The traditional interval workout: Go to a track. Run around once or a few times about as fast as you can, rest, repeat. The very first speed or interval workouts I ever did were not so conventional, and I’ve learned to be even less conventional when I need to be.
The obvious physiological benefit is to increase VO2 max, but much of VO2 max is genetic and based on weight. There are other physical and mental benefits to a hard interval session. Interval workouts allow us to practice running at top speeds, often at or faster than goal race paces, so that by race day these paces are more manageable, comfortable, and familiar. Some of this is a mental effect, but also a well designed speed workout can help improve your body’s recovery time and lactate threshold and therefore be very beneficial to your overall running economy. Finally, running at top speeds helps improve running form and strengthens muscles which can lead to less injuries down the road (pun intended).
Don’t be afraid to get off the track
Last year, I was doing a lot of work on the track. I was on the track every week doing workouts of 4-5 miles or more plus recovery jogs. I was getting into decent shape, but ended up only actually racing on the track one time last spring due to recurring injuries. I know I just said that speed workouts can lead to less injuries. It wasn’t the speed workouts, it was the track! My left side ended up with all kinds of problems (that are more common for me, but expedited with track work). It’s important to be comfortable on the track leading into a track race, but it’s more important to be healthy and strong. With the hundreds of left turns that season, my body was lopsided.
The very first season I really implemented speed work into my routine a few years ago, I didn’t know anyone to meet at the track, so I had little reason to go all the way to a track to do my speed workout. It was much more convenient for me to do my speed work right out my door on the streets just like all my other runs. So that’s what I did. I did ¼ mile, ½ mile, K, mile, 2 mile repeats and lots more on neighborhood streets in Encinitas. With GPS watches these days it is so easy to set up workouts either by uploading a workout through a program or set straight from the watch itself. I found that I had more freedom and options of workouts on the road than I did the track. Furthermore, my only race that season was NYC marathon. I wouldn’t be on the track. I would be on the road. It was more beneficial for me to learn to run fast on the road than on a track. I do love the track because it provides a controlled environment to hit certain paces and track fitness, but with only road races in the near future I didn’t feel a need to be so precise and controlled since I wouldn’t get the same luxury on race day.
I’ve learned to find a balance of environments, length, and intensity of speed workouts to get the most mental and physical benefit from my speed work. Every season is different so every season’s workouts and schedule changes, but what won’t change for me is the idea that interval workouts will continue to adapt and be as unconventional as they need to be to suit me and generate the fitness I need to reach my goals.