Coaching tip – How to run intervals. 

If you want to run faster, you have to practice running faster. There’s no doubt that running interval sessions on a regular basis is a great way to do this. There are workouts to suit almost every type of runner, and all sorts of race, distance or time goals. But the purpose of this is not to tell you what to run (plenty of workouts to be found on the internet) but rather HOW to run intervals effectively, and make the most of your hard work, and lets face it… suffering!


It seems easy on the surface – go out, run hard, run easy, repeat lots of times, job done. However, for a truly effective interval session, there should be at least a little bit of planning…. Think about these tips before you next go for an interval session and make the most of your hard work:

Disclaimer: please note – these tips won’t work for everyone, or for every session. Read through, weigh up the options carefully, choose what works for you or seek advice from a coach. And don’t run intervals if injured or harbouring a niggle.


Top tips for before the session:

Fuel and hydrate properly.
If it’s an early morning session, have a little something to eat beforehand. Make sure it is easy to digest and contains simple carbs, such as half a banana, some dates, a gel or sports drink. If you have more time (for example, before a lunchtime or evening session) have a small meal 3-4 hours before and top up with a snack (as suggested above) just before if you think it will benefit you. Now is not the time to skimp on a few calories if they could help you run the session harder or faster.


Prepare your watch
Consider what information you will need during your workout. How are you going to know when the distance or time of each repeat is up? Will you set it on your watch before the workout or look at your watch during? Have you got the right data on the screen for your run? If running hard, I usually set it as a session so my watch beeps when I reach the end of a segment, and then run by effort without looking at my watch. But if you are running for a pace or time, you may want this on your watch screen. Personally, I like to have a timer, lap pace, and distance on my watch screen during intervals, but don’t have heart rate.  All of this can be done on Garmin Connect and transferred to your watch (if compatible) and I am sure that other makes of watch will have similar ways of doing this.


Where are you going to do your workout?
For an interval session, you want to cover the same distance or time repeatedly, with rest periods in between (jog, walk or stationary). To make your intervals are comparable, you would ideally run back and forth on a single piece of road or track, covering the same ground each time. To achieve this, pick a point to start your interval. Run until it is either your time or distance is complete, and then continue in the same direction for half the recovery time or distance. Turn around, run the second half of the recovery, which will take you back to where you just finished your first interval, and from that point, start interval two. This means that you are running backwards and forwards over the same piece of road and means every second interval will be directly comparable – if one direction is slightly uphill, the other will be slightly downhill or if the wind is against in one direction, it will be in your favour in the other. Running the same piece of road will also enable you to form visual cues for the route which may help you run harder. So, if you know where your reps start and finish, you know you have a finish line and not just waiting for your watch to beep.

For safety, please consider the actual location of this piece of road or pavement for your training carefully. Check the length of the route and be aware of any potential hazards – is there enough lighting (especially in winter)? What about traffic or pedestrians? Pot holes, tree roots, large puddles etc). Is the path very twisty or undulating (this may slow you down). Ideally you want a flat, smooth piece of road, but this isn’t always possible.

I tend to run along the piece of road I’ll be doing my intervals in my warm up, or the day before during an easy run, just to understand where any potential issues may lie. There may not be a perfect location for you, but it is trying to get a stretch of road that is as safe as possible for you.


What will motivate you to run harder?
Will you want to run to music? If so, do you have the right type of music ready? I don’t run intervals to music – I like to have a clear mind to help me focus and push harder, but many of my clients find it helps. When I used to run with music I would have a very upbeat playlist for interval sessions. If you were to use calmer or downbeat music, will this slow you down? Will you run harder if running with people – in which case, can you coordinate workouts with someone else or take part in a track session? Do you need to prepare a mantra in advance to help when the run gets hard?


Tips for during the session: 

Warm up well!
A good warm up may be a mile or so of a gentle pace. In the second half of the mile, put in 2-4 10-15 second accelerations to get your legs and brain ready to go faster. If you usually do mobilisation exercises or drills before running hard, stick to your routine.


Run to your goals
If your goal is to run hard, don’t look at your watch. Focus on the goal and run to feel. If it is to a pace, make sure you stick to that. Most sessions you will want to try and keep each interval roughly the same, so if your goal is consistency, don’t go all out on the first interval.  Run hard by feel, but don’t sprint at the end as you will need to recover for the next repeat.


Embrace your recovery and take it easy!
Be consistent with recoveries as well as the harder intervals.  If you have a minute to recover, and walk 30s of that minute, and jog the next 30s, make sure you do that for every recovery. Unless your plan has specific instructions to the contrary, allow yourself to recover properly. Catch your breath by walking or jogging slowly to enable you to run hard again at the next interval.


Use the lap button!
If you haven’t set the session as a workout on your watch, consider pressing the lap button at the start and at the end of each interval so that you can see the stats for each repeat and recovery when you get home (and so your coach can eyeball your efforts!).


Practice building mental toughness.
This is a great opportunity to practice the mental skills that will keep you running when it feels really, really hard. It is a great chance to practice positive self talk, learn how to dismiss negative thoughts and push through when your mind is telling you to quit. Think about how you will motivate yourself to keep going, keep running hard. Being mentally tough is a skill, and interval sessions give you a chance to develop this ready for your next race.


Tips for after your workout: 

Cool down properly.
A mile jog (keep it easy….make sure your heart rate has a chance to come down) and a quick stretch of the key muscle groups is ideal.


Refuel and rehydrate.
You have worked hard and need to replenish glycogen stores and rebuild muscle. If you are not having a meal straight away, have a large snack with a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein as soon as you get in and have a meal within the next two hours.


Make sure you rest or run easy effort the following day
Don’t run back to back hard sessions as it dramatically increases your risk of injury.



And, of course, don’t forget to pat yourself on the back! Interval sessions are not easy and rarely fun. But they are very satisfying when they are over.  And, a regular interval session will help you improve your speed, strength and running form. So embrace the suck, and enjoy the results!

Do you have any top tips for interval sessions? Any sessions you love or hate? Or love to hate? Please do share in the comments below. 


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Martin Hulbert

Running Coach & Personal Trainer Leicestershire

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