Run faster with science

Maybe you ran your first race for the accomplishment. Now that you know you can do it, you want to do it better.

You might’ve tried the timeless strategy of “go fast and hold on.” But you hit your personal limits. Your wall. How do you break through and go faster? This post will explore how with science of interval training.

Set Your Goal

You have to know what you’re aiming for.  And you should keep it realistic. Going from 30 minutes to 20 minutes in a few weeks is not realistic. Going from 22 minutes to sub-20 in 8 weeks is aggressive and realistic.

Design a Plan

The biggest mistake people make is not having a training plan. They think that to run faster they just need more mileage under their feet, so they run either the same distance or for the same amount of time each session and wonder why they don’t see improvements.

Every session should have a purpose and function that is part of a larger plan that’s working to achieve a specific goal.

The best training plans will be specific to you. But I don’t know you personally, I don’t know what your last race time was, I don’t know what your goals are. So we’ll use my made up goal of getting from a 22 minute 5k to sub-20 (we’ll use 20 minutes to make the math cleaner).

Fun with Interval Training

Now to the good stuff. How do we increase our aerobic capacity and push past our limits? The secret is interval training.

Interval training is simply a workout designed around sets of prescribed work and rest. 

You can apply interval training to any type of activity, as well as target the development of certain energy systems. But we won’t get into that for this article. We’ll just be focusing on developing our aerobic capacity and getting faster at running long distances.

Here’s a fun 1970s style illustration of the variables that go into an interval workout, from the classic Interval Training: Conditioning for Sports and General Fitness

Breakdown of an interval.
Breakdown of the structure of an interval. Source: Interval Training: Conditioning for Sports and General Fitness

The variables we’ll focus on when designing our program are

  • How far we’re going to run for each repetition and how fast we want to do it
  • How long we’re going to recover between each run
  • Total number of reps and sets for each training session

The science that makes interval training so effective is progressive overload. Progressive overload  is taxing our system just a little bit more than it’s used to.

Our body experiences this new stress, thinks, “Whoa, that was new. I better make some improvements around here just in case that happens again,” and then creates adaptations to accommodate these new changes. It’s the same idea with weightlifting, by adding just a few pounds each week you progressively overload your system and get stronger.

We keep pushing just a little bit further each time, session after session, until we hit our target.

PR-ing Your Rest

When looking at a training plan, knowing how how far to run and how fast to do it makes sense. But equally important is how long to rest and making sure we stick to those times. “I’ll wait until I catch my breath” is not a plan.

Why is the amount of rest so important? We want to have just enough rest to let our body replenish its ATP sources and avoid getting fatigued but nothing beyond that.1 If we treat rest as a measured variable, we can train our bodies to recover quicker.

Shorter Runs, Bigger Engine

Interval training is composed of a lot of short, high intensity bursts. “Why am I sprinting if I’m supposed to be training for distance running?”

Good question. You ever notice that it’s only after you finish a sprint that you start breathing heavy and feel your heart pounding in your chest? Our heart’s stroke volume (the amount of blood it pumps) is highest not during the run but during recovery. More blood getting pumped means more oxygen going to our body, which means our aerobic system improves.2

If we have a training session that gets our heart reaching peak volume multiple times rather than just once, we’ll drastically improve our engine for long distance runs.

Designing a Program

Enough science, let’s put this into action. We’ll break down our target goal into smaller bits. So for a 20 minute 5k, that’s a target time of 4:00 km/min,  a 1:36 400m pace, and a 0:48 200m.

That’s where we want to end up. We do the same thing with where we’re currently at, so we know where to start. Then we just chip away 1 to 4 seconds each week, depending on the length of the run.

Each workout is written in the following format: Sets x Reps x Distance @ Target Time (Rest Time)

We’ll plan for three training days a week. Two of the days are interval heavy, with a blend of 200m, 400m, and 800m runs. This is designed to have many stroke volume peaks to increase our aerobic capacity. There’s a specific amount of prescribed rest between each rep. For each set rest a bit longer for 5 minutes.

The third day is longer intervals, to both mentally train for longer runs and to work on controlling our speed for longer distances.

The target times go from where you’re currently at to slightly past where you want to be. We go past the goal time to account for the fatigue you’ll be feeling in the race and to boost confidence in knowing you’re capable of actually running faster than your goal pace.

You’ll notice the times are very precise, so you’ll need a stopwatch. You can use your phone but having one on your wrist is easier.

Doing the workouts on a track is preferable, since measuring the distances are very easy (1 lap is 400 meters).3

Here’s a sample 8 week, 3 session a week training program to go from a 22 minute 5k to sub-20.

Sample 5k Training Plan

Day 1Day 2Day 3
Week 12 x 4 x 400m @ 1:46 (3:32)3 x 4 x 200m @ 0:53 (2:39)1 x 2 x 3000m @ 13:00 (6:30)
Week 22 x 5 x 400m @ 1:44 (3:28)1 x 5 x 200m @ 0:52 (2:36)
1 x 3 x 800m @ 3:25 (3:25)
1 x 2 x 3000m @ 12:48 (6:24)
Week 31 x 5 x 400m @ 1:42 (3:24)
1 x 3 x 800m @ 3:22 (3:22)
3 x 4 x 200m @ 0:51 (2:33)1 x 2 x 3000m @ 12:36 (6:18)
Week 43 x 4 x 400m @ 1:40 (3:20)1 x 6 x 200m @ 0:50 (2:30)
1 x 4 x 800m @ 3:19 (3:19)
1 x 2 x 3000m @ 12:24 (6:12)
Week 51 x 6 x 400m @ 1:38 (3:16)
1 x 3 x 800m @ 3:16 (3:16)
3 x 6 x 200m @ 0:49 (2:27)1 x 2 x 3000m @ 12:12 (6:06)
Week 63 x 4 x 400m @ 1:36 (3:12)2 x 5 x 200m @ 0:48 (2:24)
1 x 4 x 800m @ 3:13 (3:13)
1 x 2 x 3000m @ 12:03 (6:02)
Week 71 x 6 x 400m @ 1:34 (3:08)
1 x 4 x 800m @ 3:10 (3:10)
4 x 5 x 200m @ 0:47 (2:21)1 x 2 x 3000m @ 11:54 (5:57)
Week 81 x 5 x 1000m @ 3:55 (2:00)3 x 4 x 200m @ 0:46 (2:18)
1 x 3 x 800m @ 3:08 (3:08)
1 x 2 x 3000m @ 11:45 (5:53)

Sets x Reps x Distance @ Target Time (Rest Time) View the entire spreadsheet

Now this plan is just an example of putting interval training in action for a goal. There are many other factors at play with performance, including nutrition, recovery, sleep, additional activities, stress, and other factors. 

You can adapt the methods discussed here, or send us a message to get something custom to achieve your own goals.

How have you tackled running faster? Have you / will you try interval training?

  1. Fox, Edward L., and Donald K. Mathews. Interval Training: Conditioning for Sports and General Fitness. Saunders, 1974.
  2. Ibid
  3. If you don’t have access to a track you can measure distances with Google Maps.

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