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Taking Intensity Out of Intervals

This is one of my favorite workouts because it makes learning to run faster fun. Wow, what a concept. The only piece of equipment you’ll need is a watch with a countdown timer. The location is up to you. It could be on city streets or backcountry trails. It can happen in any weather, as long as you’re willing to put up with the conditions.

For those of you who don’t know what interval training is, it’s generally a run that consists of a warm-up, then alternating periods of fast running and then slow running. There are lots of different types of interval workouts and most of them are done on a track because it’s easier to keep track of the length of each interval and the subsequent recovery.
For example: a track workout for someone working to improve their 5K time might be a set of 10 x 400 meter (one lap) intervals each followed by a 200 meter jog. The workout would end with a cool-down run of a mile or so, and you’re done.

The reason I used the word “intensity” in the subtitle is because most people try to run as fast as they can during each of the intervals. Then the speed of each interval gets slower and slower as their energy diminishes. And, by the time they’re ready to do the tenth interval their body hurts, their muscles are burning, and they’re praying to the running gods that they have it in themselves to do just one more. Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

Here’s what I’ve come up with to take the focus away from the intensity of trying to run as fast as you can. Pick how many minutes you’d like to be out running and have a course in mind that you’d like to run. Like I said before, the type of terrain is not important as long as it’s something you’re used to running. (i.e. if you’re not a trail runner, don’t do this workout on a trail until you get some expertise under your belt.) If you have a countdown timer on your watch, set it ahead of time (so that you don’t have to stop and fiddle with it on the run) to go off every minute and then start it once you’re done with your warm-up. Do your normal warm-up, however long that takes. I’d say it should be a minimum of 15 minutes at an easy pace.

After you’re done with your warm-up, start your countdown timer and begin your interval workout. Since the timer is set to go off every minute you have many options of how you use the beeper. You can choose to run fast for one minute and then take a one-minute break when you hear the beep. Or, your could choose to run for two minutes at a fast pace and take a one minute break, or two on and two off. The combinations are endless depending on the length of interval you’d like to run. Personally I like one minute on and one minute off, especially when I’m doing a set of trail intervals. It’s really a blast!

Here are the specifics of the workout. When you’re ready to begin your first interval, start your countdown timer. Then, don’t suddenly burst into an all-out sprint. Take your time. Accelerate slowly. Let your body relax as you gradually pick up speed. Let your body gain speed by “growing” into it, not by abruptly launching into it. You should gradually increase to about 80% effort up from about 50% effort at your cruising (break) speed. At the end of your one-minute when your beeper goes off, let yourself slow down and rest, but don’t stop and walk. Just slow down to a slower speed. If you have to stop and walk after an interval, you did it way too fast. Settle back into this speed until your beeper goes off again, and repeat.

If you are a beginning runner, you should begin with light increases in speed. In fact, you shouldn’t feel like you’re running fast … just faster. Repeat these fast/slow cycles until your body begins to feel some fatigue. It might be after four cycles and it might be after twenty. Just be sensitive and listen closely to what your body is telling you. If it’s a strain, you’re done for the day. Go back home at a nice cruising speed.

If you do this exercise regularly once a week in a few weeks you should notice that one or two things begin to happen. It’ll either be easier to do more intervals or you’ll sense that you can hold a slightly higher speed for each interval, without increasing your level of fatigue. If either happens, your body is telling you that it’s time to lengthen the period of your intervals, in which case you can add 30-60 seconds onto each interval and reduce the number of intervals to a comfortable number until you your body tells you that it’s OK to add more. Again, listen to your body. It will guide you through the process. If you change your time to two minutes on, one minute off, your body will begin to feel fatigue after a certain number of intervals. When you’re tired, your done and you can run home.

In this way you’ll never run faster or farther than your body is ready to go and you’ll seriously reduce your chances of injury. It’s also a great way to master your running technique because that’s what you should be using to accelerate instead of your muscles.

I love doing this workout because of the amount of freedom and creativity it allows me. I can have fun getting into great shape, and I never come back from this workout saying to myself, “Wow, that was really an intense workout.”

Have fun with this one!

For more on how to take the pain out of running and make any running distance enjoyable check out the ChiRunning book, DVD or Training Programs.

Posted in Technique

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