Interval Running for Beginners

Updated:

If you’re a new runner, it’s likely you’ve heard about interval running. It’s a popular workout to increase your speed and stamina. But it can also be intimidating for those who’ve never done it before.

The good news is that interval running is surprisingly easy to incorporate into your training. It only takes one interval workout a week to see improvements.

Here’s our quick guide on interval running for those new to the workout. Follow this, and you can expect your running to get stronger in a fairly short amount of time.

What Is Interval Running?

Interval running is simple. As its name implies, it’s a type of run where you split it into intervals—some fast, high-intensity, “working” intervals, others slow, low-intensity rest intervals.

There’s no set duration or distance for intervals. You can set it to whatever you feel like, giving you infinite options. Standard “hard” intervals are often 400m 800m with a walk/jog “rest” of 200m. But they can also be shorter – 100m – or even as long as 1-2 miles with longer or shorter “rest” times.

Sometimes intervals are time-based. For example, run hard for 2 minutes and rest of 1 minute.

Intervals should also be done at a fast pace, but you should not go as fast as you can. Aim for fast, even-paced intervals. Your last interval should be at the same speed as your first interval.

Why Is Interval Running a Good Way to Improve Your Running?

Evidence shows that interval training has a bunch of benefits. If you practice it often enough, you can gain the following benefits.

Increased Cardiovascular Fitness

As you switch between more intense effort and easy rest, the intense sessions can spike your heart rate quite quickly. The more you do this kind of training, the stronger your heart becomes—like any other muscle!

As your heart becomes stronger, it can pump blood more efficiently, which means it can deliver oxygen to the muscles faster. The more oxygen the muscles receive, the better they’ll be able to perform.

Fitness Gains in Less Time

Interval running is known to boost fitness gains in a shorter period of time than steady-state cardio.

Alternating between rest and intense periods gives your heart, lungs, and muscles an excellent workout in a shorter period of time than LISS. Great for those trying to lose weight or build muscle on a tight schedule!

Enhanced Speed and Endurance

High-intensity interval training is essentially training your body to work faster than it usually does. This can improve your speed as your body adapts to the increased pace.

When you train consistently at a higher level of intensity, you’re also boosting your anaerobic threshold, which means you can sustain effort at a higher intensity for a longer period of time before fatiguing.

Calorie Burning and Weight Management

Interval running burns calories. During a workout, it burns about the same amount of calories as an equivalent non-interval session… But it’s after the exercise that counts.

After the workout, your metabolic rate remains elevated for hours. This means you’ll burn more calories throughout the day after your workout, which can make a big difference in weight loss and weight management plans.

Challenges Your Body in New Ways

Intervals are a great way to challenge yourself and shake things up. They’re fun, challenging, and work those fast-twitch muscle fibers! If you’re a bit bored or you’ve hit a performance plateau, intervals can help.

Develops Mental Toughness and Focus

Although intervals are fun, they can be tough. This is an excellent way to develop resilience, discipline, and mental toughness while building your physical fitness and improving your running performance.

How Often Should You Do Intervals?

Intervals can be run once or twice a week. You’ll get all of the benefits but won’t be at risk of overtraining. Any more than twice a week, and you’ll be setting yourself up for overtraining and injury.

How Long Should the Intervals Be?

This is up to you. In the beginning, 10 minutes of interval training can be hard. As you progress, you can work your way up to 30 minutes in total. One of the best things about intervals is that you get a solid workout in a shorter time, so a 30-minute to 60-minute interval workout is enough.

Don’t forget to factor in a warm-up and cool-down, each of which should be 5 to 10 minutes. As for how long your sprinting versus jogging intervals are, that’s up to you. Start with 30 seconds to 1 minute of running and work your way up over the weeks. There’s no rush!

Interval Running vs. HIIT: What’s the Difference?

You may have heard of HIIT, which is common in the gym and CrossFit world. They are similar to interval running workouts but not quite the same thing.

HITT is a training method you can apply to any kind of cardio; running, cycling, jumping rope, elliptical, rowing, etc. This means you can apply it to running, but it’s not the same as “running intervals.”

HIIT workouts are typically quite a bit more intense—you should be working at 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate during your working intervals, almost all-out. During your rest intervals, your heart rate should be between 40 and 60 percent of your maximum.

On the other hand, running intervals are typically done at 60 to 75 percent of your max heart rate for the working intervals and 20 to 40 percent during your rest periods.

Due to this distinction, HIIT workouts are usually shorter in total duration than running intervals, as it’s difficult to keep up the intensity of a HIIT workout for a long time.

How to Run Intervals

There are two main ways to run intervals: timed and distance intervals. Which one you choose is up to you and your goals.

Timed Intervals

In this case, you’ll set your intervals according to time. For example, you may want to do 30 seconds of sprinting and 30 seconds of jogging. Most people do this in the beginning because it’s easier to estimate time than distance.

