Interval Running: Benefits, Guide, Apps and Best Programs

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Whether you are an experienced runner or an amateur, jogging is a great way to improve your endurance, build cardiovascular fitness, and help manage your weight. However, running for as long as you can without stopping is not the best way to exercise. A dynamic and varied training program that includes interval training can help you achieve a number of different goals.

Interval running provides an alternative option for busy people who want to improve their fitness and health without having to commit to long runs.

This article explains why you should use interval running when doing cardio exercises. It then provides tips for creating your own workout plan using these methods.

Interval Running

What is interval running?

Interval running is a method used to structure your running workouts to increase both intensity and aerobic fitness. It combines short and fast bursts of high-intensity exercise with periods of lower-intensity exercise. This type of training allows you to achieve maximum benefit in a shorter amount of time.

Interval training, as a form of high intensity interval training (HIIT), involves alternating intense sprints with shorter periods of rest or slower walking. For example, you might start out jogging briskly for one minute, walk for 10 seconds, jog again for two minutes, walk 10 seconds and repeat. This allows you to maintain consistent heart rate throughout each workout, giving you better control over how fast your body recovers during rest periods.

Gerschler & Reindel developed the first official interval training plan. They used repetitive short bursts of high-intensity exercise for 30 to 70 seconds elevating the heart rate to 170 to 180 bpm followed by low-intensity recovery intervals so that the heart rate would drop to 120 bpm.

Benefits of Interval Running

There are many benefits that people get from interval running. Some of the benefits are improved health, efficient workouts, improved running abilities, stress reduction between others. Here is a complete list of the benefits of interval running:

  1. Improved cardiovascular health: running intervals can help lower your resting heart rate and improve your blood circulation. These improvements in your cardiovascular system can lead to better overall fitness.
  2. Improved running abilities: training in intervals can help adults increase their aerobic capacity, which refers to the oxygen level your body can employ and utilize. During aerobic exercise, having greater levels of blood flow to working muscles increases your stamina and endurance which you perform better for longer periods of time.
  3. Efficient workouts: interval running is an effective workout method. The short bursts of intense activity elevate your heart rate and cause your body to enter a dynamic metabolic mode, which burns more calories at rest than if you were doing traditional aerobic exercise. In other words, it means that you can exercise for longer periods of time without having to worry about your workout’s quality.
  4. Burned calories: intense interval training burns more calories than a steady state workout. Falcone et al. (2015) compared in a study the caloric expenditure of different exercise modalities – aerobic, resistance, and combined exercise. The researchers found that participants burned more calories performing high intensity interval workouts. Actually, participants engaging in HIIT workouts burned up to 30 percent more calories compared to participants engaged in only aerobic or resistance workouts. This research was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
  5. Stress reduction: interval training helps improve your heart rate and releases endorphins, which help relieve stress and lower your cortisol levels.
  6. Improved running speed and endurance: high intensity interval running allows you to do more total exercise at greater intensity than steady state running. Interval training helps improve your endurance and strength by stimulating physiological changes in your body.

Interval training allows your muscles to eliminate lactic acid more efficiently, which means you are able to perform at your best for longer periods of time without becoming fatigued.

Calories burned from interval running

High intensity interval training helps you to burn more calories even after your workout is finished. In other words, your body can continue burning further calories even at a resting state. After an interval workout, your muscles and cardiovascular system need to employ a lot of energy to repair themselves. This physiological phenomenon is known as excess post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) also known as oxygen debt. EPOC is the quantity of oxygen required to recover and repair your body to the normal state.

After an interval running, your muscles do not recover as quickly as they would after a steady state run. Normally, the body expends 5 calories to employ 1 liter of oxygen. Because of the increased intensity of exercise during an interval training session time, you increase your overall caloric expenditure by a greater degree than if you were doing steady cardio. Therefore, increasing the amount of oxygen consumed both during and after a workout can increase the number of net calories burned.

Muscles used in interval running

Interval running activates most of the larger muscles of the lower body. Research using electrical measurements has shown that the muscles responsible for high intensity interval running are:

  • Quadriceps (front thigh muscles)
  • Gluteus maximus and medius (hip muscles)
  • Gastrocnemius and soleus (calf muscles)
  • Abductors (inner thigh muscles)
  • Anterior tibialis (shin muscles)
  • Hamstrings (back thigh muscles)

These muscles are basically the same as those used when doing traditional running. However, because of the increased training session time spent at high intensity levels, interval running will provide greater stimulation for these muscles.

