Performing Interval Run Workouts: A Step by Step Guide

Lucy Smith

Guest Contributor - Endurance Sports

Victoria, Canada

Running, Swimming, Cycling, Endurance Sports, Triathlon

The following is a guest post by Lucy Smith of Run For Joy:


If you want to go faster this season, running speed intervals will make you a stronger and swifter runner. Speedwork - doing repetitions of fast running broken by intervals of recovery running - will train your lactic threshold, increase your leg strength, and fine-tune your cadence and biomechanics. You can use speedwork to create new personal best times in run distances and to give you the strength to run well off the bike in triathlon.



Performing Interval Run Workouts: A Step by Step Guide - Fitness, running, endurance, endurance sports, triathlons, guidesThere are huge physical and mental gains to be made in speedwork sessions if they are done correctly. Running at faster than race paces will not only increase your ability to hold faster paces in races, but it teaches you to be disciplined with your thoughts around effort, and hones your ability to deal with discomfort. The best speedwork sessions are planned out and methodical. Set yourself up to have a great workout and then go ahead and run fast.


Coaches Note: Because of the physical intensity of speedwork, the gains to be made also come with a greater risk for injury, so athletes need to be prudent about including speedwork sessions into their overall program. Speedwork is both dynamic and intense, and athletes should pay special attention to how and when they perform the workouts. Performing speedwork should be done only after a period of gradually increasing running volume that has created a foundation run strength and cardiovascular fitness - usually 4-6 months. Speed sessions should be followed by a light recovery day, where the body is allowed to adapt to the work, and should be spaced from lifting sessions.


The following steps describe the optimal approach to performing speed intervals. Athletes who are used to speedwork, running drills, pace intervals, and using a watch or a GPS device can use this protocol to gain more from their workouts. Novice athletes who are not quite at this stage yet, can also benefit from this information, and learn how planning for success creates success!




Look ahead at your schedule each week and plan for the speed workout. Decide when and where the session will take place and be prudent with your energy in the hours leading up to the session. Make sure you plan nutrition for the run. Eat a light meal 2-3 hours before the session and be hydrated. Nothing derails a speed session like the completely avoidable event of stomach cramps from eating too close to the session, or eating the wrong foods.


Show Up


Get excited! This means that you come to the session ready to run, ready to give best effort and having made the decision to have a good day. You are not coming to "wait and see what happens." As a coach, I call this "running like you mean it." It means arriving early, prepared, with positive energy, standing tall and being in an excited frame of mind.



Warm Up Well


Do 15 minutes of light warm up running. Some people like to do another 5-10 minutes of steady state (slightly stronger) running to be fully warmed up. Experiment with this early in the season, in case it is something that works for you. After the warm up run, do some dynamic stretching such as leg swings and arm circles, and stretch out body areas that feel tight.


Before the intervals, do a set of run drills and strides. Drills and strides activate the muscle fibers fully for fast running and create mental preparedness. 2 x 10 seconds each of A, B, and C drills, and then 4-6 fast strides at the end should ensure you are ready to perform. Strides are 10 seconds of fast dynamic running, faster than you will run the intervals but not your all out speed. You should be able to hold perfect form for the stride. Walk or jog for 30 seconds between stride efforts.




Performing Interval Run Workouts: A Step by Step Guide - Fitness, running, endurance, endurance sports, triathlons, guidesAttempt to pace the whole workout evenly, running fast but saving energy to be able to complete the whole set. Begin each interval with a burst of dynamic running, pumping arms and legs to get up to pace, but not sprinting. After a few seconds relax into pace and check that you are breathing well and staying relaxed in the upper body. Allow your mind to focus only on running well. Be aware of your goal pace, either through a GPS device or by being at a measured environment, like a track, and using your watch.





Commit to the pace and discomfort of the interval, not relenting at the first sign of fatigue. This sense of discipline is best honed in practice and creates emotional fortitude for the stress of race day.


Be Aware


Learn where the half way section of every interval is and focus on that second half, maintaining rhythm and attention to the body. As you fatigue, put emphasis on your biomechanics, keeping tall posture, being graceful, relaxed in shoulders, face and torso. Think intently about forward momentum and doing a good job.


Finish It Off



Run strong through the finish of every interval, resisting the urge to give up a second early. This is another example of small ways you can be constantly mentally tweaking your game. Keep moving. Jog lightly for 10-15 seconds to facilitate lactic acid dispersal. Walk and jog between intervals. Keeping the legs moving helps flush lactic acid for the recovery and prepares you for the next interval.


Sports Psych 101


Mentally prepare for the next interval by letting go of the one you just did and only focussing on breathing, relaxing and the one coming up. Do not fall into a habit of negative self talk ("That was not fast enough"), or a "fail to succeed" ("I can’t hold this pace for the set") mentality very common in athletes. 


Focus On One Goal


Performing Interval Run Workouts: A Step by Step Guide - Fitness, running, endurance, endurance sports, triathlons, guidesAs you approach the next interval, decide to do the next one well, at least as good as the one you just did, and even find a way to make it better. Find one goal for each interval. Right before the start of the interval, shake out your legs and arms, take several deep breaths and focus your mind. Practice taking a quiet mind into running fast.


Cool Down


At the end of a set of speed intervals, jog and walk for 5 minutes, take some water, electrolytes and calories (a PowerGel works well here) and then do a very gentle and easy jog for at least 15 minutes. Stretch. Within 15 minutes of the end of the session, ingest some carbohydrate. This can be as simple as having a banana.


Using these guidelines, come up with your own smooth successful workout routine. Soon your speedwork sessions will translate into superior running, mental fortitude and great races.

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