Improve your Running Technique and Speed with Interval Training

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In this article we will explore doing track intervals. This has been a traditional workout designed to build speed into a runner for years. So, in typical ChiRunning fashion, we’ve decided to approach this sometimes daunting workout in a nontraditional way… running with proper running form and having fun at the same time. (find interval training in the ChiRunning Book, pages 138-142)

Katherine’s story: “I went out one day and really didn’t feel like running, so I decided to take it really easy and get silly about relaxing. When I did, I could feel my core cave in so I focused on keeping my core strong, but being ridiculously relaxed with everything else…I was enjoying it and having fun…acting a bit like a clown while running down an easy trail (good thing no one saw me). After about a mile I got back into my regular running technique, but was definitely more loose than usual. Amazingly, at the end of the run I had run my best time ever on that course.”

The best way to run intervals is to make it fun.

First, we’ll begin to review the focuses that set up the conditions for speed to happen:

  1. Set yourself up before your run with great alignment. Lengthening the back of your neck is a great trick for holding your posture tall and straight.
  2. Level your pelvis, which engages your core and allows you to hold more of a lean
  3. Lean from your ankles while holding your alignment straight
  4. Relax everything but your core. The more you can relax your shoulders and arms and hips and legs, the easier it will be to run faster.

Interval workouts have long been the staple of runners who want to increase their speed by running multiple repeats of anything from 200 meters to a mile while progressively trying to shave seconds off of each repeat. For the average competitive runner, it is often one of the hardest workouts of the week. In a customary training program for events from 10Ks to marathons, many runners speak of their feelings of dread as they anticipate the workout because they know how much it is going to hurt!

With ChiRunning we have turned this conventional training tool upside down. We use intervals to help the body set up the conditions for speed to happen. So, we’ll take a much more fun approach to speed …even to the point of making it a game! Instead of trying to run faster, our “goal” is to make the process of running faster a delightful experience. Do you remember how great it felt to run fast as a kid? I loved it. It was always exhilarating and fun to see how fast I could go. As a youngster I never linked running fast with pain and anguish, which is what I hear from many people who do weekly track workouts.

Yes, there is a better way. Wouldn’t it be nice to run fast without it feeling like a life-threatening event. You bet! Here’s how you do it…just lean, relax, and fall forward…and, by the way, don’t forget to hold your core stable while you’re falling.

The interval workout can be a fun session because you are looking to see how much speed you can attain by applying good technique instead of more muscle. The more you are able to relax around your engaged core, the less you will have to work to attain speed.

For this workout, pick one day each week to go to your local track. It actually works better if you can schedule yourself to run your speed workouts on the same day each week. This will help immensely when you’re trying to maintain a consistent speed training program. For your first workout, plan to run 400 meter intervals, or one lap around the track. We recommend running on an outdoor track for this workout, there’s plenty of fresh air and the turns are much wider than on an indoor track.  If you don’t have a track nearby you can do this workout on a flat path, where you can measure out about 400 yards or meters. (the non-track distance can be approximate as long as you always run the same measured path) Plan to run between 4 and 10 repeats, depending on your fitness level. Then, after each interval, slowly jog a recovery lap of 200 meters or halfway around the track.

Begin your workout by warming up for two laps around the track. Then, when you begin your intervals, follow the Gradual Progress rule and run your first lap the slowest of your planned intervals. Even though you may feel fresh at the beginning of the workout, don’t be tempted to take off fast on the first one. Save your energy and use your technique instead. Your goal is to practice good ChiRunning technique throughout the entire workout, and if you go out too fast, it becomes much harder to do that.  It doesn’t matter what speed you start out with, as long as it is a comfortable pace.

Within each lap, run the first 200 a little slower while you set up the conditions for speed. Then as your technique settles in, increase your lean a little more for the second half of your lap. After each 400 meter lap, slow down to a jog and relax your whole body for a half lap. Then, as you approach the beginning of your next interval, re-engage all of your focuses just before you cross the start line of the lap. Approach each successive interval as a loosening/relaxing exercise for the one that follows. Always challenge yourself to lean just a little bit more and relax a lot more with each additional lap.

ChiRunning focuses to work on during Interval Training:
  1. Relax your extremities – shoulders, hips, arms and legs – as you lean more.
  2. Allow your stride to lengthen behind you as you increase your lean.
  3. Hold your posture tall by lengthening the back of your neck. This makes your lean highly efficient.
  4. Maintain a steady cadence at all times, 85 to 90 strides per minute.
  5. Swing your arms more as your lean increases. Swing your elbows rearward and keep your shoulders relaxed.
  6. Use your core muscles to maintain your alignment as you increase your forward lean.
  7. Pick up your feet higher, but keep your knees low, so you can land with a midfoot strike.

As you begin each interval, start the timer on your watch. Check your watch 1/2 way through the interval to make sure you didn’t start off too fast. The first half of each interval should be slower than the second half. There is really no other reason to watch your watch while you run. Hit the stop button after you complete the lap. Focus on your technique, not on the watch.

Check your lap time during your 200 meter recovery, and then, as you run the following interval, try to focus on loosening and relaxing more and see if it results in a slightly quicker lap. It’s fun to see if you can run faster by relaxing more. You don’t need to run significantly faster with each successive interval. Any amount is fine, even if it’s only one or two seconds faster. When you’re practicing to lean and relax, do it subtly instead of drastically and if you do it right, you’ll find that your effort level does not increase as you run through each new interval!

How many intervals do I run?

After you run the last of your projected number of intervals, listen to your body and ask it if it can do the next interval at the same speed or faster with the same amount of effort (or maybe even less!). If the answer is “Yes!!!”, go for it, but add no more than one interval per week. You can also  feel free to level off for a week or two if that’s what your body is telling you. If the answer is doubtful…you’re done for the day.

After you have completed your intervals, jog easily for a couple of laps in the opposite direction to cool down, and look back on your session to review what you learned. When you’ve finished with your “end-of-run-review” take a moment and feel how good you feel! The beauty of running a set of intervals in this way is that you don’t ever finish your workout totally spent, because you’re trying to do it all without the propulsion of your legs. Another great benefit from doing intervals the ChiRunning way is that there is no recovery time afterwards!

Remember, having fun while you’re running at faster speeds will add smoothness to your gait and remove any blocks to the flow of chi through your body as you fly around the track. Running intervals using ChiRunning Focuses is a great way to add speed to your fun and fun to your speed.

Resources to help you master the ChiRunning basics:

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"Running doesn't hurt your body. It's the way you run that causes pain" -Danny Dreyer, author and founder of ChiRunning

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