Starting intervals

A recent Thursday workout was a combination of fast intervals – 600, 400s, 200s. The first came in at 2min05. The 400s both pleasingly scraped under 1min20 while the 200s were a final gasping all-out effort to get on target. Arriving home the 400s and 600 were what stuck out in my mind because they were close to the times I used to clock when running round Poole Park cricket pitch. In fact, when I looked them up I discovered the workouts I did were exactly a decade ago. How times move on.

In September 2011, I wasn’t the committed runner I am now. My first six months of the year had only seen me bank less than two hundred miles but I could run a 21:30 parkrun. In July I started doing a proper warm-up which knocked over thirty seconds off taking me sub-21. I then entered New Forest half marathon for late September and this triggered my “train harder” instinct.

My belief about getting faster at running then was based around the same idea as most people – run faster in training. But, as a sports and exercise science graduate, I’d also read up on the ideas of increasing VO2max through hard interval training and Lactate Threshold through tempo runs and through Stephen Seiler’s MAPP website thought this was the way to train. It was unsophisticated stuff but to the untrained runner it has initial benefits.


I decided hard intervals, aiming for a 19-min parkrun pace, were the way forward. After all, if I wanted to run nineteen minutes I needed to train at the pace. It didn’t seem insurmountable as I’d run a 5:55 mile in the summer which is a similar pace.

I didn’t own a GPS watch but had a sportswatch to time my runs and used a heart-rate monitor. The watch could store some basic info with the lap button but I’d often simply commit numbers to memory and write them down when I got back to the office! I have many spreadsheets filled with this sort of data.

I found a website (Gmap-pedometer) which allowed me to measure distances and found a lap of the cricket pitch to be a third of a mile. Starting from a particular blue bin and running to the pavilion is 400m. I still use these measurements to this day.What I did next is some maths. I calculated with the cricket being about 530m, I’d need to run nine or ten laps to cover the 5,000m distance of a parkrun. Nine laps would fall short at 4,770m; ten would come in at 5,300m and ensure I had a little extra in the tank. With a 19-min parkrun being about six minutes per mile, each of these lap would need to be covered in two minutes, 400m in 1min30. I’d give myself one minute’s recovery between laps and push hard on the efforts. After all, if I could run them faster it must be better and lead to improvement?

This was my plan for improving and it had worked for me on the rowing machine many years before.  But there were two immediate flaws with what I did.

  1. With my then-parkrun pace at around 6:40/mile, I was asking a lot to jump down to running 6min/mile with nothing to bridge the gap. Certainly I was capable of the pace but to do ten intervals with only sixty seconds’ recovery was asking too much of myself. When I succeeded on the rower I’d been aiming a few seconds faster than my existing times. It’s why when I became a successful parkrunner six months later, and got my time down to nineteen minutes, it was because I only ran intervals at a few seconds faster than my existing parkrun pace.
  2. I tried to cover the distance rather than do enough work to stimulate improvement. These days I’d wouldn’t do more than 3,200m worth of work at mile pace and around 1,600 – 2,400m is more usual. A full 5,000m is simply too much stress on the body to recover from. Think about it, when you train for a marathon, you only do a long run of 20-22 miles maximum. If you’re doing 10K training then the elites will only do 6-8K at race pace. It’s a mistake to believe just because the race distance is relatively short, you need to cover it in training.

The biggest flaw though is that, when I began doing these intervals ten years ago, I didn’t lack speed. As I wrote in filling in the gaps, you have to figure out what’s missing. My issue was endurance and lack of aerobic capacity. My parkruns improved three months later after I’d logged many easy miles with just the occasional fast parkrun thrown in. I already had the top end speed, it was the endurance base that was missing.

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