If you want to post a new 10K personal best, run faster for longer on the pitch or vaporise your love handles, then look no further than high-intensity interval training. The idea is you exercise at a super high intensity, alternated with periods of low intensity or even complete rest to give yourself a chance of recovery. When applied correctly you can get the benefits of an hour-long steady-paced workout in much less time.

Interval training is fast and effective and trumps steady-state cardio in several ways. It forces your lungs and heart to be more efficient to boost your endurance. It teaches your body to recover faster, essential for almost any sport. It increase your ability to sustain high intensity efforts because your muscles get better at dealing with lactic acid, a performance-hampering byproduct of exercise. And, joyously, it’s especially useful for helping you shift fat fast.

Intervals can be used for any form of exercise, from running in the park, cycling on a fixed bike, doing bodyweight jumps and lunges at home or for circuit training in the gym. The principle is always the same: alternate high-intensity with low. But here we’ll focus on running. Here are interval sessions to add to your training programme.

Tabata sprints

Tabata is a particular favourite of Premier League sports scientists, who are known to put elite footballers through their paces with Tabata-style training up to four times a week in pre-season. It was initially designed to boost the fitness levels of China’s Olympic-level speed skating team, but its principles can be applied to virtually any kind of workout. To aid your running performance, try this:

  • 20sec maximum effort sprint
  • 10sec rest
  • Repeat for eight rounds

This amounts to around four minutes of total work time, but don’t let the short duration deceive you. This method is a killer. Perform it correctly and you will be completely gassed by the last round – but keep at it and your fitness levels will soar.

If you’re new to Tabata, you might want to perform your max effort sprints on a track or other flat surface. When you improve, progress to hills or sand dunes.

Running Interval Sessions For Beginners

Short Intervals

These are sprinting intervals of 100m (a quarter lap of a standard running track i.e one straight section) to 400m. The purpose of short intervals is to increase your speed, power, and ability to sustain both of these. They’re good for increasing sprinting speed, but also work for for marathon runners because they will help you sustain your current marathon pace more easily.

Recovery periods between short intervals should be relatively long – roughly three times the length of the intervals – so you can maintain a consistent level of performance. If you don’t have enough time to recover, you’ll slow down from one interval to the next and the workout will become a test of your fatigue resistance rather than a speed and power builder. The recovery period can be active (jogging) or passive (standing or walking).

Workouts

  • 6x100m
  • 6x200m
  • 6x300m

Middle-Distance Intervals

Intervals of 600-1,200m are middle-distance, they can be used to improve aerobic capacity, lactate threshold and fatigue resistance, which all help you to run at faster speeds for longer periods of time. It’s not realistic to be able to run flat out for this distance so try going at around 70% of your maximum speed. It’s not an exact science but a a general rule to follow is if you feel yourself starting to slow apply a little more pace so that you’re just out of your comfort zone. The idea is still to run each interval as fast as you can, but it’s important to finish the intervals rather than to run yourself to total exhaustion. Wait until you have fully caught your breath before starting your next interval.

Workouts

  • 5x600m
  • 4x800m
  • 3x1000m

Long-Distance Intervals

Long intervals range from 1,600-3,000m in distance. It’s not possible to maintain flat-out speed for this time and 70% effort will also be hard, instead just ensure you’re constantly pushing and not settling into a jogging pace.

Because of their length, it only takes a few long interval sessions until you’ll start feeling the benefits. They’re particularly good for building overall stamina and increasing your lactic threshold (the time it takes until your muscles start to really ache). Rest periods between intervals should be as long as it takes for you to fully catch your breath and for your legs (or any other muscles) to stop feeling achey.

Workouts

  • 4x1600m
  • 3x2000m
  • 3x2400m

Pyramid Training

Great for: Burning fat

Pyramid training involves gradually increasing the duration at which you run at a high intensity before peaking and then working back down.

  • 5min warm-up
  • 30sec high intensity, 60sec low intensity
  • 45sec high intensity, 60sec low intensity
  • 60sec high intensity, 60sec low intensity
  • 90sec high intensity, 60sec low intensity
  • 60sec high intensity, 60sec low intensity
  • 45sec high intensity, 60sec low intensity
  • 30sec high intensity, 60sec low intensity
  • 5min warm-down

Sport-Specific Training

Great for: Improving match fitness


This interval session is perfect for improving your ability to run in short, sharp bursts over and over again, which is required by many team sports including football and rugby.

  • 5min warm-up
  • 2min moderate intensity, 2min low intensity
  • 30sec high intensity, 30sec low intensity (repeat three times)
  • 10sec sprint, 90sec low intensity (repeat six times)
  • 30sec high intensity, 30sec low intensity (repeat three times)
  • 2min moderate intensity, 2min low intensity
  • 10sec sprint, 90sec low intensity (repeat six times)
  • 5min warm-down

Fartlek Intervals

Great for: Spicing up your regular run

Fartlek is Swedish for speed play. Unlike other forms of interval training, which have pre-determined time limits, in Fartlek sessions you run at varying intensities for different lengths of time. This keeps your body guessing at what’s coming next, forcing your heart, lungs and muscles to work harder and leading to improved fitness.

5min warm-up
… and then go with the flow. If you spot a lamppost, tree or another runner in the distance, run hard until you get to them before reducing your speed to recover. Then aim for another landmark and run fast to it. The beauty of Fartlek training is that you can make it as hard or easy as you want, and it makes the extremely familiar sights of your normal run a little more rewarding.

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