What's the best way to get faster? Practise running fast. Seems so simple, doesn't it? If that were the case, you wouldn't find a thousand different running programs on the Internet and at the bookstore. The concept of interval training is to practise running various distances at different paces. Exactly what speed, distance and frequency are determined by your experience and race expectations. Here are some basic principles.
Why: In a very simplistic sense, interval training is a way to make race pace feel comfortable. Running short distances at speeds faster than race pace strengthens your heart, legs and lungs. It allows your brain to adapt to running faster and also teaches you to tolerate and manage fatigue.
Where: You can measure intervals by perceived exertion, heart rate or, my personal favourite, pace. To train by pace, measure a few distances such as one kilometre, one mile, two kilometres in your neighbourhood, using a foot pedometer or a GPS gadget. The loops should be in a safe and traffic-free area such as a park. If it's easier, find a nearby track as most of them measure 400 metres. Once you have determined your location, use it regularly so you can compare your times as you gain fitness.
How fast: Your interval sessions should be at a challenging pace, but not a 100-per-cent all-out effort. Leave that to the sprinters. Practise doing intervals at two speeds: faster intervals at about 10K race pace and medium intervals at about half-marathon pace.
How much: Dedicate one to two days a week to these workouts. Gradually build up the intervals to a maximum of 15 to 20 per cent of your total weekly run volume. As an example, if you run 60 kilometres a week, you could do faster intervals on Tuesdays with one-kilometre repeats. Start with three of them and add one repeat a week until you reach six times one kilometre (take a two-minute recovery after each repeat). On Thursdays or Fridays, you could do a medium-paced run, again starting with three kilometres and gradually building up to six. It's important to give yourself one to two days recovery after these harder runs and to space them out from your weekly long run.
Before any interval sessions, it's essential to warm up. Slowly jog for two to four kilometres. Then run some quick accelerations as follows: increase your pace for 20 seconds and then decelerate for 10 seconds. Accelerations help prepare your body for the work ahead. The cool down is also important. Finish off the workout with an easy jog home.
Once you get in the swing of it, interval training is a great motivator. Monitor your progress by recording the details of these speed sessions in your running log.
Nicole Stevenson is a running coach and the ninth-fastest female marathon runner in Canadian history. She is a long-time competitor in the Canada Running Series.