Running in the 'Meda: The benefits of interval training

Running in the 'Meda: The benefits of interval training

Marty Beene

Photo courtesy of the Angell Field Ancients.

I recently contributed to a medically reviewed "article" (one of those slideshow things you see on many websites) on about the benefits of interval training, and it made me think that would be a good topic for my blog this week.

Put simply, interval training is alternating intense segments of exercise with easy segments. This is something that all runners should incorporate into their training, even if they are not competitive-minded, if for no other reason then it's a good idea to make your body do something different every now and then. Also, many people believe that interval training (whether through running or some other exercise form) is a better way to lose weight than steady state exercise if that is one's goal.

There are endless ways to do an interval workout, and this is always a healthy topic of debate and discussion among runners and coaches. Ask 10 competitive runners what they've been doing for interval workouts lately and you will get 10 different answers. Guaranteed. (This reminds me that this topic was a key factor in uncovering the fact that Rosie Ruiz had cheated in the 1980 Boston Marathon. Bill Rodgers asked her what kind of interval workouts she was doing, and she had no idea what he was talking about.)

In order to design an interval workout, you have to decide the distance of the work interval and the distance or time of the rest interval. A typical interval workout on the track would be to do some number of 400-meter runs ("repeats") at a certain effort with, say, one minute of "rest" (jogging or walking) between each one. In general, the shorter the distance of the work interval, the faster you should be running, although I had great success in my 10,000-meter race in June by doing this kind of workout without running all that fast. Instead, I ran a lot of them and used very short rest periods (more than 20 400s with only 30 seconds of rest).

Back in the '70s, one of my favorite runners, Edwin Moses (perhaps the greatest 400-meter hurdler in history) revolutionized interval training by using a heart rate monitor to gauge when he should begin each work interval - he would start each successive repeat when his heart rate reached some predetermined value, which indicated his body was at the precise level of recovery that he wanted for that particular workout.

To prepare for races of a few miles or more, typical workouts incorporate longer work intervals - say, 800, 1,000, or even 1,600 meters - run at something near the desired pace for the race. The rest interval should be long enough to enable some recovery, but not to an extent that the runner would feel "rested." This is different than training for a shorter race, for which a runner would typically run shorter, faster work interval distances alternating with longer "full" recovery periods.

One of the greatest benefits of interval training for competitive runners is mental. When a runner can successfully complete a challenging workout running at approximately the desired pace for a race, that runner will feel confident he or she can maintain that pace while in the latter part of a race: "I know I can run the final 800 meters of this 5k race in three minutes because I was able to do that in my workout last week, even though I was exhausted."

Need help designing some interval workouts? Contact me!

Marty Beene, a USA Track & Field certified coach, is owner of Be The Runner; he coaches adults from beginners to veterans individually and in groups. Marty can be reached at