Distance Intervals

For distance intervals, you’ll run/walk a certain distance instead. So rather than running for 1 minute, you may choose to run ¼ mile and then walk ¼ mile. This is the less popular choice because distance is harder to measure than time.

How to Get Started With Interval Running

Want to add interval training to your routine? Here’s how to get started with interval running the right way.

Have a Base Level of Fitness

Try to build up your foundational fitness level before trying out interval running. It’s better suited to runners with a decent fitness level, because intervals will challenge your cardiovascular system.

It’s in your best interest to ensure your system can keep up! Spend a few weeks building up your base fitness level before you get into intervals.

Wear the Right Gear

Make sure you’re wearing shoes that provide support and cushioning and support your feet the right way. Intervals can lead to injury if your feet aren’t properly supported, so don’t skimp on this.

Warm Up Properly

Don’t neglect to warm up! Intervals are taxing on the body, so getting your muscles warm before you dive into it will help prevent injury. You can take a brisk walk and do some dynamic stretches.

Use Your Watch or an App

If you have a smartwatch, you should be able to set up intervals so you don’t have to keep checking your watch. It’ll alert you automatically using a sound or a vibration when your interval is over. If your watch doesn’t offer this feature, you can also download an interval app.

Monitor Your Progress

Keep track of your progress in an app or journal. This will allow you to go back and compare notes to see how you’ve progressed over time. This can be motivating, give you insight into your training, and help you make adjustments as needed.

Include Rest and Recovery Days

We recommend doing intervals the day before a rest day or an easy run. Your body needs time to rest and recover, especially since intervals are quite fatiguing.

Stay Consistent and Enjoy the Process

Consistency is the one thing that will help you improve quickly in interval running. Include it once or twice a week in your routine and make sure you don’t skip it! While it might be difficult initially, once you start seeing results, you’ll be pleased you stuck to it.

Remember, you can also do intervals on a treadmill if the weather’s bad or you don’t feel like heading outdoors. Stay consistent!

Interval Runs for Beginners

Incorporate one or all of these interval runs into your running routine to start gaining the many benefits of interval running. Note that a “hard” pace should be about 10 to 20 percent faster than your 5K race pace.

Pyramid Intervals

  • Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Run for 1 minute at a hard pace.
  • Walk for 1 minute to recover.
  • Run for 2 minutes at a hard pace.
  • Walk for 1 minute to recover.
  • Run for 3 minutes at a hard pace.
  • Walk for 1 minute to recover.
  • Run for 2 minutes at a hard pace.
  • Walk for 1 minute to recover.
  • Run for 1 minute at a hard pace.
  • Walk for 1 minute to recover.
  • Cool down.

Fartlek Intervals

  • Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • This workout includes “unstructured” intervals.
  • Use randomly selected objects as your interval points.
  • Run from your point to a random point at a hard pace.
  • Return to the starting point at a jog or walk.
  • Do as many intervals as you feel like.
  • Cool down.

Hill Repeats

  • Find a hill with a moderate incline, or use a treadmill.
  • Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Run up the hill for 30 seconds to a minute at a challenging pace.
  • Slow down to a walk or jog for 30 seconds to a minute.
  • Repeat 8 to 10 times.
  • Cool down.

400-Meter Repeats

  • Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Run 400 meters (¼-mile) at a hard pace.
  • Walk or jog for 200 meters (⅛-mile).
  • Repeat 8 to 10 times.
  • Cool down.

Can You Do Interval Running If You’re Completely New to Running?

If you’re just getting into running, you can still incorporate interval training into your schedule. It can help you to build up your base fitness faster, but we recommend doing
run-walk intervals instead of jog-sprint intervals.

This is a much more realistic starting point for a beginner and will also reduce your chance of overtraining and injuring yourself.

Run/Walk Interval Workout

  • Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Run for 2 minutes at a moderate pace.
  • Walk for 1 minute to recover.
  • Repeat this cycle for 20 to 30 minutes in total.
  • Cool down.

Gradually Increase Duration and Intensity

You don’t have to increase your interval time every day. If you’re comfortable at running for 1 minute and walking for 30 seconds, stick to it for at least a week before increasing the time. There’s also no need to double the time—adding 5 to 10 seconds on each time is realistic.

Or, you can increase the intensity rather than the time. Make sure it’s challenging, but you can still do it with proper form.

Don’t Worry About Pace

If you don’t yet know your race pace, you can work on your rate of perceived effort instead of trying to aim for a specific pace during your intervals.

For example, based on the modified Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale, the “moderate pace” in the above workout would be about a 5/10 to 6/10 effort.

RPE is subjective, so what a 5 feels like for you and what it feels like for another runner is likely to be different. However, here’s what you should look out for to make sure you’re in the right zone:

  • Slightly labored breathing, but able to have a conversation without gasping.
  • Sweating but not completely drenched.
  • Elevated heart rate, but not pounding.

For interval runs that require a “hard” pace, you should aim for 7 to 8 on the RPE Scale.

Photo of author

AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.