Interval Training: Why is it Important for Runners?

Marcus Sladden

Marcus Sladden

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Interval training is a session which is broken up into shorter intervals with rest periods in between. It’s a broad term because any distance qualifies, but today we’re going to focus on shorter distances. Although interval training works both aerobic and anaerobic systems, you have to cater for the distance you are training for.


Interval training is key for improving your running speed over these shorter distances. These sessions push you to run at faster paces than you would probably be able to race at. Interval training helps teach our nervous systems to run faster with adaptations that come with the faster-paced running. Not only does it push you to run a faster pace due to the shorter distances. It also allows you to train your neuromuscular system to run with good form while you are running the interval.

Interval training leads to a lot of physiological changes throughout the body. It allows your body to build up more of a tolerance to lactic acid. (That burning sensation in your legs when the going gets tough!) and increases your cardiovascular efficiency which is the ability to deliver oxygen to your working muscles.


There are endless types of interval training sessions that you can do. All of these can be sorted into short rest, medium rest or longer rest sessions. Each has its own benefits and can be beneficial for improving over shorter distances.

Shorter rest interval sessions 

These should be implemented when you’ve already built some form and you’re close to race day. I would typically run these kinds of sessions the month leading up to a 5K/10K race. Think of these as sharpening sessions, honing in on the pace you’ve built up over the past few weeks.

Medium rest intervals 

These will typically be used when you are looking for race-specific fitness. A lot of the interval repetitions are going to be at target 5K/10K race pace so you can get used to how the pace feels and if you need to adjust your planned race pace in any way leading up to the race.

Longer rest intervals

These types of sessions will be used when you are early in the training plan for your race. These sessions take a little longer to recover from because you’re running that much harder during them. To allow for this, you’re getting longer recoveries to make up for it whilst running the session. These longer rest periods allow you to run the reps at close to an all-out effort. With these type of sessions, quality is very much the priority instead of the number of repetitions, so ensure that you’re running with the best form possible.


You can also treat intervals in a way that you manipulate the depending on the distance you are training for. An example of this is comparing a marathon runner to a 5K runner for the same session.

Take a session such as 6 x 1 mile, the 5K runner will want to run these as close to race pace as possible. They will have longer recoveries to ensure they are getting the most quality out of the repetition for the distance they are training for.

For the marathon runner, they may run the efforts at a threshold effort. Then have a shorter recovery or treat the recovery as a ‘float’.

What I mean by float is that in the recovery they aren’t completely resting. They are keeping active during the interval, so they may run this section at marathon pace. Because the marathoner is trying to build a longer speed endurance they have to cater the session for this.


In short, no. interval training for shorter races can suit every single runner, from beginner to elite.

This doesn’t mean to say that you should start training like the elites, however. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to copy what some of the professional runners do to ‘FastTrack’ your fitness, but this is only a recipe for disaster – they’ve had years to adapt for their specific interval sessions, and you jumping right in at the deep end would likely lead to injury.

Instead of trying to train like the elite, learn from them instead 

Interval training can be very important for those that are just getting into running that can’t quite achieve the race distance. Their limit, for example, may only be 6 minutes of running in total before they need a rest, and interval training can come into play by training you to run for just that little bit longer with the breaks in between.


After a good solid warm up, give some of these sessions a go and let me know how you get on!

400m repeats: 10 x 400m at predicted 5K pace with 90 seconds walk/jog recovery between each interval.

This type of session will help you get used to running at your predicted 5K pace and allow your body to adapt to it. 400m may not seem like a long distance to run, but when you’re on those last few reps, running at predicted 5K personal best pace does get quite difficult!

6 x 1 mile cut down with 90 seconds recovery

 This session will feel easy to begin with but it soon creeps up on you. That’s why it is such a staple session when building for a 5/10K race. It teaches your body to run hard under fatigue and lactic build-up. Start off at a pace you think you can hold for around an hour (your threshold pace) and build to 5K pace or faster. You’re carrying fatigue but you will be more than capable of finishing the session!

10 x 200m with 3-minute recovery

All at 5k pace or faster. This kind of session is not going to feel like an all-out session. You should feel pretty good after finishing it. It’s more about building your neuromuscular engine. What I mean by this is running with efficient form. Not over-striding to reach a high pace, and keeping a strong controlled posture. None of the efforts should leave you completely breathless but have your 5K race in mind when you’re doing this kind of session.

Intervals are a staple session for anyone that is looking to improve over the shorter distances. By implementing them into your training week you are likely to see improvements to your shorter races. When you are building them into your week be sure to structure them in so you are getting enough recovery around your other runs

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