A guide for planning your interval running

Benefits of interval running

Designing the right interval training plan requires planning the exact time you spend in each interval, the number of intervals you run per week, and the weekly frequency at which you train. Depending on your specific goals and current physical condition, designing the right program for you may vary.

Aerobic versus anaerobic training

Interval training lets you target different parts of your body depending on your specific fitness goals. Aerobic and anaerobic exercise are the principal sources of energy utilized in interval training. Each exercise type contributes some energy, but the proportion of energy contributed by each one varies depending on the specific interval chosen.

Whereas the aerobic improvements include increasing your ability to exercise for longer periods of time and improve your cardiovascular health, the anaerobic improvements involve increasing your maximum speed, growing bigger muscles, and improving your ability to produce maximum power. Your four-week training plan should be focused on either aerobic or anaerobic improvement for the entire period of the program.

To start off, focus on aerobic exercises to build up a strong foundation and prepare your body for the intensity of anaerobic training.

General workout structure and tracking improvement

Before doing any exercise, always warm up for at least five to ten minutes with a light running session.

If you are new to exercise, start out by doing just one workout session two times per week and then gradually increase the number of sessions until you reach your desired frequency. Maximum interval training should be avoided until you have built up a base fitness level with aerobic exercise.

You do not need to use a heart rate tracker or perform any math to see if you are making progress. Just track the distance you cover during your HIIT workouts. A rough estimation by running around a track can give you some good ideas about whether you are making progress.

To track your progress precisely, you need to use either a heart rate monitor or tracker or measure your own heart rate and then calculate the distance covered and your perceived effort. It can be difficult to keep up with an intense training program without having someone there to help you out.

Measuring your resting heart rate when you first get out of bed is one of the easiest ways to track your cardiovascular improvements if you are not an athlete aiming to improve your aerobic fitness. If you have a lower resting heart rate, then your aerobic system is becoming increasingly efficient.

In order to avoid over training, perform two 20 minute light jog sessions in the week after completing each phase of the program.

Beginner interval running program

This beginner program will help you start your aerobic interval workouts. Here’s how to do an initial running interval training session:

  1. Warm-up 0.5 miles. Warm up by running at a slow pace for a half mile (800 meters or 2 laps around an outdoor standard length running track). This warm up should be at a relaxed pace where you could maintain a conversation.
  2. Stretching. Before beginning any type of physical activity, stretch out your muscles first for 10 minutes. Dynamic stretches help prepare your body for faster movement. This will help prevent injuries.
  3. Run 400 meters (.25 miles) at your goal 5K pace. Run at 80% of your maximum effort intensity pace. You may feel exhausted and challenged at first but you should be able keep up the same pace throughout the intervals.
  4. Recover for 400 meters (0.25 miles). Jog slowly one lap (.25 miles) for recovery interval.
  5. Repeat the run-recovery cycle. You should repeat this cycle four times: 4 x 400 fast and 4 x 400 at recovery speed. You will be doing 1 mile (1,600 meters) of intense running with 1 mile (1,6000 meters) of slow recovery.
  6. Cool down 0.5 miles. After the intense run and recovery cycle, you should run slowly for 0.5 miles (800 meters) to cool down. Similar to the warm up, this should be at a relaxed pace where you could maintain a conversation.
  7. Stretching. Do not forget to stretch for 10 minutes.
  8. Rest & re-hydrate. It is important to do a light run the next morning after doing a speed workout or taking a break from running. You should always drink plenty of water for muscle recovery.
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You should repeat this workout 2 times per week for a month. Following, add one cycle in each workout. By the end of week 4, you should be running a total of 6 intervals per workout.

Intermediate interval running program

After completing the 4-week beginner course, you should be ready for an additional workout. The intermediate interval running program consists of three interval sessions per week and adds one cycle every week.

