Fitness Friday: Running intervals to build speed, torch fat

Good-ole running is a solid way to work on your conditioning goals.

The last couple of Fitness Fridays have been heavy on the weight training side of things, so I wanted to go in a different direction this week. Let’s talk conditioning, and then go over a couple of run-based plans that will definitely up your fitness game.

Fitness is basically two things: strength and conditioning. Strength is the ability to produce force. Conditioning is the ability to produce work capacity. If that sounds nebulous, let’s get down to brass tacks. A strong person can lift and move heavy things. A conditioned person can carry out rigorous physical activity for prolonged periods of time. A good athlete is a person who exhibits high performance in both areas.

And this even includes people in very specialized areas. Strongman champion Eddie Hall, who set a world record deadlift at 1,100 pounds, used swimming to make him better in competitions. Elite marathoner Jordan Hasay can deadlift twice her body weight. The two are nothing alike as athletes, but respective to their fields they are both strong and well-conditioned.

And they set a good example for you. It doesn’t matter if you want to be strong as a bull or able to run long distances at a good clip. If you have a good balance between strength and conditioning, you will be better at what you choose to do, and healthier overall. I went through some basics of strength last week. Now it’s time to talk conditioning.

Let me say at the outset that running is both the default exercise of choice for conditioning (or “cardio,” as you’ve probably come to know it) and a much-maligned activity in some fitness circles. It’s the default because it’s a natural human movement. You ran around as a kid. You ran laps in PE class or for whatever sports program you were in. Aside from running form techniques, running is about as intuitive as it gets.

It’s maligned because some folks see it as a way to get hurt (I think that’s overblown) or believe that other forms of conditioning are superior. Run too much, they say, and it will inhibit strength gains. There are grains of truth to all of this, but generally speaking, a good running program with moderate distances and different types of workouts offers a lot of bang for the buck, and without nearly as much downside as detractors would have you believe. Yes, it will be hard to build strength if you’re running 30, 40, or 60 miles a week. But we’re not going there, at least not in this post.

One last note before I get into the meat of it. The workout ideas I’m going to throw out there in this post will be for people who are already doing some running. If you’re a beginner, you’ll need to start slower and much more modestly and build up your running base before trying what I’m going to present here. A solid Couch to 5K program is going to be right up your alley. Tackle that and you’ll be ready to go to the next level.

Now for the rest of us. You can get fit running 15 to 20 miles a week. But your body will eventually adapt, and when it does, you’ll find your fitness levels stagnate or even regress. Adaptation is a bummer. So that’s why we must challenge ourselves by making things hard.

And that’s where intervals come in. What are intervals? For running, intervals are when you run at a challenging pace for a specific distance or time, then slow down to an easy recovery pace for a short time. Once that recovery period is over, you ramp up the intensity again.

A basic interval run might look like a “race pace” 400-meter interval, followed by a 200-meter slow jog or walk, and repeating this process for about eight rounds. That will give you about three miles of movement. A “race pace” speed should be a hard effort, akin to running but not being able to hold conversation during the effort. Your rewards: torching excess body fat, improving your cardiovascular capacity and gaining experience running at challenging paces that might have made you pause. Try it and see what you think.

400-meter warmup

400-meter race pace 200-meter recovery walk or slow jog, x8

400-meter cooldown (light jog)

As you get accustomed to this, try kicking up the speed on the race pace intervals.

Here’s a place where you can work on some speed.

Too easy? Let’s kick it up a notch. But I’ll just warn you right now:  It’s hard. It’s called a ladder, and it’s a whole lot of no-fun work with big rewards.

How it works: After a moderate warmup, you’ll run a certain distance at a challenging pace, or maybe a desired race pace. Then you’ll slow down to a light jog for 400 meters. When that recovery interval is over, you do a longer race-pace run, then slow down to the light jog. And the next interval has you go at an even longer race pace interval. When you reach a peak distance on the “fast” intervals, you’ll then shrink their distance until you reach the “fast” interval distance that you started with.

If you’ve never done this before, start with a “baby ladder.” It looks like this:

400-meter warmup

400-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

400-meter race pace

400-meter cool-down

The first time I did this, it trashed me. And this isn’t even the full monty!

Here’s the full ladder:

400-meter warmup

400-meter, race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1600-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

400-meter race pace

400-meter cool-down

That’s a lot of work, a lot of intensity, and a decent amount of mileage, to boot. It’s important to remember that during this workout, you never stop for a water break, never stop to walk. You’re always running. As you adapt, increase the speed on your race pace intervals.

The best places to do this is either on a track (one lap is 400-meters, so it’s easy to keep track of distances) or on a treadmill (distances are going to be on the control panel). It will be a little harder to track your speed on the track, though most sports watches can help. On a treadmill, you can set precise speeds.

Do this speed workout once a week, mixed in with your regular runs or other conditioning routines.

Your weekly run schedule might look something like this:

Monday: 3-mile-run

Tuesday: 5-mile run

Wednesday: Speed work (ladders or other form of speed interval)

Thursday: Rest

Friday: 3-mile run

Saturday: Long run

Sunday: 30-minute cross train (bike, swim or some other form of conditioning)

Next week: I’ll get into some other ideas for conditioning, and not all of them will involve running.

Bob Doucette

4 thoughts on “Fitness Friday: Running intervals to build speed, torch fat

  1. Good information, Bob. As a trainaholic, I could not agree more.

    The analogy I use is this: Strength training is like upgrading the peripheral components on your car to make it faster; tires, gears, etc. Running, and other anaerobic activities, upgrade the motor…. Upgrade. Your. Motor.

    • Absolutely. I’m a firm believer that strength and power are great, but they are perfected with work capacity — my fancy term for conditioning. I think that’s what separates ‘exercisers’ and gym bros from athletes. I’d MUCH rather be the athlete!

  2. Hi Bob,

    I need to start doing these types of workouts.

    My weight has plateaued over the past 10 years, which many would be happy with. But as a runner I would like to get rid of some of that belly fat and improve my running.

    I need to mix things up in 2020 and add some track workouts to my weekly running.

    Great post.

    Andy

    • Aweosme! These type of interval workouts will push you, and that added stimulus will likely help increase your metabolism and burn that excess. If you’re not already doing it, be sure to include some weight training. That will also help. Keep truckin!

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