Interval Training Tips

I had a friend ask me about intervals the other day. I started thinking about how loosely the term “interval” is in running circles. It is almost as loose as the term “tempo run.” What the heck does that mean? Actually interval refers to the rest bout, but most runners say anytime they do a track work out, “it was an interval workout.” In a way they were right but actually that is really vague.

There are different types of interval training, but the one most commonly referred to is VO2max intervals. This is where the runner runs for a certain time or distance at or near their VO2max and then rests for some time, and then runs again at this pace for the same or maybe a different distance, and continues to repeat this for a certain number of times. The reason the rest is important is because VO2max is actually the pace at which you can run all out for about 10 minutes. This usually is somewhere around your 3200m or 2400m time. It is also about 98-100% of your max heart rate. Break it up into smaller portions and you can run for more total time at that speed and get some improvement in VO2max. One workout could include 8000m of running (volume) at VO2max, and that speed could never be maintained for that distance without a rest break.

The definition of VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen your muscles can consume in one minute. It has less to do with running performance and more to do with running potential. Your VO2max is like your ceiling, and your running economy is how economical you are at sub VO2max speeds. Confused yet?

Basically, one runner could beat another runner in a 10k who has a higher VO2max if he is more economical at that 10k pace than the second runner. Most elite runners have a fairly high VO2max and are very economical. That is why they are elite.

Back to VO2max intervals. So you have done a good warm up, maybe some drills and strides to prime your nervous system for some fast running, and then get ready for the interval workout.

Here are my 10 tips for interval training.

1. VO2max intervals should have about a 1:1 work to rest ratio. If you run for 800m in 3 minutes then jog easy for no more than 3 minutes before starting your next 800m.
2. Your first interval should never be your fastest of the workout. Doing so can ruin a workout.
3. If your pace starts to fade over the workout you are running too hard early on, not getting enough rest or doing too much volume.
4. Be careful about increasing total workout volume by too much in one workout. If you did 6x800m last week (4800m total volume), then don’t try and do 8x1000m next week (8000m total volume). Progress your total volume gradually as you would your total weekly mileage.
5. It takes 1 minute to reach VO2max, so any interval run shorter than 1 minute doesn’t give you any time spent at VO2max unless you do a TON of them with. VO2max is reached a little bit sooner each work period unless your rest is too long. Optimal time for VO2max intervals is 3-5 minutes, but less is ok you just have to run more of them and maybe shorten the rest to less than 1:1.
6. VO2max intervals should be done no more than once every 5-7 days for proper recovery and training adaptations. I recommend once a week on the same day each week.
7. Jog during the recovery periods to keep your heart rate slightly elevated. See tip #5.
8. If the goal of the work out is for a VO2max training stimulus then the pace should be the same no matter what distance or time the work period is set for. If your VO2max is 6min/mi pace than 400m should be run in 90sec and 800m in 3 min with equal rest periods.
9. Cutting down the rest a little is often better than running faster, when trying to progress your workouts.
10. If you don’t know your current pace at VO2max, you can run a 2 mile time trial, or use a recent race time of any distance in McMillan’s calculator or Jack Daniels VDOT tables to determine optimal training paces.

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4 Responses to “Interval Training Tips”

  1. Ron says:

    A most usefull and informative post. Awesome!

  2. I am assuming the high V02 max of the elites is a natural genetic disposition. It is clear that “interval” work is needed to improve one’s speed and how one’s body deals with waste. But what has always confused me is why do some runners and coaches avoid shorter speed work for the marathon? I am thinking Pfitzinger as one example. But, those that prefer tempo over the shorter stuff seem few.

  3. admin says:

    Eddie, you are correct. VO2max has a very high genetic component but it can be trained and improved. VO2max is like your potential. If you are really fit and economical, you can run at a very high percentage of your VO2max for a long time. Frank Shorter’s VO2max was 71.3 and he could run at almost 92% of his VO2max for a marathon (2:10)! On the other hand, Lance Armstrong’s V02max has been measured at 84 and he has barely broken 2:50 for a marathon (not a very economical runner). If Lance had stuck with just running for his career, who knows!

  4. admin says:

    Also, I like an good mix of intervals, tempo, and speed during marathon training with a different emphasis depending on the training cycle and how close to the marathon you are. That is where periodization comes into play. Oh, and intervals are NOT speed work. They are fast, but not top end speed. That is a different workout all together.

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