  1. Run 3 cycles, rest, and repeat 2 cycles. You will start with 3 consecutive cycles, then rest by a full 1 minute (this is one cluster). After getting your rest, you will repeat this cluster two more times. By the end of week 1, you will have performed a total of 9 cycles broken in three clusters.
  2. Add a cycle to each cluster. You will need to train 3 times a week for four weeks. In each week, you will need to make an additional cycle in each cluster.
  3. Week 4. By the end of week 4, you should be performing 3 clusters of 6 intervals. This will take you roughly 25 minutes with 18 intervals.

Advanced interval running program

After completing the beginner and intermediate running programs, you will have a total of 8 weeks of interval running completed.

Now, you can decide whether to keep pushing your aerobic endurance with the advanced aerobic training plan, or maintain your fitness with the intermediate exercise programs, or start with the anaerobic training plan.

For the advanced interval running program, you will:

  1. 3 clusters – 4 cycles. For the advanced program you will start with three clusters of four cycles each utilizing a 30 second interval. You will be training 3 times a week.
  2. Add 1 cluster per to each workout. You will add an additional cluster per week in each session.
  3. Week 3. By the end of week 4, you should be engaging in 6 clusters of 4 cycles. This will take you approximately 30 minutes for both the workout and the warm-up.

Risks of interval running

Interval training is one of the most effective ways to improve cardiovascular fitness. In fact, it is recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle. But while interval running is generally considered a safe training, there are still some potential risks associated with it. Some of the risks stem from the increased intensity that happens during the faster-pace intervals.

The biggest risk is overuse injuries. Because you are working harder than usual, you might experience muscle fatigue and pain. Your body will try to compensate for the extra work by slowing down your heart rate. This causes your blood pressure to drop, causing your arteries to constrict. If you continue to run without taking breaks, you could develop shin splints, plantar fasciitis (inflammation of a thick ligament connecting the heel bone to the front of your toes), Achilles tendinitis, or even stress fractures.

In relation to overuse injuries, interval running can increase your chances of actually getting injured. For example, if you have never done interval running before, you might find yourself pushing too hard and injuring yourself. Or, if you have been doing interval training for a long period of time, you might suddenly start experiencing knee problems.

Another problem is joint damage. As mentioned above, because you are working harder, your joints will absorb more impact. During fast running, the impact on ankles, knee joints, and hip joints is greater than during slow pace running. Over time, this can lead to arthritis.

To avoid potential injuries, make sure that you start at a slower pace when engaging in interval running. If you are a beginner make sure to perform a 10 minute jog before the intense interval running. Also, try to avoid hard surfaces like concrete or pavement if at all possible. Running on rubberized tracks, grass, or other soft surfaces is your best option for interval running.

Always take a break from training for one week after a four-week training session. You could engage in average or slower paced jogs or walks which will help you maintain your fitness while recovering for the next session. It is important to pay attention to your body and listen to your instincts. If something feels wrong, stop immediately.

Best apps for interval running

The most basic way to time your intervals during a run is with a standard stopwatch. This works well enough for shorter runs, but becomes difficult to manage once you start moving faster. You may find yourself struggling to keep up with the pace while simultaneously keeping track of how long you have been running.

As such, it may be beneficial to utilize an interval running app that allows you to set a target heart rate zone and automatically times your intervals based on your current exercise level. These apps give you a number of options ranging from simple “rest when I’m tired” to advanced algorithms that adjust your pacing based on your performance.

1. Sportractive

Sportractive tracks all your fitness activities and helps you improve your health and fitness. Also, this app helps you achieve your goals by providing detailed feedback on your progress. With Sportractive, you can customize the intensity of your workout by choosing from different intervals, so you can gradually increase your fitness level without putting too much strain on yourself. It also includes active recovery workouts to ensure you are adapting and relaxing correctly.

The pros of Sportractive:

  • The color-coding map helps you follow your course easily.
  • It has Bluetooth compatibility
  • Importing and exporting data so that you can utilize it with other apps and software
  • It is a free app with everything you could possibly want for a great workout.
  • It has an extremely accurate distance tracker

The cons of Sportractive:

  • It is not compatible with ANT protocol
  • It does not possess an auto pause option feature

2. Ripit

Ripit is an app that combines high-intense intervals with slower recovery periods. It is designed for use during one workout session. When you are running, a timer will display the remaining time until the finish line and voice instructions will be given for the next interval. After completing the workout, you can check your performance by reviewing the summary of the workout. It will include: total time, distance covered, average walking/running speeds, average running/walking paces, and calories burned. It’s available free on both Android and iOS devices, for phones, tablets, and computers.

