How to Design Your Perfect Interval Training Workout
By Rick Morris
You’ve seen and probably performed all of the standard interval training workouts. The classic interval training sessions of 200 meter repeats, 400 meter repeats and 800 meter repeats are run thousands of times per day at tracks all over the world. Those definitive interval training runs are unquestionably popular and they do a good job of improving your fitness and race performance. But are they always the best interval workouts? In my mind, the answer to that question is a decisive maybe.
The interval training classics mentioned above are good workout, but they are also very generic in nature. They are intended to improve overall fitness, stamina and speed. If you are not training for any specific goal race, they may be the best choice due to their generic nature. But, if you have a specific training goal, is a generic interval workout always the best choice? Probably not, because the ignore one of the most important rules of training – the rule of specificity.
The rule of specificity states that your training should be specifically designed for and be closely matched to your goal. If you’re training for a sub 40 minute 10K your interval training workout should be designed for that goal. If you want to run a marathon in 3 hours you should be doing an interval workout that matches that goal.
There are five components to an interval training session – repeat distance, repeat pace, recovery distance, recovery pace and repetitions. See interval training 101 for more information. Designing your perfect interval training workout is a process of defining what you want to accomplish and then choosing the appropriate times and distances for each component.
The first step in building your interval workout is choosing your repeat distance. You can use any distance that meets your needs, but the most commonly used repeats distances are between 100 meters and 5000 meters. The most appropriate repeat distance depends upon your goal and fitness level. Here are some recommendations for various race distance goals and the purpose of your workout.
Now that you know your repeat distance you need to figure out how fast to run. Your most appropriate interval repeat pace is joined at the hip with your goal pace. Your interval repeats may be done at race pace, faster than race pace or slower than race pace, but they are always closely tied to your race pace. Use the table below to find the repeat pace that meets your needs.
Interval training actually got its name from the recovery “intervals” between your work repeats. Your recovery intervals can be monitored using either time or distance. There is no one specific recovery interval duration that is ideal for every workout. The theory behind recovery intervals is that you should only be partially recovered before beginning the next work repeat. The most appropriate recovery intervals will again depend upon your goal race, the goal of the workout and your current fitness level. Here are some recommendations.
Your recovery pace can be any pace that meets your needs, but there are three “paces that are used in nearly all interval training workouts – complete passive rest, easy recovery pace and recovery floats. Complete rest is self explanatory. You rest completely without any running. Passive rest is monitored by time. Easy recovery pace is an active recovery in which you run at an easy pace. The exact pace is not important as long as it feels easy and is faster than a walking pace. Recovery floats are faster recovery intervals in which you “coast” or let your forward momentum carry you along at a very relaxed but strong pace. You should not feel like you are working hard during a float, but it should not be an easy run. Here are some recovery paces for various goals.
The final choice you need to make for your interval training workout is the number of repetitions. Generally speaking, shorter repeats require more repetitions while longer repeats will have fewer repetitions. Repetitions can also be matched to your goal distance and well as the purpose of your workout. See below for some recommendations on number of repetitions.
Putting It Together
So there you have it. You have all of the components of your workout and you’re ready to hit the track. Here is an example of how it comes together. For this example lets assume your goal is to run a 10K in 40 minutes. Your goal of this specific workout is to improve your efficiency at goal pace. You decide that your repeat distance will be 1000 meters since you are in the early stages of your training program.
Your goal time is 40:00 which means you want to run each 800 meter repeat in 4:00. That becomes your repeat pace. A good starting point for your recovery intervals is ½ the same time or distance of your repeat distance, so for this interval workout you’ll use 2 minutes of passive rest. As you progress through your training program you can manipulate your recovery by reducing the time and/or changing to active recovery. For this workout your recovery distance/pace is 2 minutes of complete passive rest.
Now, how may repetitions should you do? Since your training for the 10K, the most efficient volume of your work repeats would be right around the 10K distance. 10 x 1000 meter repeats would give you a full 10,000 meters at race pace and a very effective 10K workout.
So, there is your workout in this example. You would do 10 x 1000 meter repeats in 3:12 with 3 minute of passive rest between each repeat. You have designed a custom interval training workout that is specifically built for your goal race and your goal pace. You can follow this same procedure to build any interval training workout for any goal distance. This purpose of this sample workout was to improve your goal pace running, but remember that the workouts should be specifically built for the purpose of your workout. You can design other interval workouts to improve your vVO2 max, lactate turn point, strength or endurance. By manipulating the components of the workout you can design an interval training session to meet any of your goals.