Interval Training 101

By Rick Morris

One of the rules of training is the law of specificity. That’s a guideline that says you should use a training routine that is specific to or “mirrors” your racing goal.  If your goal race is a 5K your training should be tailored specifically for not only the 5K distance but also for your goal pace. If your goal is the marathon you should train specifically for the marathon. I could go on, but you get the idea. Interval training is a valuable too for training specificity.

Did you ever notice that as you progress through your race season you tend to get faster? For most competitive runners their first race of the season is usually not so great, but as they compete in more races they get faster and closer to their goal pace. That’s thanks to the rule of specificity.

There are a lot of different types of workouts you need to do in order to maximize your performance. You need over distance long runs, over speed vVO2 max training, stamina building lactate turn point training and strength building hill work. But, there’s one workout that may be the very best at specifically training you to meet your goal – that is the race itself. There’s no workout that does a better job of meeting the law of specificity that competing in your goal distance race. If your goal is to run a 5K in 18 minutes, then actually running a race at that pace is nearly the perfect workout. That is one reason that you tend to get faster as you compete in more races.

As good as racing is in meeting your specific goal pace training needs, there is one major problem with it. You can’t run races every day. A race distance, goal pace effort is very strenuous. Your body needs recovery time after a race to rebuild strength and repair muscle damage. Without that recovery time you would never improve and would in fact regress in fitness and performance levels. That is where interval training comes in. Interval training is simply breaking up hard workouts into shorter, high intensity repeats alternated with recovery intervals. That allows you to run at race pace or faster on a consistent basis without over stressing your body.

The Components of Interval Training

There are five components to an interval training workout – repeat distance, repeat pace, recovery distance, recovery pace and number of repetitions. Here is a brief description of the components of interval training. See the following table for recommendations.

Repeat Distance

The first part of interval training is the distance of your work repeats. The most appropriate distance of your repeats will depend upon your goal distance. Longer goal races require longer repeat distances.

Repeat Pace

The next thing you should consider is the pace of your repeats. Again, this will depend upon what you’re training for. Some interval training workouts are goal pace workouts where your repeat pace should match your goal pace. Others are over speed workouts in which your pace should be faster than race pace.

Recovery Distance

Recovery distance is a very important part of interval training. It is the manipulation of your recovery distance that makes them progressive in nature. In the early stages of your training cycle, recovery distance or time should be fairly long – right around the distance of your repeats or more. As you progress through your training, you should begin to shorten your recovery distance to make your workouts more of a match to your actual race.

Recovery Pace

Your recovery pace can vary but there are two paces that are used for most workouts – easy pace and complete passive rest. There are also times when more intense recovery paces are used.


The final component of your interval training is the number of repetitions. This is usually progressive in nature, beginning with fewer repeats and progressing to more as you move through your program. Some workouts, such as progressive goal pace intervals, use the same total volume throughout your program.

Types of Interval Training Workouts

Classic Interval Training

The most common and simplest form of interval training is the classic method that is performed thousands of times per day on tracks all over the world. Classic interval training workouts are composed of repeats of the same distance and pace combined with recovery intervals of the same distance and pace. An example is 8 x 400 meter repeats @ 5K pace with 200 meters of easy jogging between each repeat for recovery. The recovery may also be passive recovery. Using the above example the workout would be 8 x 400 meter repeats @ 5K pace with 2 minutes of complete rest between each repeat. Classic interval training workouts can be designed using any combination of distance, pace and recovery.

Progressive Goal Pace Intervals

This type of interval workout is specifically designed for your goal distance and pace. Both the total repeat volume and the repeat pace of this type of interval training will always match your race distance. For example, if your goal is to run a 5K in 18:00, your total repeat distance would be 5K and your pace would be at 18:00 pace. The individual repeat distance and recovery distance are progressive in nature. Each time you perform this progressive goal pace interval workout you would either extend the distance of your individual repeats (while maintaining total volume) or decrease the time/distance of your recovery intervals. A good first workout using this example would be 10 x 500 meter repeats in 1:48 with 2 minutes of passive recovery between each repeat. That may progress to 5 x 1000 meter repeats in 3:36 with 30 seconds of passive recovery between each repeat. See 5K progressive goal pace workouts for more examples.

Compound Sets

An advanced type of interval training is compound sets. Compound sets are a series of different distances and/or paces combined without any recovery between the various phases. One example of a 5K compound set is 3 x 200/1000/400 meters in which you run 200 meters at sprint pace, 1000 meters at 5K pace and then 400 meters @ mile pace with no recovery between the distances. You would recover between each set with around 2 – 5 minutes of passive recovery. Compound sets are great for improving your lactate turn point and your ability to finish strongly.

Pyramids and Ladders

This may sound like a board game but it’s actually examples of other types of interval training workouts. Some interval training sessions will use increasing or decreasing repeat distances or paces. Increasing repeats will be going up the ladder and decreasing repeats are going down the ladder. A pyramid is a single interval workout that includes both increasing and decreasing repeats. You would go up one side of the pyramid and down the other. An example of a ladder workout is 5 x 400 meters repeats. The first repeat may be in 90 seconds, the second in 85 seconds, the third in 80 seconds, the fourth in 75 seconds and the fifth in 70 seconds. You would recover between each repeat with a specific recovery interval such as 2 minutes of passive rest or 400 meters at an easy pace.  A similar pyramid workout might be starting with that same ladder workout and them going back down the other side with a sequence of 400 meters in 75 seconds, 80 seconds, 85 seconds and 90 seconds. You may also increase the distance of the work repeats rather than the pace.

Interval training is a valuable training tool. With proper manipulation of the various components you can get the benefits of racing without the high levels of stress involved.