. From there, increase the elevation for a short interval up to 1.5 for one minute, then drop back down into a recovery period.

  • Walk for 3:00 at 0 elevation
  • Walk for 3:00 at 1 elevation
  • Walk for 2:00 at 1.5 elevation
  • Repeat intervals for 3 sets
  • Walk for 3:00 at 0 elevation

As your fitness improves, you can make your interval running plan more rigorous by increasing the incline. Even advanced runners enjoy incline interval running, as hills are fantastic at strengthening leg muscles.

Ideally, the intervals should last for 15 to 20 minutes. Always remember to cool down afterwards, naturally letting your heart rate fall by walking it off—it’s crucial for avoiding injuries.

Speed Interval Training

If your interval running plan takes place on a treadmill, you can incorporate work period by changing the speed settings. In most cases, you’ll want to warm up with a leisurely walk or slow jog. Then slightly increase the speed to a pace that you can sustain for a prolonged period of time. Hang out here for a while, then increase the speed by half a mile per hour (mph) for two minutes before returning to your base speed.

  • Walk for 3:00 at 3 mph
  • Run for 5:00 at 5 mph
  • Sprint for 2:00 at 5.5 mph
  • Repeat intervals for 3 sets
  • Walk for 3:00 at 3 mph

More experienced runners can increase their speed setting by one or two miles during their work period. As you get more involved with interval training running, you can increase your work period speed to all-out sprints.

Switch things up in your interval running program and vary the length of each work period. If you’re brand new to exercise, we recommend starting at 30 seconds of intensity. Those with high fitness levels might stretch their periods of intensity all the way to five minutes.

Remember to keep our friends Gerschler and Reindell in mind, though. Cardiovascular improvement from interval training running comes from the rest period when stroke volume is at its peak, so don’t forget to lower your bpm on clockwork. Rest periods can be shortened as fitness improves, but it should never be less than one minute. You have to make sure your body receives the time it needs to slow down and recover before you put it back into overdrive.

Tempo Interval Training

Those practicing a high intensity interval training running in preparation of a 10K or a half marathon will benefit from tempo runs (also known as “threshold training”). Your goal for this style of interval running is to maintain a pace that keeps your heart just below your anaerobic level.

Tempo interval running breaks your work periods into bite-sized segments in order to help you run longer at your threshold pace, or as an opportunity to run faster than you would for a normal run. They help improve your lactate threshold and make your training times more efficient, allowing you to accomplish more in during each session.

Get creative with your tempo interval training running. Breaking your work portions into smaller intervals will keep you engaged and make your training time fly by. Here’s an example workout:

  • Warm up by walking for 3:00
  • Run for 5:00 at a moderate pace
  • Run for 5:00 at tempo
  • Jog for 2:00 at a light pace
  • Repeat intervals for 4 sets
  • Cool down by walking for 3:00

“Tempo” effort is best described as comfortably hard. By the end of a tempo interval run, you should feel stronger and fitter.

Interval Training for Marathons

Some distance runners are under the misguided notion that they don’t need interval training running. Think again. If you want a higher V02 max and better running performance, you need to amp up the intensity every once in a while. Amongst other research, a recent study from the University of Copenhagen showed dramatic improvements in athletes after implementing interval training running. They reduced their mileage by 50 percent and added three interval sessions per week. Across the board, all participants improved their 5K times by nearly a minute—and this is all while they were running less.

Marathon runners looking for an interval running plan should try the 10-20-30 method.

  • Warm up by jogging a mile
  • Jog for 0:30 at a light pace
  • Run for 0:20 at a training pace
  • Sprint for 0:10 at a fast pace
  • Jog for 2:00
  • Repeat intervals for 2 or 3 sets
  • Cool down by jogging a mile

If you add interval training running to your regular routine, you can shave minutes off your time and increase your performance. Better yet, you won’t be left feeling as exhausted when you cross that finish line.

When you’re interval training running, your goal is to hit your target heart rate, then drop back down to a resting rate. First, you need to determine your maximum, which can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220.

Once you’ve got your maximum heart rate in hand, it’s time to determine your target heart rate range—typically, you’ll want to aim for a rate that lands between 85 and 90 percent of your maximum heart rate.

Different Types of Interval Running

Whether you’re gearing up for your next race or just interval training running for weight loss, the options are endless. Using the standard work/rest principle, there are a number of different interval variations you can try on the track or treadmill. Play around with distance, repetition, and duration to keep your interval running fun and stave off boredom. These are a few common styles of intervals that runners love and swear by:

  • Ladders—progress from short to longer repetitions
  • Pyramids—up and down ladders
  • Ins-and-Outs”—accelerate straight ways, jog the turns
  • Cut-downs—preform increasingly shorter, faster reps

Interval running is also wonderful to do with friends! Use those rest times to chat and help push each other during sprints. By turning interval running into a social activity, exercise will be even more enjoyable and easier to stick with.

Cautions of High Intensity Interval Training Running

You might fall in love with the feeling of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, of putting in your maximum effort, but don’t overdo it. You should enjoy the benefits of interval runs in moderation, on average three times per week. Warm ups and cool downs are always required, and stretching is something you can’t skimp out on. No torn muscles here.

As with any type of run, the right equipment is required. Wear men’s cross training shoes or proper ladies sneakers that will provide your feet with the cushioned support they’ll need during your interval runs. And don’t forget to stay hydrated!

If you’re stuck in a standard running route, revamp your routine with interval running. An interval training running program is a super-efficient way to boost your speed and endurance, plus it’s great for weight loss and does wonders for your heart. High intensity interval training runs keep working long after you do, ensuring you get the most out of your effort—and then some. So get out there and turn the dial up on the intensity notch!

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