ARTICLE: The Comprehensive Session

Interval Primer
When you read running books be they Lindie Naughton’s “Let’s Run”, “Daniel’s Running Formula”, one of Lydiard’s many works or the modern and revolutionary programmes of Matt Fitzgerald and his “Brain Training”, you can find many examples of “sessions”: So-called interval training consisting of repetitions and recoveries.

Go read Runner’s World or any book written by a former top-class athlete, and you’re likely to end up with even more. Ask some of our own greats (I did!), and you’ll get different sessions. Could you blame anyone for asking “are they all right, or are they all wrong?”

“Neither”, is the answer, incidentally, instead you simply have to choose a session that is appropriate for whatever you are trying to do at any given time. Many sessions are quite similar, for instance, there’s little difference between running 10x400 with 30 second recoveries and 4x1000m with 1:15 recoveries as in both cases you end up running 4 kilometres and rest for 5 minutes.

Before I go on, let me apologies in advance for not adding references to some of my statements here. Truth is this article is an amalgamation of my own experiences and several of the sources I draw upon on a regular basis, especially Tim Noakes and Matt Fitzgerald. I wanted this article to be an easy read for people interested in knowing more about intervals and not a dissertation. This is a very debatable topic, so if you have strong argument with any of my suggestions here, please comment on the post and I’ll be happy to share my sources and anecdotes.

What’s the better session?
Let’ return to our two different, yet similar, sessions: 10x400m with 30 seconds recovery and 4x1000m with 1:15 recovery. Let us also assume that the pace you would like to practice for your next race is 3:45min/km (6:02min/km).

If you can handle running 1000m at 3:45min/km pace and not just 400m at a time, then the longer session will give you a closer experience to what you’ll see on race day, both in terms of fitness and mental preparation. So in those cases it’s the better session. If you’re tired or can’t hold your pace for 1000m, then the 400m may be the best session. To really improve your running, you should be asking yourself these questions or find a coach who can do it for you.

How do you choose the appropriate speed then, I hear you ask? (e.g. “why 3:45min/km?”). This is a big topic unto itself and I won’t answer it in full here. You can get relative “target speeds” from many sources such as Matt Fitzgerald’s TPL system or the VDOT paces of Daniels’. An easier way is to decide what you are trying to simulate with your training and then picking the pace that “feels right”.

How to choose your pace
I use target paces myself, but I don’t stick to them blindly on the track (at the moment I generally beat them easily as I estimated conservatively). If I decide that my session on a Tuesday will simulate 10k racing conditions, then I try and set off for every repeat of my interval session as if I was running a 10k. This is what is classically called “going by feel”. Since the 10k is still mainly an aerobic (as opposed to anaerobic) event, I know that I should feel only slightly uncomfortable doing these types of reps (if I finish every repeat destroyed, I’m probably running at 1 mile or 3000m pace. If in doubt, try to remember how you felt during your last race on the distance).

“Wait a minute”, I can hear you quote Homer Simpson, “isn’t it better to train faster so the slower pace will feel more comfortable in the race.” This is true too, running at very fast speeds, depending on exactly how it is done, can increase your ability to recruit motor units in your muscles, increase your anaerobic tolerance as well as many other factors that lead to an increase of your max pace. If your maximal pace over a meaningful distance (not ultra-short sprints) is higher, it tends to make slower speeds feel easier in return.

These two training types are complimentary, not in opposition, and Matt Fitzgerald often introduces 1 session at Race Pace per week and 1 session at a pace higher than that for your race distance (I’m simplifying this a bit, Matt has a slightly different approach when it comes to half-marathons and marathons than for 5ks and 10ks).

My Method
I decided to borrow this method with one exception: During my intensity phase, I keep a stronger hill element (since I’m still a hill runner). This meant working on my big weakness, steep ascents, by doing a hill interval session each week. To allow for proper recovery between sessions, I bundled the Race Pace and the higher-than-race-pace session into what I term a “comprehensive session”. This makes for quite a challenging session, that shouldn’t be undertaken without proper preparation, but is proving formidable in bringing me to the next level of running performance, and I’d therefore like to share it here.

How to prepare your session
As I am currently preparing for a 10k my Race Pace sessions are performed at 10k Pace. My faster-than-race-pace sessions are currently finished at 1-Mile speed (or faster). To allow for this speed, I keep the latter very short and snappy. Later, as I get closer to the actual racing season, I will lengthen the faster-than-race-pace repetitions, but slow them down to 3k and eventually 5k pace. This follows the ancient principle of “specificity”: The closer you get to race day, the more similar to the actual race your training should be. Running an 800m at 5k pace is closer to a 10k race (or indeed a hill race) than running a 200m at 1-Mile pace.

