Coach Mike Mead

The Interval Training Advantage - March 2007

I read with interest a recent article by Owen Anderson, Ph.D. comparing the value of interval training versus tempo runs. It’s that time of year when many runners feel like getting in some speed training. The need for speed is important, but how much is adequate?

First off, a majority of road runners do not get in an adequate amount of speed training to improve their racing efforts. Variety is the spice of life, right? However, most of us (me included) get stuck in a training rut. We tend to get too hung up on mileage (quantity) rather than speed (quality). Day in and day out, many of us do our training runs at the same pace, same routes, same time, and usually by ourselves. Boring, ah?

It is important to have a solid training base before you advance to speed training. Once you begin working on speed, many runners do not adjust their weekly mileage to factor in the rest needed after an intense session. When you have a base and you’re young, you should handle anything. But if you are inexperienced and lack the base training, you’ll pay for it when it comes to speed.

What was most interesting in Anderson’s article was that the great Peter Snell (three Olympic Gold Medals) examined the relative value of interval and tempo training. In 1962, Snell ran 1:44.3 for 800m for a then world record that still stands as New Zealand’s national mark. Snell, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, concluded that those runners who ran two interval workouts per week of 200’s and 400’s at 90 to 100 percent of VO2max (maximal aerobic capacity), over a 10-week period, ran faster times in an 800m and 10K than those performing two tempo runs lasting 29 minutes per session at 70-80 percent of VO2max over the same period of time.

Why that can’t be? Less is more? Those doing the interval sessions spent 31 minutes doing speed per week compared to 58 minutes for those doing tempo runs. This may be tough to fathom for some runners who like doing a lot of mileage!

I’ve always been a firm believer of quality over quantity. The so-called junk miles – those miles runners put in just for the sake of keeping their weekly mileage at a consistent level – are alright to a point, but it can get out of hand. I observe many runners who get too hung up on the quantity and then wonder my they struggle in races. As I’ve said before, if you train like a turtle, you will race like one!

Interval sessions force you to be more intense in the speed and hopefully more focused. Usually, runners do those 200 or 400 interval workouts at current mile pace or faster. In Snell’s research, those running the intervals usually covered three miles during each session, that is, 24 x 200 or 12 x 400.

So if you feel the need for speed this spring, consider interval training over tempo runs if you seriously want to see improved times later this year. If you do, remember you have to gradually start out with about half the above mentioned numbers and work your way up in both quantity and intensity of the intervals.

Also, remember that you may have to cut back a little on your weekly mileage if you add in interval training and perhaps allow for a day off. Finally, never do interval sessions one consecutive days. Put in at least one easy day between the two sessions.

Speed rules!