Running intervals and why I love (and hate) them

This morning I ran my interval session at the beach with Catherine. When I say at the beach I don’t mean on the sand (that’s to come after this marathon), but along the promenade between Coogee Life Savers club and The Pavilion. It’s a fairly flat run except for the slight uphill at each end, so it’s a great place to do speed work. If you haven’t run intervals before they are a great idea for any level of runner. Here’s a summary: Run a “work” interval fast for a set distance (or time if you are a sadist!) Jog, walk or stumble for a “rest” period of distance/time. For beginners this may be longer than it takes to do the work interval. For more experienced runners this may be shorter in order to challenge the body. Repeat several times, or until legs and lungs need replacing. Perhaps I jest too much, but intervals are hard work. They are meant to be in order to push your body beyond it’s capacity for short periods of time, thus developing you physiologically and psychologically. The latter comes from your ability to weather the discomfort of a faster speed for a short time and overcome your mind’s desire to stop. For some reason I find interval training strangely enjoyable. I think it is because it breaks your time and training up into manageable chunks. Rather than thinking about running 5km I just have to run 400m eight times. Once I factor in the recovery I have run 5km (give or take), which makes it much easier for me to get out and do. I may have run several marathons, but my desire to go out and run is often zero, whatever helps me to train consistently is a valuable tool. For years I used intervals with clients that hated running or had a hard time running distance as a way to make that time more productive and enjoyable. Here’s why I think they work for so many people:

1. They aren’t that long

If you are starting off in running or you run 5km distances then intervals are your friend. If you are training for a marathon then intervals are your friend. If you are not running at all then intervals are your friend. If you getting into running and tried to go out and run for 30 minutes then you might baulk at just the thought. But breaking it down into manageable chunks will make it much more achievable. The intervals/repetitions (ints/reps) can be any distance from 10m to 2000m and fit in well with any fitness level. When I did my 400m session recently I ran 8 reps at a pace around 1:40 per 400m. I took about 60 seconds for recovery after each. That totals about 21 minutes (if my maths is correct), couple that with an 8 minute warm up and cool down and the whole thing only took 37 minutes. If you wanted to break it down it is essentially three parts, the warmup (8 mins), the work (13 minutes + 8 mins recovery) and the cool down (8 mins). The work section can obviously be broken down into each interval, which is what I do. I concentrate on running my best form for that one rep. Then I use the rest to reset myself and continue with the next interval. It makes training much more manageable when you have a small goal to go for rather than complicating things by thinking too big.

2. It is not about quantity

Many people start running by setting themselves a goal of running a half marathon or marathon. Often times this is a life goal they want to achieve because other people they know have done it before them. There are also many people that start running with a jog and walk around the block, building up over time to run 5km races. With both of these examples the end product has been to run further than before, to push the body to a new limit. There’s nothing wrong with that. Lord knows I have done that very same thing for many years, it is pretty much why I run. I will try not to sound like a hypocrite when I say that maybe we are all wrong. Perhaps our need to achieve overshadows something more important for great running and longevity in the sport. Quality. Becoming a better runner doesn’t come from running further or more frequently. It comes from taking time to run technique drills, develop flexibility and strength and by working on form. If you were to watch Usain Bolt or Mo Farah in training you would see two people that are laser focused on the details. After all any improvement in speed and efficiency will help them shave off time and beat their competition. I know we are not these two men, but if we want to avoid injury and run fast it pays to focus on quality sessions. That is a hell of a long explanation as to why we should include interval training. Essentially it is about running shorter manageable distances really well, with adequate recovery to repeat that good form and save it in the brain. But how do I know whether I am pushing too hard Tom? Well that’s a great question third person Tom. Here’s a simple tool I picked up a few years back: Run a 10-15 minute warm, include mobility work and dynamic flexibility. Run your first interval and note your time at the end, this will be your baseline. Note your time after each subsequent interval. If you run three seconds or slower than your baseline then you call it a day. The point here is that your running times should be consistent and if anything get slightly quicker as your body warms up more. Losing three seconds off your time shows a decline in performance and that is when you will start to push harder and possibly risk injury. You could couple this in with heart rate monitoring to fully assess what your body is doing, but I like the above for keeping it simple. After all the clock doesn’t lie! 3. Run like a kid

Personally I find children to be annoying and a massive environmental negative, however that’s a story for another time. When running they do it with ease and frequently have great form. Luckily for these little carbon emitters they are yet to develop bad posture or overuse muscles as they are fresh out of the box, they even enjoy running. They don’t run a set distance or in any particular order, but they are proficient at running fast after each other for hours. Weirdos! As adults we can’t possibly follow their example and run fast with smiles on our faces. Or can we? What if we made training challenging and enjoyable? Is there such a thing? Ok well bear with me here as I have a theory. Firstly we need to choose a distance that we know we can run fast. Personally I love 400 and 800m, but you might want to choose 100m or go longer if you are a distance freak. 1. After a decent warm up of 10-15 minutes I want you to run your first interval and record the time at the end. 2. Rest and recover by walking out for 125-150% of your work interval. E.g 60 secs work = 75-90 secs recovery. 3. Repeat three times recording each interval time. 4. Now for the next three intervals all I want you to change is this, smile. That’s it! Just smile throughout each interval and see what happens. The outcome of this could be twofold. Firstly you’ll run those second half intervals faster and easier. Secondly you’ll finish your session feeling good and having looked like you were enjoying yourself. If the first doesn’t happen then at least you’ll have a laugh and get over yourself for one moment in your day. I use this frequently now and have even got a friend to do it when he runs intervals with me. I can only assume that the physiological and psychological impact of smiling gives the runner a small boost. It is science that I am working on, so I’ll post some of my own results here soon. Until then keep enjoying what you do and if you don’t then perhaps it’s time for a change. Tom