The pros of Ripit:

  • It is an easy-to-use app, perfect for organizing interval workouts.
  • It is easy to use and understand.
  • There are three different ways to train for fitness.
  • It is suitable for beginners, intermediates, and advanced runners
  • It has an accurate location tracker
  • You can track your progress and data in charts

The cons of Ripit:

  • It has not an export function
  • You need to activate GPS before using the application
  • You need to manually save your workouts

3. Decathlon Coach

The Decathlon Coach App can help you stay healthy and lose weight, regardless of your fitness goals or current level. With the Decathlon Coach mobile application, you get an actual personal training experience: you will be accompanied by a real personal trainer who will encourage you during your workout. The trainer gives you detailed instructions for each exercise you undertake, and helps you through every step.This app offers customized and varied workout programs for running, cross­-training, yoga, fitness, pilates, walks, strength training, and many other exercises.

The pros of Decathlon Coach

  • High-quality voice training
  • An attractive and user-friendly interface
  • Use a heart rate monitoring device during exercise.
  • It does not contain any ads, even though the application is free.
  • Your body composition is measured and broken down into fat, muscle, and bones.
  • A reliable GPS tracker
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The cons of Decathlon Coach

  • The app is not compatible with Android Wear
  • There have been some issues with bugs in the previous version.
  • It utilizes a lot of battery power.

4. iSmoothRun

The iSmoothRun app is great for runners who love speed and running outdoors. The application allows you to set custom intervals before starting your run, so your exercise interval sessions are perfectly tailored to you. Once you have established your exercise intervals, the app will automatically calculate the rest periods that you need to complete each workout. It also lets you know when the temperature outside affects your performance.

The pros of iSmoothRun:

  • An in-application coach to help you through the training
  • A map, graph, and statistical summary of your activity and progress.
  • A good indoor/outdoor GPS and pedometer
  • Personalized interval training workouts

The cons of iSmoothRun:

  • It costs $5.99
  • There is not a diverse selection of different types of exercise

5. Runkeeper

Runkeeper is an application designed for all runners. Running programs, guided runs, monthly running challenges and other training tools will help you run farther, faster, and longer. With this app, you can set goals for yourself, keep track of your progress, and share your journey with us. Also, you are able to track your runs from start to finish.

The pros of Runkeeper:

  • It has audio-guided workouts for marathons to interval running
  • A custom training plan
  • Offers monthly running challenges to stay motivated with your friends
  • Tracking your workouts giving an overall view of your training
  • Track progress with detailed activity insights
  • A good indoor/outdoor GPS and pedometer

The cons of Runkeeper:

  • There are not many different types of exercises available
  • Compared to other fitness apps, the Runkeeper is quite simple.

Interval training is an efficient and effective way to enhance your aerobic and anaerobic strength, as well as your cardiovascular health.

Intervals usually take less total training hours than traditional distance running and let you reach higher intensities during the workout.

You can choose to target different energy systems by adjusting your interval lengths. Interval training provides an excellent method to add intense aerobic and anaerobic exercise without long traditional workout sessions.

How do beginners run intervals?

Interval training for beginners is the key to becoming a faster, better runner. By alternating periods of high-intensity exercise and low-intensity recovery interval, you can improve both your endurance and speed.

Here is a simply way to start building up your cardio fitness:

  1. Warm-up with a 5 minute jog
  2. Run for 30 seconds at 80% of your maximum effort
  3. Recover by jogging for 30 seconds at 25% of your intensity
  4. Repeat this cycle 3 times
  5. Workout 2 times every week for 4 week. If you can, challenge yourself by incorporating an extra cycle each week.

How long should I run intervals?

There is not really a “right” or “wrong” answer for how long you should run your intervals. It all depends on the person and the purpose for doing interval running. However, a rule of thumb is to run intervals between 30 seconds to 2 minutes or 100 meters (0.06 miles) to 400 meters (0.25 miles). This is a good starting point for beginners who have not engaged in interval running before.