On Tuesdays, I will go down early to the Crusaders track and I will try to get at least 3 miles (4.8km) of warm-up done. This is normally done at between Base and Marathon pace. If not I take this as a sign that I’m not feeling well, and depending on how the first reps go, I would amend my session (I’ll talk more about how to do this in a later instalment). Then I do a set of Dynamic Warmups (leg swings, zombies, butt-kicks and many more non-static stretches). Now I am ready for a tough session.

I always start with the Race Pace interval session and finish with the faster-than-race-pace session. The reason is that it’s easier to do short and fast repetitions when slightly fatigued than longer repetitions that are still run at a relatively challenging pace. An added benefit is that it trains your body to be able to sprint while you’re fatigued which very useful for racing.

Goal-setting during the Race Pace Session
To hit my goal of 37:30 for the National 10k, I’ll need to run at 3:45min/km (6:02min/mile) pace for my peak race. This goal doesn’t come out of a vacuum, instead I have had a loose idea of how fast I could run (back in January), and I used Matt Fitzgerald’s system to estimate what training level I would be at come the event. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed that I can comfortable run sub-4min kilometres (sub-6:26min miles). I then noticed that while doing my long repetitions, I comfortably seemed to run 3:40-3:50 per rep. This meant that I was a TPL 24 in Matt’s system which translates to a goal of 37:30 for the 10k. As your next step, you can start testing this prediction by running longer (and more) repetitions at this pace in training and see how your body seems to be responding. I’ll provide an example of this below.

Without this system, you could simply have made a loose estimation by multiplying your average pace per km or mile for your repetitions in your interval session by the number of kilometres or miles in your race. Personally, I would only use pace on 800m repetitions and longer as a valuable gauge. Also take into account how many you can do of these before serious tiredness sets in, if you are shattered after 2x800m of what you think is your 10k pace, then you clearly won’t (yet) be able to maintain the pace you are using during the course of a 10k race.

If you run 5x800m, and you run the first two in 3:40 pace, but the last 3 in 4:20, it is likely that the 3:40 pace is unsustainable as you don’t have enough stamina (a word for the combination of pace and endurance) for sustained efforts at the pace. In other words, you can run the pace for a few repetitions but it takes too much out of you to do so in relation to the full session. In such cases, it’s very likely you’d be perfectly fine at 3:50, so try and experiment with that. Also, try to keep your splits very even.

When I did 4x2000m repetitions yesterday, my splits were 7:30, 7:33, 7:36, and 7:30 = average 7:32 pr. 2000m repetition. This is a variation from the average of no more than 4 secs per 2000m (so perhaps as little as 2 secs/km). To do this, rehearse before-hand at what time you should approximately finish each rep and use that as a “race goal” for each repetition.

Example: I knew I wanted to run somewhere around 3:50min/km pace but would be happy with any sub-4:00 as I hadn’t done 2000m repeat before and did a hard hill session 2 days earlier. So I knew that the slowest I should finish the first repetition was in 8 minutes (anything below that was a bonus). At the same time, I focus heavily on “the feel” of a certain pace, once I get the first one right, the next follow easily. This has to remain a Race Pace session, so if I start to fall apart at any stage, I have to slow down, or the session would turn into a Max Pace session (and a bad one too), which is a pointless exercise.

The “Faster-than-Race-Pace-Session” – How to Prepare
Faster than Race Pace repeats are generally between 100m and 800m, but for a few athletes they could be longer (some very strong 5000m runners may be able to do 1500m repeats at 3000m pace for this session for example, but this is rare).

Your last 1-mile time is your best gauge of how fast they should be in theory, but I recommend simply running as fast as you can without sprinting. Sprinting is what exercise physiologists term “alactic exercise” and is not directly transferable to endurance training. Sprints have their place in developing leg-turnover and running economy, but at this stage of the season, running as fast as you can without all-out sprinting is more race-specific. Also, over most distances (even 200m), sprinting tends to give you a very uneven pace (you may run the first 100m in 10 seconds and the last in 20sec and still it’s a very credible 30 secs for the 200m which may fool you into thinking you’re running steady).

