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Hit The Track: Interval Sessions For Every Distance And Ability

  • By Paul Moore
  • Published May 10, 2011
Running in circles will ultimately make you faster

Whether you love running in circles or hate the thought of it, the truth is that track sessions will make you a better, faster runner. But how should you use your time at your local track to best effect?

Running in circles will ultimately make you faster

Written By: Matt Fitzgerald
Whether you love or hate the track, training on it can improve your running by leaps and bounds, if you know what you’re doing. While it is possible to train effectively without ever visiting your local high school or college oval, there is no environment that is better suited to the high-intensity interval workouts that are an indispensible part of every runner’s training. A little interval training goes a long way. Just one visit to the track per week during periods of focused training for one or more races will do the trick. So if you don’t like track workouts now, perhaps you can learn to like them, and if you can’t learn to like them, surely you can still suck it up and suffer through them once a week!

There is a difference between enjoying track workouts and doing them effectively. Even some runners who love running on the track don’t do it right. The purpose of this article is to show you how to get the greatest possible benefit from running in circles. First I will explain the structure and benefits of the four basic types of interval sessions: short, middle-distance, long and mixed. Then I will share some guidelines for incorporating track workouts into your training for each of four race distances: 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon.

Short Intervals
Short intervals are fast-running segments of 100 meters (one-quarter lap, or one full straightaway) to 400 meters. Because they are so short, these intervals can be run at very close to maximum speed. Naturally, you can run 200m intervals at a slightly faster pace than 400m intervals and you can run 100m intervals faster still. The purpose of short interval workouts is to increase raw speed, stride power and running economy. They are beneficial even for marathon runners, whose race pace is substantially slower than the speeds that can be sustained over such short distances. The power and efficiency gains you derive from running short intervals will enable you to sustain your current marathon pace more easily, and thus run faster at the effort level associated with your current marathon pace.

Recovery periods between short intervals should be relatively long—roughly three times the duration of the intervals themselves. This is necessary to allow you to maintain a consistent level of performance throughout the workout. If you don’t recover long enough, you will slow down from one interval to the next and the workout will become a test of fatigue resistance instead of a speed and power builder. Recoveries may be either passive (standing or walking) or active (slow jogging).

Exactly how fast should you run short intervals? Generally, you should run as fast as you can without slowing down before the end of the workout. So your last interval should be as fast as your first, and you should be good and tired by the time you complete it. You will likely need to get one or two short interval workouts in your legs before you master the pacing aspect.

The total amount of fast running you should do in this type of workout depends primarily on your fitness level. Here are some suggested formats:

Beginner Short Interval Workouts
6 x 100 meters

6 x 200 meters

6 x 300 meters

6 x 400 meters

Intermediate Short Interval Workouts
8 x 100 meters

8 x 200 meters

8 x 300 meters

8 x 400 meters

Advanced Short Interval Workouts
10 x 100 meters

10 x 200 meters

10 x 300 meters

10 x 400 meters

Middle-Distance Intervals
Intervals of 600 to 1200 meters in length are typically classified as middle-distance intervals. They are run at paces corresponding to 3000-meter to 5000-meter race pace. Middle-distance intervals stress your capacity to consume oxygen, recycle lactate and resist the major physiological causes of muscle fatigue at high running speeds. The resulting increase in aerobic capacity, lactate recycling capacity and fatigue resistance will enable you to sustain faster speeds for longer periods of time.

After completing each interval in a middle-distance interval session, recover by jogging slowly for roughly 3 minutes. That’s about how long it takes for your body to restore itself sufficiently to run the next interval at the same speed.

For help in determining appropriate target times for middle-distance intervals, use Greg McMillan’s Running Calculator (www.mcmillanrunning.com/calculator). Simply enter a recent race time for any distance or an estimated finishing time for a given race distance if you were to run it today. The calculator will then produce suggested pace targets for workouts if all kinds, including intervals of various lengths. Find the suggested pace for intervals of the length you plan to run in your next workout. Note that there are only targets. Ultimately you will have to pace yourself somewhat by feel. The idea is to run each interval as fast as you can without bonking before the workout is completed.

Here are suggested middle-distance interval workout formats for three levels:

Beginner Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
5 x 600 meters

4 x 800 meters

3 x 1000 meters

2 x 1200 meters

Intermediate Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
6 x 600 meters

5 x 800 meters

4 x 1000 meters

3 x 1200 meters

Advanced Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
7 x 600 meters

6 x 800 meters

5 x 1000 meters

4 x 1200 meters

Long Intervals
Long intervals range from 1600 meters (one mile) to 3000 meters in distance. Because they are longer than middle-distance intervals, long intervals are necessarily run more slowly, but they are not intended to be slow. Typically, they are run at the individual runner’s approximate 10K race pace. This pace is close to lactate threshold pace for many runners, or the speed above which blood lactate levels increase rapidly. It was formerly believed that this spike in blood lactate hastened muscle fatigue. It is now known that fatigue at this intensity is cause by other factors.

What has not changed is that lactate threshold pace is a very good predictor of race performance, and training at or near lactate threshold intensity is a very effective way to increase lactate threshold pace. This is largely because training at this intensity increases the body’s capacity to recycle lactate for muscle fuel.

Because of their length and intensity, it only takes a handful of long intervals to stimulate a strong training effect. Even advanced runners should seldom do more than a total of 10K of fast running in these workouts. Here is a selection of long interval workout formats:

Beginner Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
4 x 1600 meters

3 x 2000 meters

3 x 2400 meters

Intermediate Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
5 x 1600 meters

4 x 2000 meters

4 x 2400 meters

2 x 3000 meters

Advanced Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
6 x 1600 meters

5 x 2000 meters

4 x 2400 meters

3 x 3000 meters

Mixed Intervals
As their name suggests, mixed interval workouts consist in a mixture of two or more of the three interval lengths discussed above. Because they do not focus on a single, specific intensity, mixed interval workouts are not as useful as short, middle-length or long intervals for boosting specific components of running fitness. However, they are very useful for maintaining fitness in each of the components addressed by the three interval lengths. Therefore runners typically rely on mixed intervals during the final weeks of training before a race, after they have already developed their speed, VO2max and lactate threshold with short, middle-length and long interval workouts and simply want to maintain these capabilities while sharpening for a race.

Mixed intervals are also useful as a secondary track workout for advanced runners training for shorter races (5K and 10K). The primary track workout of the week would focus on developing one specific component of running fitness, while the mixed interval workout would provide a smaller stimulus for the same component of running fitness plus a small stimulus for the components of running fitness addressed by the other interval lengths.

Following are examples of mixed interval workout formats for beginner, intermediate and advanced runners:

Beginner Mixed Intervals Workout
1600m

1000m

600m

200m

(400m active recovery after each interval)

Intermediate Mixed Intervals Workout
1600m

1200m

800m

400m

200m

(400m active recovery after each interval)

Advanced Mixed Intervals Workout
400m

800m

1200m

1600m

1200m

800m

400m

(400m active recovery after each interval)

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Paul Moore

Paul Moore

Paul Moore is the Online Editor for Triathlete Europe. When not glued to a computer he can be found writing books - most recently Ultra Performance: The Psychology of Endurance Sports and The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges. Both are available on Amazon. Paul has also written Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes which is also available on Amazon.