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Interval running: Complete Guide for Beginners
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Interval running: Complete Guide for Beginners

Written by Isabel Mayfield | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
Published on 2022 July 27
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10 min

A short guide on interval running and its benefits for beginners, along with expert advice from our coach.

interval running

Many beginners and sometimes advanced runners complain about how boring running can get. First of all, running isn’t easy, and on top of that, it truly does get boring when all you’re doing is running in one direction at a single pace.

So, what type of run can you do to spice up your loving relationship with running? That’s where interval running or interval training comes in.

We’ve taken the liberty to compile an easy guide on interval running for beginners, the benefits of incorporating it into your running workout, and the types of interval running you can try. Ready when you are!

What Is Interval Training/Running?

Interval running is an aerobic exercise that’s a mixture of high-intensity and low-moderate runs. It’s one of many high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts and works by alternating between short bursts of prolonged, light jogging or walking and shorter, fast, high-intensity running. It is also called interval training.

The aim is to maximize aerobic fitness while spending less time on your workout. For example, an interval training session might require you to run hard for one minute and then at a slower pace for two minutes. That’s one minute hard and two minutes easy, or at your specified space.

Your high-intensity workout running pace would be just above what you can sustain for thirty minutes. Your low-intensity run is your recovery period to prepare you for the next round of high-intensity running.

If you’d like a structured interval run, you need tools to help you measure time and distance. These can include a timer on your phone, an interval running app, or a stopwatch. You might also find apps that show you the distance and speed you’re running.

How often you engage in interval runs in a week depends on your fitness level, but it shouldn’t be every day. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that healthy adults aged 18 to 65 engage in moderate aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, five days a week. That’s 150 minutes weekly.

Interval running or training is one of several types of running programs. Others are tempo runs, long runs, hill repeats, progression, recovery, base runs, and sprints. 

5 Interval Running Workouts for Beginners

The interval workouts you or your running coach designs will depend on your workout duration, distance, and terrain while keeping your aerobic capacity in mind.

Below, we’ve recommended five variations of interval training for novice runners at varying levels to try out.

1. Fartlek runs

Fartlek means speed play in Swedish and has proven to be an excellent injector of variance in running as an aerobic exercise. Developed in the 1930s, Fartlek describes a running interval workout where the runner changes their speed at varying degrees and includes high-speed or high-intensity sessions.

You don’t need a set timer or distance to execute fartlek interval runs, although some structure might help. Runners are free to mix it up and increase their speed whenever they feel it is right or switch it up when they pass specific landmarks along their running route.

Consider using a stopwatch or distance calculator if you’d like to include some structure into your fartlek interval sessions. Other forms of running intervals are basically an offshoot of fartlek runs, and we’ll take a look at a couple of them.

A 45-minute fartlek run with alternating intervals of 50m fast run and a slower recovery period could potentially earn you around a 540-calorie burn. However, this figure doesn’t cover everything because everyone’s bodies are different.

2. Hilly interval runs

Interval running on a hill is a far better option for those looking to conserve time while achieving more than a continuous sprint on flat or hilly terrain.

With flat terrain, you’re limited to one type of angle of running. Straight ahead and straight angle. The same thing goes for running on a hill. On the other hand, when you combine both on a hilly interval run, you give yourself a more significant challenge and an opportunity to achieve more.

Here’s how it works.

Start with a warm-up on flat terrain to get those muscles ready and primed, then shoot up a hill as fast as your body can. Slow down on that section to recover when you come to flat terrain. Shoot up again once you meet a hill. And that’s how you do it.

Of course, you can’t possibly find a well-structured hill to practice this on down to the letter. So make use of a treadmill and set it to imitate a hill.

Have your treadmill stay on an incline setting for a set distance or time, then revert to a flat or lower incline for a specified time or distance.

3. Run-walk intervals

The run-walk interval running style is the most widely adopted form of interval running and is especially recommended for beginners and the elderly. However, since you’re just starting, it wouldn’t make sense to exhaust your energy and go all out, so keep it simple.