I should warn that a hard session like this should not be undertaken lightly, especially not when you will be doing it pre-fatigued (you will have done the Race Pace session before). To properly prepare the body for this ensure that you have done first fartleks and speed bursts (30 seconds all-out-sprints) during your long runs in the early stages of your base training, and later sessions such as the 30/30 (30 seconds hard sprinting and 30 second recovery). These exercises are a gentle way of easing the body into the idea of running very hard for 200m or longer. Many runners tend to get hamstring injuries when they introduce sprinting because their quadriceps is over-developed compared to the hamstring. When you sprint, you stretch the muscles much more than while doing regular running and the stronger quadriceps then tends to tear some of the muscle fibres in the weaker (under-developed) hamstrings.

Because of this, uphill sprints (30 seconds max) and all other forms of hill running during the base phases, will also give you a very strong protective mechanism against injuries from very fast sessions as it develops leg strength in general and the hamstring in particular. I hope you’re seeing that the hen always has to come before the egg in running. Hard sessions demand a strong body: Build a dam before you plan for the storm.

Faster-than-race-pace: How to!
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re preparing for a 10k race, you can run these sessions at 1 mile, 3000m, or 5k pace. If you’re preparing for the half-marathon, you could use 10k pace and so on. The shorter the repeat you choose, the faster you can run.

I recommend establishing a progression for yourself. Start short and run your reps at 1-mile or 3000m pace, then as your repetitions get longer, settle in at 5k pace as you get closer to the season, and keep it there until you start racing.

During the season, I recommend you use “Mixed Intervals” to maintain your fitness rather than this session, so I will cover that in a separate post.

My advice would be to start at 200m, this is long enough not to have to sprint, but short enough that you can keep pretty much any pace you decide, and this is important.

Rest or float?
Traditionally, and especially in Ireland, athletes tend to use periods of complete recovery (e.g. “standing still”) between repetitions and often longer breaks between “sets” (some interval session are designed with a “set” of for example “3x300m”, a second set of “3x600m” and so on).

Matt Fitzgerald does not use this approach in his training but instead uses what is normally called “floats”. Floats are also known as “active recoveries”, which mean you keep running (albeit at a slower pace) during your recovery time instead of standing still.

I believe there are several reasons to prefer active recoveries:
  1. It’s more race specific: In races you’ll often have to slow down to gather strength to go again. This is reflected in floats

  2. It trains the body to keep running even when heavily fatigued, this is the same physiological effect as seen in Recovery Runs, albeit for briefer time and thus to less effect

  3. The transition from slow running to hard running is less abrupt than from full stop to hard pace, and should reduce risks of certain injuries
  4. You cover more overall mileage during your session, meaning less running to do later
The proponents of full recoveries would put forward the following arguments:

1. Full recovery allows you to start your next repetition fresher than a float
2. Floats may bring the mileage up too high for some runners for the session
3. When you have a group doing floats, it’s hard to get them started together if they are jogging between sets

I believe (3) is a valid point, although you can organise around it (and if you have a group of runners disciplined enough to jog together, it’s likewise not a problem). I don’t know of any evidence that of (1) and even if it were true, you could simply introduce slightly longer breaks when doing floats as compared to full recovery (e.g., by trial and error you could estimate that 2 minutes jogging is equal to 1 minute at full stop).

Despite this concession, I suspect you may actually be recovering better recovering while jogging, as keeping the body warm and moving and the blood flowing than by standing around stiffening up. Therefore I only use floats and would never consider using non-active recoveries unless I wanted to facilitate a group session.

On point (2), I will only say that if you’re worried about the mileage getting to high, then either shorter the session, or ensure runners are better prepared. In all honesty, the least harmful form of exercise I can think of for anyone with a modicum of running experience is jogging. Slow running gives you the strength to run fast. If anything, I suspect the floats makes you more injury-resistant, not less.

Length of Floats
So how to decide on the length of the break? There are multiple suggestions in literature and I find all of them to be sound. Text-books will tell you to look at the length and intensity of your repetition, the longer and harder the repetition the longer the break (unless you are doing a special type of session like 30/30, but let’s ignore that for now).

What this really sums up to is that you should choose a break long enough for you to recover properly to do all of your allotted repetitions at more or less your planned pace (if you’re heavily fatigued, you may need longer than normal recoveries, in that case I will suggest another solution, but I’ll cover that in the next instalment called “Interval Emergencies!”).

“That’s not very helpful”, you may think, and you’ll be right too. Everyone needs some guidelines to get started and I’ll give you some here, but be warned: You must go out on the track and try how they work for you. If you find the breaks too long or too short, then change them, there is no scientifically correct recovery-length, so don’t be afraid to “ruin the session”.

