6 interval running workouts to help you break through physical and mental barriers


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Whether you adore running or despise it, discovering interval training for the first time can feel straight-up serendipitous. After all, the number one complaint about pounding pavement is usually that it’s “so boring.” But that just isn’t the case with interval running, which keeps your body guessing mile after mile.

“Interval running pushes your body to work through short bursts of tough efforts and to recover within a restricted amount of time. Then, it recruiting the body (and mind!!) to push you to that tough spot again,” says Melissa Wolfe, a coach at New York City’s Mile High Run Club. “The perception of tough efforts may be created using speed, hills, ratio of work to recovery, or a combination of those things.”

“Interval running pushes your body to work through short bursts of tough efforts and to recover within a restricted amount of time. Then, it recruiting the body (and mind!!) to push you to that tough spot again.” —Melissa Wolfe, coach at Mile High Run Club

On a physical level, interval-style workouts work head-to-toe magic. “Cardiovascular function improves, post-workout metabolism increases for an extended amount of time, muscle fibers build resiliency and quicker response, and you’ll experience increased endurance both aerobically and anaerobically. Simply put, interval training is an effective way to build your body’s tolerance to the demands of your goals—regardless of whether they’re distance, time, or overall fitness-based,” explains the runner.

Those bodily benefits may be enticing enough to convince you to sprint for the treadmill, but they’re really just scratching the surface. According to Wolfe, the brain benefits of the training modality may be even better. “I think there’s a giant—and very undervalued—psychological benefit to interval training as well,” she says. It takes mental fortitude to propel yourself into another hill repeat when you’d rather flop onto the couch and morn your aching glutes.  Interval training helps you get in the habit of breaking down that psychological wall.

“I like to approach interval training in any form—whether it’s intervals of speed or hills—with this mindset: use the challenge of tougher circumstances to your advantage. Be grateful for the speed that feels impossibly challenging in the moment, or for those hills that feel never-ending, because they’re the reason that your easier paces feel easy and  downhills and flat ground feel so good,” says the running coach. “Use each time you make it through an interval as an opportunity to throw yourself a little party and say ‘I crushed that!’ Then enjoy the benefits of the relief on the other side of the hard work!”

What are you waiting for? Let’s run.

4 interval running exercises to crush when you’re trying to run faster, longer—or just taking your first few steps

interval running
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1. If you’re just getting started, keep it simple

The challenge: “Keep it simple! It shouldn’t be a full-out sprint that empties the tank, but it should be a level of effort that would keep you from comfortably being able to speak out loud,” says Wolfe. “As you become more confident in how your challenging level of effort feels, you’ll be able to do more repetitions. Once you’ve made it to 10 repetitions, cut the repetitions back to 5 and increase the duration of time you spend in your challenging efforts: increase to 90 seconds on, 60 seconds off. Over time you’ll be able to increase both speed and duration!”

Warm up: Spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up with a brisk walk or jog to get your body moving and raise your heart rate.

Interval: Spend 60 seconds running at a pace that feels challenging, the walk 60 seconds.

Repeat 5 to 10 times.

2. Fast and furious 20-minute pyramid run

The challenge: Push yourself for 20 minutes, then celebrate!

Warm up: 2-minute easy jog.

Interval: 2-minute run at 6 out of 10 perceived effort, 2-minute rest (walk or jog); 90-second run at 7 out of 10 perceived effort, 90-second rest; 60-second run at 8 out of10 perceived effort, 60-second rest; 30-second run at 9 out of 10 perceived effort, 30-second rest; 60-second run at 8 out of 10 perceived effort, 60-second rest; 90-second run at 7 out of 10 perceived effort, 90-second rest; 2-minute run at 6 out of 10 perceived effort.

Cool down.

3. To up your endurance, try longer intervals

The challenge: “Follow the repetition, alternating between effort and rest. Your effort pace should be your tempo pace, meaning, it should feel ‘comfortably challenging.’ Try pushing you to the point of  only being able to get a few words out, then rest during your easy jog,” says Wolfe.” As time goes on, continue to increase duration and repetitions.

Warm up: Spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up with a brisk walk or jog to get your body moving and raise your heart rate.

Interval: Spend 10 minutes running at your tempo pace, then jog for two minutes.

Repeat 3 times. 

4. To walk/run your first 5K, start here

The challenge: Run/walk a full 5K!

Warm up: Walk 5 minutes.

Interval: Walk one minute, run one minute at a manageable pace.

Repeat until you’ve reached 3.1 miles

5. Want to run like the wind? Sprint intervals are for you

The challenge: “This set progressively loads speed into the duration of the interval and demands the highest speed at the end of the block of work, which teaches your body to step up when it’s already tired,” says Wolfe.

Warm up: Spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up with a brisk walk or jog to get your body moving and raise your heart rate.

Interval: 3 minutes at your 10K pace followed by 90 seconds at 5K pace and 45-second full-on sprint. Two-minute recovery.

Repeat 6 times

6. To master hilly runs, crank that treadmill up to 5.0

The challenge: “I’m a big fan of hills for many reasons. If you’re outside, find an incline that either tops out on flat ground or has a nice downhill on the back side and set yourself up to start at a place where it would take you 45- to 60 seconds worth of a very challenging effort to make it to the top. If you’re on a treadmill, you can alternate between an incline in the range of 3.0 to 5.0 and flat ground (1.0),” says Wolfe.

Warm up: Spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up with a brisk walk or jog to get your body moving and raise your heart rate.

Interval: Maintain a very challenging pace up your 3.0 to 5.0 hill for 60 seconds, return the treadmill to 1.0 and hold the same pace for 60 seconds, jog for 60 seconds.

Repeat 6 to 10 times

A note on recovery

In order to get the most out of your interval training, Wolfe says you need to take the recovery between bursts of effort seriously. “Recovery between intervals shouldn’t cost you the energy you need to come back strong into your next quality block of work,” she says. “If the recovery time between intervals is less than one minute, a standing recovery is fine. Beyond 60 seconds, standing still gives your muscles the opportunity to start to tighten.” When you keep moving (but take it easy) in your off-moments, your muscles receive better oxygen and blood flow. “A walk or easy jog would provide the highest benefit and the lowest negative impact on the body to be able to come back into the next interval comfortably recovered,” concludes Wolfe.

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