Interval training for beginners. 10 questions and answers

Interval training for beginners. 10 questions and answers

Se Kim Petersen's profil By Kim Petersen


If interval training is completely new to you, this blog should give you some pointers as to how you get a great and sensible start.    

The purpose is to maximise the return of your efforts and to avoid injuries. 


Are you searching for a completely new running program? 

I have written a blog where you will find three different programs for beginners.

Reason why you should start doing intervals 

You should start doing intervals because it is a very efficient training method. 

When you run intervals you improve the capacity of your circuit drastically to absorb oxygen better.  

You strengthen your heart and you increase your body´s ability to transport rich blood around the body. 

In addition you should do intervals as it provides variation in you training and takes part in challenging you physically and mentally. 


Have you got any doubts about doing intervals? Then please read further 

Perhaps you have a number of questions which makes you hesitate about throwing yourself into interval training. 

It doesn´t have to be "rocket science" to do intervals and if you follow a number of simple principles as a beginner, intervals can make a huge difference for you. 

I have a concrete guide to interval training for beginners where 10 common questions are answered. 

Always remember: 10-15min warm-up before you start to do intervals. 


1. How often should I run intervals?

If you have never done intervals before, I recommend that you start doing intervals once a week. 

Interval training takes a toll on your body and you risk overload injuries if you start out too quickly.  


2. How long should my intervals be?

There isn´t really any right or wrong answer for this. But it depends who you are and what the purpose of your intervals is. 

However, my experience is that intervals between 30 seconds to 2 minutes or 100m-400m is a good way to start if you haven´t done interval training before. 

Relatively short intervals will give you two advantages. 

First of all, its easier for you to keep a high pace when the interval is relatively short. 

Secondly it can be mentally motivating as you will have more pauses 

When your form improves you can increase the duration of intervals to 3-5 min.


3. How long should your breaks be between intervals?

Just like its difficult to say how long the intervals should be, there are also really no rules for how long the breaks should be. 

For beginners I usually recommend breaks to have the same duration as the intervals.

This means that you do intervals for 30 seconds then your breaks should also be 30 seconds. 

If you do 2 min.intervals, then your breask should also be 2 min. long. 


4. What should I do during the breaks?

You can either stay still, walk around a little or do some jogging in between intervals. 

It might be slightly more effective for the overall results of your training to jog during during the breaks because you will be able to keep your heart rate up and stress your circuit more than if you are standing still. 

On the other hand it might be really nice to have a great breather after having been under severe pressure during the intervals. 

But try and see what fits best with your mood. 


5. How many intervals should I do pr. workout?

Again, there is no single answer to this question

But as a starting point you should try to do about 10% of your total amount of training as intervals. 

So if run 20 km a week, you should try to do 2 km as intervals. 

If you run 40 km a week, you should try to complete 4 km as intervals. 

If you work with an interval length of 200m, this means that an interval training session of 10 x 200m falls within the guidelines. 

If you run 40km during the week, you will in principle be able to run 20 x 200m or 10 x 400m.

Normally the length of intervals is increased if the total nimber of kms is extended. 

In the example it would seem like a better idea to run 10 x 400m instead of 20 x 200m, because such a training session would resemble a 5 or 10km run more.


6. What pace should I run at?

Unfortunately many runners have a tendency to believe that once intervals are on the program all reason and rationale can go out the window and speed is the only thing that matters.  

Effective interval training sessions is about all other things than losing your head! 

In all its simplicity its about finding a pace you can maintain in all your intervals to get max. out of your efforts.


But how high should the pace be?

If you use the guidelines from question 2-5, you should be able to keep the same pace in your intervals as you do in a 2 km running test.

If you run e.g. 2km in 10min (5:00min pr. km), you can use this pace as your guideline for your intervals. 

You can then run 10 x 400m in 5:00 pace which means that you run the 400m in 2min and should take a 2min break between the intervals.


7. How can I vary my intervals?

There are many ways to vary your intervals. 

One of the feaatures I like the most for beginners is the so-called “down the clock” intervals

This means that you start off doing long intervals and then the duration and the length of the intervals is shortened. 

It makes it easier to get you through the interval session when you start to tire. 


3 examples of how to convert regular standard intervals into “down the clock” variations;

10 x 200m = 6 x 200m + 6 x 150m
12 x 300m = 6 x 300 + 6 x 200m + 6 x 100m
10 x 400m = 5 x 400m + 10 x 200m

In reality its only the fantasy that sets the limits. 


8. Can I use my heart rate watch for intervals? 

Yes, you certainly can and using your heart rate as a guideline for the intensity of the workout is a good idea -

Especially if you are are running in hilly terrain where it might be difficult to run at a certain pace, you should run according to how you feel to a greater extent

In that case, how do I use my heart rate watch? 

You can use the heart rate watch in different ways in relation to your interval sessions. 

You will benefit the most from using your heart rate watch if you have figured out what your max.heart rate is. 

You can estimate your max. heart rate by using the formula 220-age.

However, this formula might give an unprecise result which is why I recommend that you do a so-called max. heart rate test. 


How to do a simple and free max. heart rate test 

Find a 2 km road with a hill of about 300-400m in the end.

Run the first 2km on flat road in a high pace, and when you get to the hill, you start running upwards as fast as you can. 

Check your heart rate when you get to the end of the hill. 

The number that comes out will be close to your max. heart rate. 

Over 90 %!

When you do intervals, the intensity should be close to 90 % of your max. heart rate 

This means that if your max. heart rate is 200, you should keep a pace which pushes your heart rate up beyond 180 strokes a minute.


NOTICE:  Be aware that it will take a while before your heart rate reaches 90 % as your circuit is relatively slow to react. 

So you should wait to measure your heart rate until after 3-4 minutes af interval training 


9. I am tired - what to do?

If you are not feeling up to it, and you can´t keep the pace that you would normally do on your intervals, what should you then do? 

There are different possibilities

You can lower the pace and do as many intervals as possible in the pace you have planned, reduce the length of the intervals or increase the duration of the breaks so you get more rest in between the intervals. 

The most sensible thing is, however, to drop the interval session alltogether and then save it for a day when you are feeling better!

A lot of runners - perhaps including yourself - find it very demotivating not to be able to perform what they are usually capable of. 

Therefore always make sure only to do intervals when you are feeling good. That increases the chances for a great experience. 


10. What about 10-20-30 – Can I use that method?

10-20-30 running is an interval training method which has become very popular 

The method is developed by Danish scientist Jens Bangsbo and have been used succesfully in his science projects focused around health. 


10-20-30 consists of;
- 10 second sprints
- 20 seconds of moderate running. 
- 30 seconds of low intensity running which can be either walking or light jogging 

So one series takes a minute 


How many series you are able to complete depends on your training condition but you shouldn´t complete more than 10 series. 

The most important element in this training method is the 10 second sprint.

Its essential to point out that there is no scientific proof that this interval training session is better than other interval training sessions. 

The advantage of this method is just that you as a beginner can benefit greatly from spending very little time at high intensity compared to traditional interval training. 


As an example:

If you do 10 series of 10-20-30, you would have to run 100 seconds (1min40sek) at high intensity.

But if you run e.g. 10 x 1min, you would have to run over 5 times as much time at high internsity…


In the end a piece of advice

Interval training works best if its done together with other runners who can push - and encourage you when you need it. 

If its possible for you and if you live close to a running club or running community who offers interval training, then you should use the opportunity and do intervals with others. 


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