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Running Intervals the Right Way

Don't let rest periods derail your speed training with active recovery.

When ramping up your running regimen with some tough speed work, it can be tempting to stand still or jog slowly with sloppy form between intervals. To get the most benefit from those sprints, however, you need to go after the easy sections of a run with just as much care. “Research clearly shows that an active recovery is better,” says Bobby McGee, a former Olympic coach and author of Magical Running. Here’s how to tackle the downtime of any speed workout—and reap even greater results.

Interval Repeats

Even if you swear you hit Usain Bolt velocity, recovery time between intervals shouldn’t extend several minutes. But there’s good news: It’s okay to walk, or even just stand if you’re too wiped out to keep up a jog. “The focus should be on maximizing the short respite you get from hard running to be as optimally recovered for the next repeat as possible,” says Melanie Schorr, M.D., a running coach at RunnersConnect in Boston. “But if you’re only able to walk or jog, that’s optimal, to keep your blood flowing and help oxygen get to your muscles faster to keep them loose.”

Hill Repeats

As much as you dread heading uphill, retracing your steps can be a real pain. “The hardest function for a muscle to perform is an eccentric contraction, when the muscle is lengthening while contracting,” says McGee. This effect occurs during downhill running. To minimize quad fatigue and get ready to crank out another rep to the top, Schorr recommends walking back down the hill or jogging so slowly that it feels almost as though you’re falling. The decreased speed along with proper form (think lowering your hips, taking shorter steps, and striking the ground with the full foot rather than the heel) will be gentler on joints too. But keep in mind: If you’re training for the Boston Marathon or another hilly course, it’s better to pick up the pace on the decline to prep quads for the beating they’ll get on race day.

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