Short intervals will give you two benefits. First, it is easier for you to maintain a fast pace if the intervals between runs are shorter. Second, it can be mentally stimulating because you’ll have more pauses. Once you feel that you are improving, you can lengthen the interval duration to 3 to 5 minutes.

Can I run intervals everyday?

Running intervals every day is not recommended. Actually, health authorities recommend getting 30 minutes of cardio every day to keep you healthy. However, if you are doing a high intensity interval training (HIIT), then training daily is likely to put you at risk for injury and over-training. In fact, doing HIIT too often may prevent your body from fully healing after each session.

Is interval training good for beginners?

Interval training is good for beginners. You do not need to stick to one type of workout forever. Switching things up gives your muscles time to adapt to working out a bit harder than they are accustomed to.

Also, interval training is good for your heart and lung strength and helps you meet your physical activity needs efficiently. According to the American Heart Association, adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise weekly. Interval training counts as vigorous exercise. With interval training, you can exercise for shorter periods of time without losing on the health benefits of cardio exercises.

How do you do interval training on a treadmill for beginners?

If you are searching a quick and easy 10-minute routine to get an idea of what high intensity interval training (HIIT) treadmill workouts feel like, here is one to start with:

  1. Warm-up. Walk for 2 minutes at a comfortable but not too slow pace.
  2. Jog/Sprint. Jog or sprint for 1 minute. At this phase, you need to reach 70% of your maximum pace. If you are a beginner, do not push too hard.
  3. Walk. Walk for 2 minutes.
  4. Jog/Sprint. Jog or sprint for 1 minute at 70% of your maximum pace.
  5. Walk. Walk for 2 minutes.
  6. Jog/Sprint. Jog or sprint for 1 minute at a 70% of your maximum pace
  7. Walk. Walk for 1 minute to wrap-up the training session.

How fast should I run my intervals?

Interval running pace will depend on your race pace. Professionals at the North American Academy of Sport Fitness recommend calculating your interval running pace in percentages. Most likely, if you want start running faster, you will need to:

  • A 100 meter (0.06 miles) interval should be performed at 15% faster than your personal 5K pace.
  • A 200 meter (0.12 miles) interval should be performed at 12% faster than your personal 5K pace.
  • A 400 meter (0.25 miles) interval should be performed at 10% faster than your personal 5K pace.
  • A 800 meter (0.5 miles) interval should be performed at 8% faster than your personal 5K pace.
  • A 1,000 meter (0.62 miles) interval should be performed at 6% faster than your personal 5K pace.

How often should you do interval training running

Since interval training is extremely exhausting, you need to be extra careful not to injure yourself or get to a workout session without adequate rest. A strong recommendation is to start with just one workout per week and then gradually increase the number of workouts. Also, it is advised not to do more than 3 high intensity interval training in a week. Your body needs to rest and recover from the interval training.

What are interval training examples?

Before starting any interval training routine, be sure to perform a 5 to 10 minute warm-up. After warming up, if you are planning to run, jog for a few minutes before beginning your workout. If you are swimming or cycling, begin at an easier pace and then increase the intensity, and complete several accelerations where you gradually build your pace.

Should beginner runners do intervals?

Beginners who want to become faster runners need to focus on interval training. Interval training can be used by anyone who wants to run faster, improve their race times, and increase their overall physical health.

Moreover, if you are looking to lose fat, interval training burns more calories than slow jogging and helps increase your metabolism.

How long should interval training last?

There is not really a right answer for how long your interval should last. It all depends on who you are and why you are engaging in interval training. However, a general guideline is to start out by running at least 30 seconds to 2 minutes or 100 meters (0.06 miles) to 400 meters (0.25 miles).

Two benefits from short intervals include: (1) you will be able to keep up a faster pace if the running interval sessions are shorter; (2) you will be mentally motivated since you can take a break.

How often should you do interval running?

As long as you are doing two to three high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts per week, you are probably doing enough. If you train too hard without giving your muscles enough active recovery time, your chances of injury increase dramatically.

Start out by doing just one workout per week and then gradually add interval running workouts. It is recommended not to run more than three high intensity intervals per week. You must give your body time to recuperate after an intense workout session.

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