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Interval Running for Beginners

If you’re new to running, you’re probably not very familiar with intervals. And if you are slowly easing into running using the run/walk method, you might be wondering how in the world you’re supposed to complete an interval.

In this article, we’ll address all of these concerns, covering the rationale behind running intervals, how to run them, and six interval workouts for you to try. Soon you’ll be a pro at intervals and see your speed start to increase!

women running at track

Why Run Intervals?

In a couple words, an interval is a short burst of more intense activity followed by a recovery period of less intense activity. They are great for beginners, but are a training staple for elite athletes as well.

The basic reason is because taking short recovery breaks allows you to run at a higher intensity for a longer period of time than one continuous run. 

For example, I’ll do ¼ mile intervals at a sub-7:00 pace eight times, meaning that I will have sustained that pace for two miles total (although not continuous). By contrast, I’d be lucky to do one continuous mile at a sub-7:00 pace if run all at once.

But the more intervals I do, the more I’ve been able to cut down my times. Back in December, I could barely run a 10:00 mile. Last week, I finished a half marathon—13.1 miles—at a 9:00 pace. In other words, I added 12.1 more miles, and improved my pace by 1 minute per mile from back in December.  

If you’re looking to lose weight, intervals again are the way to do it. Your muscles require more energy to repair and build the muscle tissue back up during your recovery phase, increasing the “afterburn” effect, or additional calories burned after the workout.

Intervals are also one of the best ways to improve your aerobic and anaerobic endurance, increase your VO2 max, and improve your running performance, all a lot faster than if you try to do it solely with continuous running.

As far as a practical concern, intervals are great for time efficiency. You can accomplish more with 30 minutes of intervals than you would with a leisurely 30-minute stroll or easy run.

I know I always got excited during training for my first half marathon when I had interval days because I didn’t have to schedule in as much time to run. Plus, it’s easier for me to stay mentally focused during intervals, because I only have to sustain it for a short duration. Longer runs are more mentally challenging for me.

How to Run Intervals

There are two broad categories of intervals: timed intervals and distance intervals. Obviously, with a timed interval, you have to run or walk quickly for a specific duration of time. For a distance interval, you’ll run a certain distance, no matter how long it takes you.

As a side note, it’s important to make sure that your recovery times are at least as long as your intervals. It’s okay if they are longer if you need additional time to recover, but don’t skimp on the recovery time.

This is easy for timed intervals. If you run for 30 seconds, you should walk for at least 30 seconds. But it’s a little harder for distance intervals. If you’re running ½ mile intervals, you should walk or lightly jog for the time it took you to run ½ mile. 

For me, it normally takes me around 4 minutes (or roughly an 8 minute mile pace) to run ½ mile intervals. This means that I need to walk or lightly jog for at least 4 minutes, which normally works out to ¼ mile for me, give or take.

Timed Intervals

For timed intervals, you’ll need a watch, a timer, or your phone. There are even apps out there designed specifically for intervals, if you feel like that would be helpful. Some even allow you to designate particular colors that flash so that you know what you’re supposed to do.

If it’s a very basic interval like 30 seconds, you might be able to count out loud, but make sure that you’re not counting too quickly. We have a tendency to speed through counting if it hurts.

Distance Intervals

For distance intervals, you may or may not need a device. If you’re doing it based on landmarks, you can just run when you’re supposed to and walk/jog when you’re supposed to. Your local high school or college might have a track with hours for public use, and these are great places to run distance intervals; one lap equals ¼ mile.

If you’re like me, you love data, and you want to know the time of your distance intervals. I use the lap function on my Garmin Forerunner 235, which allows me to see what pace I had for my distance intervals.

If you’re trying to reach a certain speed as well as a particular distance, you’ll need a watch or a phone in order to track both goals.

Fartleks: The Weird Intervals

If you really don’t like to be told what to do, then you might want to try fartleks for your interval running. Coming from a Swedish term meaning “speed play,” fartleks are casual rather than structured.

You simply run and walk at will with no specific routine. The idea is to increase and decrease speed at random times to get your body to work as much as possible.

If a more structured interval workout is overwhelming to you as a new runner, try fartleks to make your workout a little less structured. I would just encourage you to make sure that you’re not skimping on your run intervals.

It’s easy to push hard and run for 10 seconds and then be tuckered out and want to stop. But if your workout is to run 30 seconds, you’ll have to push yourself 20 more seconds, and you’ll be able to do it.

However, with a fartlek, you could decide that you’re done too soon, and not gain the full benefits of interval training because you’re not running hard enough for long enough.

Man running at track

6 Interval Workouts

Run/Walk with Timer

With this interval workout, you’ll still be using the run/walk method. If you’re on the run 30 seconds, walk 60 seconds portion of the method, simply run at a faster speed during your run interval. 

Remember that you only have to sustain the speed for 30 seconds, so you can do it! Depending on how aggressive and good you’re feeling, run as hard as you can if you’re up to it.

But like everything in running, you can tailor this interval workout to your needs. Even if you’re walking at a 15 minute mile pace and your run is a light jog of a 12 minute mile pace, it’s an interval!

At Track

You don’t have to have an interval timer or know your distance for this interval workout, so it’s really simple. You just have to know the difference between a curved and straight line!

Simply run the straight sections of the track and walk the curved sections. And you can customize this workout to make it as intense or as gentle as you would like. Run hard if you want an intense workout or lightly jog if you’d like a gentle workout.

On Road/Sidewalk

Like the track interval workout, you don’t need to know your time or have a specific distance in mind. Instead, you’ll simply run one length between two telephone poles and then walk two lengths. 

If it isn’t convenient for you to run by telephone poles, figure out another marker that might work. You could do a certain number of houses like running past 10 houses and walking past 20. Whatever works for you.

On Treadmill

The treadmill is a great tool, especially for intervals. For starting out, you might want to try running for 1/10th of a mile and then walking for 2/10ths of a mile. As you get more comfortable with that, you can make the workout more challenging.

You can accomplish this either by increasing the speed that you’re running, shortening the walking interval to 1/10th of a mile let’s say, or lengthening the intervals to running 2/10ths of a mile and walking 2/10ths for example.

On Treadmill With Incline

If you’re not sure about running intervals yet, you can always try walking intervals on the treadmill with an incline. Walk 1/10th of a mile at a 5% grade and then walk 2/10ths at a 0% grade.

Again, as you want to push yourself a little bit more, you can lengthen the walking at a 5% grade, shortening the walking at a 0% grade interval, or change the length or grade of the intervals.

Hill Intervals

Hill intervals are probably my favorite, and I almost always gravitate toward them when I’m doing a speed workout. Find a steep 50m long hill and run or walk up it, and then walk back down.

If you’re planning to run a race in the future on a hilly course, this is one of the best ways to practice. You can also mix it up by running up the hill faster or walking only part of the way down it and then start running again.

Remember to swing your arms and lean into the hill as you’re going up it because then your legs don’t have to work as hard!

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner