The Benefits of Interval Training For Runners

January 30, 2023

Nick Hancock

As a dedicated running coach, I've witnessed first hand how incorporating interval running into a training routine can significantly enhance the performance of marathon and ultramarathon runners… the latter, who usually assume because an ultramarathon is run much slower and therefore don’t need to do intervals, usually seeing the biggest returns from doing the speed work I give them!

Interval running, combines periods of intense running with periods of rest or lower-intensity running. This dynamic approach to training allows athletes to push their limits and improve their overall cardiovascular fitness and work different energy zones, making it a game changer for those looking to excel in long-distance events. I mean, who doesn’t want to be able to run faster for longer, right?!

Having worked with countless marathon and ultramarathon runners, I can attest to the power of interval training. It not only leads to improvements in aerobic fitness, VO2Max,, muscular strength, and endurance but also helps athletes break through mental barriers and achieve new personal records… plus, they are fun (well, sometimes not so much at the time of doing them!). 

Interval running is particularly beneficial for marathon and ultramarathon runners because it helps develop the ability to maintain a faster pace over longer distances. The alternating periods of high-intensity running and recovery encourage your body to adapt and improve, specifically being able to utilise oxygen and fat as a fuel source for longer and to clear lactate and adopt fatigue resistance capabilities. Furthermore, the varied nature of interval running helps prevent boredom and plateaus, keeping you motivated and engaged in your training routine… I almost see them as a reward for putting in the easy miles elsewhere in the week!.

In this comprehensive guide, I'll share my expertise as a running coach to help you incorporate interval running into your marathon or ultramarathon training program. We'll discuss how to perform interval running, offer guidance for planning your workouts, and provide sample interval running sessions. We'll also delve into the science-backed benefits of high-intensity interval training in a running context, because this is different to what a PT in a gym might set you and to what Joe Wicks got famous for!!

Whether you're looking to improve your marathon time, conquer your first ultramarathon, or simply add variety to your workout routine, interval running offers a powerful and versatile training option that can help you achieve your goals. By following the guidance and tips provided in this guide, you'll be well on your way to mastering interval running and experiencing the transformative effects it can have on your performance. 

How do you perform interval running?

Runners Interval Training: Why It's Essential for Long-Distance Success

Runners' interval training is a powerful tool for those looking to excel in marathon and ultramarathon events. It offers a unique approach to training, blending high-intensity running with periods of rest or lower-intensity running. This combination pushes your body to adapt and improve, translating into better performance during long-distance races.

One key advantage of interval training is that it specifically targets both aerobic and anaerobic systems. Aerobic training focuses on improving your cardiovascular fitness and stamina, while anaerobic training helps to develop your power, speed and ability to sustain a higher pace over longer distances. 

Another critical aspect of runners interval training is its impact on mental toughness. Marathon and ultramarathon events require not only physical strength but also the mental fortitude to persevere through fatigue and challenging conditions. The high-intensity nature of interval training sessions can help you build mental resilience by consistently pushing you outside of your comfort zone. 

Runners Interval Training has been the cornerstone of my own pace development!

Tailoring Runners Interval Training for Your Experience Level and Goals

To maximise the benefits of intervals, it's crucial to tailor your workouts to your experience level and individual goals. Doing so will ensure that you're effectively targeting the areas you need to improve while minimising the risk of injury and overtraining.

As a marathon or ultramarathon runner, your primary focus should be on building your endurance and aerobic capacity. However, incorporating interval training can help improve your running economy, lactate threshold, and overall speed, making you a more efficient and well-rounded athlete.

Here are some general guidelines for tailoring your interval running sessions based on your experience level:

  1. Beginners: If you're new to interval training, start with shorter intervals and longer recovery periods. For example, try running at a high intensity for 1 minute followed by a 2-minute recovery period. Repeat this cycle 4-6 times, gradually increasing the number of cycles and reducing recovery time as you become more comfortable.
  2. Intermediate Runners: As your fitness level improves, you can increase the intensity and duration of your intervals. Experiment with running at a high intensity for 2-4 minutes followed by a 2-minute recovery period. Repeat this cycle 6-8 times, and adjust the number of cycles and recovery time based on your fitness level and goals.
  3. Advanced Runners: For those with a solid running base, further increase the intensity and duration of your intervals. Try running at a high intensity for 5-8 minutes followed by a 2-3 minute recovery period. Repeat this cycle 8-10 times, and adjust the number of cycles and recovery time according to your specific goals and fitness level.

Remember, the key to successful intervals are to find the right balance between intensity and recovery, pushing your limits without compromising your ability to recover and adapt. By tailoring your interval workouts to your experience level and goals, you'll be well on your way to unlocking the full potential of interval running and achieving new personal records in your marathon and ultramarathon races.

Click this link for more in-depth Ultramarathon info check this blog... interval training for ultrarunners

The Science Behind Runners Interval Training: How It Boosts Long-Distance Performance

Understanding the science behind runners' intervals can help you better appreciate its value and optimise your training program for long-distance success. Interval training has been extensively studied and has consistently demonstrated its effectiveness in improving various aspects of running performance.

VO2 Max Enhancement: VO2 max is a key indicator of aerobic fitness, representing the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during exercise. Runners interval training at the correct intensity (<90% Max Heart Rate for 12-18 mins per session) has been shown to significantly increase VO2 max, allowing you to perform at higher intensities for longer durations. 

Lactate Threshold Improvement: Your lactate threshold is the point at which your body produces lactate faster than it can be cleared from your bloodstream. This threshold plays a crucial role in determining your endurance capabilities. Interval training has been proven to increase lactate threshold, enabling you to maintain a faster pace before experiencing fatigue. 

Running Economy Optimisation: Running economy refers to the amount of energy required to maintain a given pace. A better running economy means you can run faster with less effort. Runners interval training has been shown to improve running economy by enhancing muscle power, coordination, and biomechanics.

Fat Adaptation: Long-distance runners benefit from training their bodies to utilise fat as an energy source more efficiently, as fat stores are more abundant than glycogen stores. Studies have shown that interval training can improve fat oxidation rates, increasing your body's ability to tap into fat stores during long runs.

Mental Toughness Development: Interval training challenges your body and mind, requiring you to dig deep and push through discomfort. By regularly incorporating high-intensity workouts into your routine, you'll develop mental toughness that can translate to better performance during challenging races.

Balancing Interval Training with Other Key Components of Long-Distance Running Success

While runners interval training is an essential component of a well-rounded marathon or ultramarathon training program, it's crucial to strike the right balance with other key aspects of your training. This approach ensures that you're addressing all the necessary elements for long-distance running success and minimising the risk of injury and burnout.

Long Slow Distance (LSD) Runs: LSD runs are the foundation of any marathon or ultramarathon training program. These runs help you build the endurance and aerobic base needed to tackle long distances. Be sure to include LSD runs in your weekly training schedule, gradually increasing their duration as you approach your target race.

Strength Training: Strength training plays a vital role in injury prevention and overall running performance. Incorporating exercises that target your core, hips, and leg muscles can improve your running form, power, and stability. Aim to include 2-3 strength training sessions per week, focusing on functional exercises that mimic the movement patterns of running.

Mobility and Flexibility Work: Maintaining adequate mobility and flexibility is essential for preventing injuries and improving running efficiency. Incorporate stretching and mobility exercises into your routine, focusing on areas that are commonly tight or imbalanced in runners, such as the hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves.

Recovery and Nutrition: Adequate recovery and proper nutrition are crucial for optimising your training and overall performance. Be sure to schedule rest days, listen to your body's signals, and fuel yourself with nutrient-dense foods that support your energy needs and promote recovery.

By balancing runners interval training with these other essential components of a well-rounded training program, you'll be setting yourself up for success in your marathon and ultramarathon endeavours. It's important to remember that every runner is unique, and your training plan should be tailored to your individual needs, goals, and lifestyle. Don't be afraid to experiment and adjust your program as needed to find the perfect balance that works for you.

Adapting Runners Interval Training for Different Terrains and Race Conditions

When preparing for a marathon or ultramarathon, it's essential to consider the specific demands of your target race and adapt your intervals accordingly. Different terrains and race conditions can significantly impact your performance, and tailoring your interval workouts to simulate these conditions can help you arrive at the starting line better prepared and more confident.

Hill Intervals: If your race includes significant elevation changes, incorporating hill intervals into your training can help build the strength and power necessary to tackle those challenging inclines. Choose a hill with a moderate grade and perform your high-intensity intervals uphill, followed by a recovery jog or walk downhill. Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your uphill intervals as your fitness level improves.

Trail Running Intervals: For trail races, it's crucial to practice running on uneven terrain and adapting to the unique challenges it presents. Incorporate trail running intervals into your training to improve your balance, agility, and ankle stability. Choose a trail with a mix of terrain and perform your high-intensity intervals on varying surfaces, including rocks, roots, and loose dirt.

Heat and Humidity Adaptation: If your race takes place in hot and humid conditions, it's important to acclimate your body to these challenges. The most common way to do this is to schedule some of your interval sessions during the warmer parts of the day, and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts in these conditions. However, heat is a stressor and when adding to running (which is a stressor) you can overdo it. Another way is to take daily saunas for 20-30 mins in the preceding 2-3 weeks before a race in order to get heat acclimated. Be sure to stay properly hydrated and listen to your body's signals to prevent heat-related illnesses.

By adapting your quality sessions to the specific demands of your target race, you'll be better prepared to tackle the unique challenges that different terrains and race conditions can present. Remember to allow your body time to adapt to these new stressors and adjust your training plan as needed to ensure optimal recovery and performance.

Tracking Your Progress and Adjusting Your Runners Interval Training Program

As you progress through your marathon or ultramarathon training, it's important to track your performance and make adjustments to your training program as needed. Regularly monitoring your progress can help you identify areas for improvement and ensure that you're effectively working toward your goals.

Establish Baseline Metrics: Before starting your interval training program, establish baseline metrics for key performance indicators, such as your VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy. You can use fitness tests, like time trials or heart rate-based assessments, to determine these values. I personally use 5 or 10km time trials or races for my athletes to set their target training zones and, at the lack of using a lab, they are extremely accurate and effective in doing so!

Track Your Workouts: Keep a detailed log of your interval training sessions, noting the duration, intensity, and recovery periods for each workout. This information can help you identify patterns and trends in your training, as well as areas where you may need to adjust your approach.

Reassess Your Performance: Periodically reassess your performance by repeating the fitness tests noted above to establish your baseline metrics. Compare your results to your initial assessments to determine the effectiveness of your interval training program and make adjustments as needed.

Listen to Your Body: Be mindful of how your body feels during and after your interval training sessions. If you're consistently feeling fatigued or experiencing signs of overtraining, consider adjusting your program to allow for more recovery time or a lower training volume.

Adjust for Plateaus and Progress: As you become more accustomed to interval training, you may need to adjust the intensity, duration, or recovery periods of your workouts to continue challenging your body and making progress. Be prepared to make adjustments as needed to keep your training program fresh and effective.

Integrating Running Intervals with Race-Specific Workouts

As your marathon or ultramarathon race day approaches, it's important to integrate runners interval training with race-specific workouts to ensure you're optimally prepared for the event. Race-specific workouts help you fine-tune your pacing, fuelling, and mental strategies, allowing you to perform at your best when it matters most.

Race Pace Intervals: Incorporate intervals at your target race pace into your training program. These workouts will help you develop a sense of the effort required to maintain your goal pace during the race. For example, you can perform intervals of 1-3 miles at your target marathon pace, with recovery periods in between.

Negative Split Workouts: Negative split workouts involve running the second half of your workout faster than the first half. This approach can help you develop the mental and physical strength needed to finish your race strong. Include negative split workouts in your training program, gradually increasing the intensity and duration of the faster portion.

Long Run Simulations: Schedule a few long runs that simulate the conditions of your target race, including the terrain, pacing, and fueling strategies. These workouts can help you fine-tune your race day plan and boost your confidence heading into the event. Be sure to practice your fuelling and hydration strategies during these runs to ensure you're well-prepared for race day.

Tapering and Peaking: As your race approaches, it's important to adjust your training volume and intensity to allow your body to recover and peak for the event. Gradually reduce your workload, placing more focus on race-specific workouts and recovery. The tapering process typically lasts 2-3 weeks, depending on your individual needs and race distance.

Here are five example interval sessions that you can incorporate into your runners interval training program:

  1. Classic 400-meter repeats: After a warm-up, run 400 meters (approximately 1/4 mile) at a challenging pace, followed by 400 meters of easy jogging or walking for recovery. Repeat this cycle 6-10 times, depending on your fitness level, and finish with a cool-down.
  2. Ladder workout: Begin with a warm-up, then run 200 meters at a hard pace, followed by 200 meters of recovery. Next, run 400 meters hard with 400 meters of recovery, then 800 meters hard with 800 meters of recovery. After reaching the peak distance, work your way back down the ladder (400m hard, 400m recovery, 200m hard, 200m recovery). Finish with a cool-down.
  3. Hill repeats: Warm up on flat terrain, then find a moderately steep hill. Run hard uphill for 60-90 seconds, followed by an easy jog or walk downhill for recovery. Repeat this cycle 6-10 times, depending on your fitness level, and finish with a cool-down.
  4. Fartlek workout: After warming up, choose various landmarks (trees, lampposts, etc.) along your route, and alternate between running hard and easy between these points. This workout can be as structured or unstructured as you like, with varying distances and durations for each hard and easy segment. Finish with a cool-down.
  5. Yasso 800s: Warm up, then run 800 meters (approximately 1/2 mile) at a challenging pace, followed by 400 meters of easy jogging or walking for recovery. Repeat this cycle 6-10 times, depending on your fitness level, and finish with a cool-down.


To summarise, interval training is an essential component of any marathon or ultramarathon training program (despite what the plodders in the ultramarathon world will tell you!). It offers numerous benefits, including improved aerobic and anaerobic capacity, increased speed and endurance, and enhanced mental toughness. By incorporating various interval workouts, balancing your training with other key components, and tracking your progress, you'll set yourself up for success in your long-distance running endeavours.

Remember that every runner is unique, and your training program should be tailored to your individual needs, goals, and lifestyle. Listen to your body, adjust your plan as needed, and don't be afraid to seek guidance from experienced runners, coaches, or running communities. As you embrace the holistic benefits of interval training and celebrate your progress, you'll continue to unlock your full potential as a long-distance runner! 


What are the intervals for ultra training?

Intervals for ultra training vary depending on the individual athlete's fitness level, goals, and the specific demands of the targeted race. Some common interval workouts for ultrarunners include tempo runs, hill repeats, and fartlek sessions. When planning interval workouts for ultrarunners, consider factors such as terrain, elevation, and race pace. Always tailor the interval structure to your unique needs, adjusting the effort level and time spent at intensity as needed and being specific the closer you get to race day

What is the best interval running workout?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the best interval running workout, as the ideal workout will depend on the individual runner's goals, fitness level, and the specific race they are training for. Some effective interval workouts for ultrarunners might include:

  1. Tempo runs: Maintain a comfortably hard pace for a set duration (e.g., 20-30 minutes) to improve lactate threshold.
  2. Hill repeats: Run uphill at a challenging pace for a set duration or distance, followed by a recovery jog downhill. This workout helps develop strength and power.
  3. Fartlek sessions: Mix periods of faster running with periods of slower running or recovery, varying the duration and intensity of each segment. This workout helps develop speed, endurance, and mental focus.

Remember to customise these workouts according to your specific needs and the demands of of your targeted race.

Is 20 minutes of interval running enough?

A 20-minute interval running session can be effective, depending on the athlete's goals, fitness level, and the structure of the workout. For example, a runner might complete a 20-minute tempo run at their lactate threshold pace or perform a series of shorter intervals within that 20-minute period.

However, it's essential to consider the overall context of your training program, including weekly mileage, the balance between hard and easy days, and the specific demands of your targeted race. In some cases, a longer or more varied interval session may be more beneficial. 

Author: Nick Hancock is a UESCA Certified Ultrarunning coach and UK Athletics Coach in Running Fitness (CiRF) and has coached many busy professionals and parents to achieve finishes, top-10s and podiums in events such as London Marathon, Manchester Marathon, Amsterdam Marathon, UTMB, UTS, Centurion events, Endure24, Backyards and many more. Host of the Maximum Mileage Running Podcast and author of the Ultimate Cookbook for Runners

He can be found on Instagram @runwithnick

Now go run hard! And remember, if you ever want to talk about the potential you can reach by taking on the services of a running coach then do get in touch by hitting that enquiry button

Enquire now
Thank you! You are now subscribed to our newsletter
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please try again

Transform your running with a coach who knows your goals

Get the results you want with Nick Hancock as your online running coach

Button Text