Anyway, Matt Fitzgerald suggests starting with 3 minute floats in his “Brain Training for Runners”, and having tested this myself, it’s a very good conservative starting point that will allow most runners to recover from almost any pace.

However, my experience was that I had to move down to 2 minutes very quickly as “I got bored” once my fitness improved and I was “rearing to go” early in my float. If you feel like this, it’s a sure sign that your breaks are a bit too long.

2 minutes will probably work for a good while for you, especially as you should be increasing your speed as you improve. Don’t increase your speed and reduce your recovery for the same session. Adjust one variable at a time and see how you go.

Why Make it Harder?
What’s the point of reducing the float? Again, we return to the Principle of Specificity. In almost all race distances, perhaps bar the marathon, slumping to a “jogging pace” for 2-3 minutes will cripple your race performance, or to put it in a different way: You’ll never have that sort of time to recover in a race!

Therefore, as you get closer to the racing season, you can drop your floats down to 90 seconds, and then 1 minute (but no further, once you drop it down to around 30 seconds, you are essentially performing a VO2 max session or a tempo run. These sessions have their place, but don’t mingle them with your intervals).

This has an added benefit: As you get very fit, you will be able to recover from most paces within 1 minute, and you will be easily bored by long recoveries, so don’t take more than you need.

Other Interval Advice
My first “last” piece of advice won’t be very practical to many: When you can perform your repetitions alone with a watch or with a few people you know well. This allows you full control of your own session and you can keep it 100% tailored to yourself. Now tailor-made sessions is my particular obsession as training commentator, and for a lot of people, the fun about running is to be part of a club sessions.

Before anyone accuses me of being inherently antagonistic to group sessions, let me say that I am not (after all, many athletes use them successfully, however, notice that the better the runner, the more they train alone or in very small groups). The advantages that group sessions (especially with a coach) have are numerous: Greater motivation (for some), help with pacing, social interaction, and on-the-run coaching. The risk are equally numerous unfortunately: Wrong pacing, too much competitiveness (racing in training), and, the worst offender, doing the wrong session at the wrong time for you.

Ok then, if we have to abandon personalised sessions for the group session, then how do you make the best of it? Here’s my “Do and Don’t” list:

· Do ask the coach “what’s the purpose of this session”
· Do ask the coach “how fast should I run it” (most coaches are only happy to keep you to a set time)
· Do record your results from the session or ask the coach to do it
· Do keep an even pace
· Do race by feel, if you’re having a good day, you’re having a good day, regardless of what the watch says (be it yours or your coaches’).
· Don’t race in training
· Don’t go out too fast, keep an even pace!
· Don’t run the first intervals too hard so you slow down on the later ones (this often happens when you are “racing”)
· Don’t sprint at the finish, again keep an even pace!!!
· Don’t disturb other runners doing the session (with chatter etc.) – maybe they need to concentrate more than you!

If you keep all the above in mind, you can make a perfectly good training out of a group interval session. Also, even if you don’t, almost all training is better than no training, so you’re likely to still see some improvement despite executing your intervals poorly. If you have serious issues with motivation and find it very hard pushing yourself when you're alone, then group sessions do have an edge for you, but remain watchful of doing a session too hard for you to handle.
Ignore the Masochists
Poor execution taken to the extreme, such as “running yourself into the ground” every interval session, will not get you anywhere (except into the physio’s office). If anyone told you that you should leave every session feeling completely destroyed, they are more likely trying to impress or intimidate you. Such efforts should be restricted to a “breakthrough workout” (to borrow Matt’s term for it) every 4 weeks or so (usually in the form of a time trial or a race). Despite what some Stone Age people may believe, the body does not have an infinite capacity for absorbing punishment and it’s not a mark of bravery to constantly run to the limit (just as jumping over a cliff shouldn’t be considered courageous!).

If you see someone training like this, don’t feel tempted to keep up, you will be passing them out any day now...

Final Word of Warning
I know it is tempting to push ahead and go straight to the tougher sessions. If you have many years of fitness base and well-conditioned muscles, you may be safe doing this, but if not, please heed my warning. If one factor stands out as the difference between me not getting injured now and getting injured in the past, it’s allowing time for the body to adapt to new types of training sessions. Readers here may remember that 16 weeks ago I was still recovering from two bad injuries: bursitis in the knee and plantar fasciitis. While they still linger under the surface, I can currently handle a 50 mile training load, including 3 key workouts per week without suffering a recurrence. This is how effective the human body is in adapting, if you give it time to do so.