Runners can run at just the right pace, keeping you from talking comfortably for sixty seconds, then slow down into a brisk walk for another sixty seconds for recovery. The key here is to start slow and gradually increase the intensity and duration only when your body is ready.

Try this sixty-sixty interval for ten repetitions, and when your body is fully acclimatized, increase the duration of the run and shorten the repetitions. This way, your body can acclimate to the stress of running while you push it to accommodate more distances over time.

Remember to warm your body for the first five to ten minutes before you begin your run-walk interval workout. After that, running at a more relaxed pace shouldn’t be a reason to skip your pre-workout warm-up.

4. Pyramid interval run

The pyramid interval run works just like a pyramid is shaped, except that this workout is in a reverse pyramid form. You begin at a lower intensity and then progress to a higher intensity in the same workout session.

A pyramid run shouldn’t be confused with regular interval running. What you do with a pyramid run is gradually increase the intensity of your run and recovery period till you get to your highest threshold or to the level your fitness level can afford.

So, let’s say you start with a sixty second top speed sprint, then recover with a sixty-second easy jog. Instead of repeating this same amount of run times, a pyramid interval run would have you increasing it slightly after every interval.

From sixty seconds, you could increase it to one minute and thirty seconds per run and do the same for your recovery walk or jog. In the same way, runners can reverse the pyramid and still get good results.

Remember that these are hypothetical numbers. It would help to consult your personal trainer before deciding how to increase your duration or distance according to your fitness levels when you pick up the pace.

5. Elongate your high-intensity runs

While many runners might be comfortable with the duration they’re currently running and resting, staying on one running interval mix might be counterproductive. In that case, try longer running intervals while keeping your recovery time the same or increasing it slightly.

If you were running for two minutes and getting in lower intensity jogging for one minute, try increasing your running time to three minutes or four while keeping your one-minute recovery time steady.

The purpose this achieves is a gradual push on your fitness limits to boost running endurance and performance. Over time, you’ll find yourself running longer distances faster than before.

It’s pretty similar to the pyramid run but is also very different. The pyramid run increases your distance or duration within the same interval training session. On the other hand, increasing only the time or distance you run happens gradually and over a series of workout sessions and days.

What Are the Benefits of Interval Running?

Following an interval training program comes with immense benefits, and some of these benefits are similar to aerobic exercise and traditional running. These benefits include lower resting blood pressure, lower heart rate, and decreased risk for cardiovascular diseases.

However, studies have shown that there are benefits specific to interval training. These health benefits are outlined and explained below:

Burns more calories than other forms of running

With interval running, less is more. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research confirms that you spend less time burning more calories.

The researchers found that a 20-minute HIIT workout session would burn 30% more calories than other workouts they tested. They monitored and compared the calorie expenditure of resistance, aerobic, and HIIT workouts.

Calorie burn isn’t only limited to the run itself. Interval training helps your body continue burning calories even after your workout is done in a psychological post-workout effect called after-burn.

Why does this happen? Your interval run demands more from your cardiorespiratory system and muscle fibers, so your body needs more time to recover from that session. The work that goes into your body’s recovery burns makes your body burn additional calories.

Increased insulin sensitivity

Insulin is a vital hormone in the human body that controls your blood sugar levels and is produced in the pancreas. The hormone helps move sugar from your bloodstream and store it in your cells.

Insulin sensitivity is how responsive your blood cells are to insulin levels. High insulin sensitivity helps your cells use glucose more effectively. Conversely, if you have low insulin sensitivity, it means your cells are insulin resistant and do not respond typically to insulin.

Glucose(sugar) wouldn’t be able to enter the cells smoothly, causing a buildup of sugar in the bloodstream. This quickly results in high blood sugar levels and risks of developing various diseases, including heart conditions and type 2 diabetes.

A 2013 review shows that interval training is effective in boosting insulin sensitivity. By customizing your interval training program according to your capability, interval running can be a time-efficient and practical route for glycemic management.

High-intensity interval training uses the hardworking fast-twitch muscle fibers, stimulating the muscles to use glucose from the bloodstream for energy, reducing blood sugar levels. 

Reduced workout durations for similar results

Many people would prefer to take one pill and drop all the additional weight or get the same results as if they did the whole workout. While such a pill might not exist, interval-running programs certainly do.

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research also concluded that the HIIT group achieved more from exercising for a third of the time than the other groups. This discovery makes interval running a more attractive option for people with tighter schedules.

They’ll be able to exercise, save time, improve weight loss, and achieve more within that time.

Overall improvement in running performance

Interval training improves your general running performance in the long run. While many people might enjoy a more steady long-distance run, it will get boring for your body over time. Without new challenges or a new mix, your performance will plateau, and you wouldn’t be able to improve.

Interval running workouts are that new ingredient you need in your running mix. The fast intervals improve your body’s oxygen utilization, capacity, transportation, and absorption.

You’ll experience higher metabolism and more efficient use of energy. Put all these together, and you’ll have a better aerobic capacity, cardiorespiratory fitness, and running performance.

FAQs

How often should you do interval training?

For a beginner, you might start with once or twice a week for interval training. Once you advance in your physical abilities and training, you can include an extra day or two but still emphasize your rest days. Remember, less is more in interval running.

Is it healthy to do an interval run every day? 

Whether in top shape or not, having interval training every day is not a great idea. The high-intensity interval training puts a lot of strain on your muscles, and your body needs a day or two to rest and recover.

Is interval running better than base runs for workouts? 

If your aim is weight loss, interval running is better for your workouts than base runs. You’re running much slower with base runs but working with short bursts of high-intensity runs with interval running.

Is interval running beginner-friendly?

Of course, interval running is suitable for beginners. Interval running provides a way for beginner bodies to get accustomed to the stress of running.

A Word From Our Coach

While interval running is vital for your workout, always remember to keep it moving during your run. Standing still during those recovery intervals allows your muscles enough time to stiffen or tighten.

Note that your recovery shouldn’t eat up the burst of energy you need to enter your next interval. Don’t rest too much and deplete your momentum. If you feel like your momentum might drop lower if you stop completely, that’s the point to break into a run or a light jog.

As always, when going through a workout, don’t be too hard on yourself and be careful not to set yourself up with mountain-high goals beyond your fitness reach. As a beginner, try to work with shorter intervals at a time rather than five to ten minutes. That’s for more experienced runners.

Alternatively, start with aerobic intervals before adequately moving on to high-intensity interval training. Aerobic intervals allow beginners to test the interval waters before fully committing to a program.

Additionally, avoid running till your legs and muscles are fully exhausted. It’s better to stop and relax or reduce your pace to a light jog before your limbs get tired. You’ll find it easier to pick up the pace once it’s time for the high-intensity run.

Also, don’t make the rookie mistake of relying on one form of exercise to lose weight and build muscles. Instead, include muscle strength training into your routine, especially for your upper body. Some strength-building workouts to include in your routine are deadlifts, squats, and pushups.

Lastly, interval running allows some talking time with friends and comrades, so you don’t have to run alone or feel lonely while running. Make the most of your run by running with friends, get in some talking time, burn calories together and improve your friendships.

Conclusion

Interval running is a popular and most utilized method of spicing up a seemingly dull running routine. Also known as interval training, it alternates between high to low-medium intensity running intervals during a session to give an intense workout in less time.

By starting an interval training program, you keep your insulin sensitivity high, increase weight loss, improve cardiovascular health and increase your overall running performance. Remember to take rest days in between your interval workout to improve your recovery period.

Most importantly, pay attention and listen to your body. What feels good for your body trumps what any interval running program might tell you. Ready to incorporate interval running into your workout?

Written by
Isabel Mayfield is a certified Yoga Instructor with over 10 years of experience in the fitness industry. She is passionate about self-improvement and loves to help people improve their sense of self-worth through education and support in meeting their fitness goals.
Medically reviewed byRosmy Barrios, MD
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