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Threshold Intervals

When designing running workouts, a coach can manipulate three elements of the training plan to elicit certain physiological adaptations. These three elements are: (1) the time or distance of the interval; (2) the speed or pace at which you need to run the workout; and (3) the amount of rest you can take between efforts. While many people are familiar with the ability of a coach to change the distance and pace of an interval – and how this can affect fitness – the rest portion of a workout is often an afterthought or the forgotten element in the training equation, especially for those writing their own schedules.

Actually, manipulating the rest of a track workout is something I find to be particularly effective and one of the best ways to gain fitness. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts regarding the importance of aerobic development, improving your aerobic threshold is one of the most effective ways to gain fitness and race faster. By varying the rest during interval workouts in a unique and innovate way, you can get the benefits from both a tempo run and a speed workout.

Threshold Intervals

Typically, tempo runs or threshold runs are assigned at somewhere between your 10 mile and half marathon race pace. These paces will typically take you right to the edge of your lactate threshold, but prevent you from going over the edge and flooding your system with lactic acid. But, what if you want to work on running faster (mechanics, speed, form, and efficiency) but not deviate from the long-term goal of progressing aerobic fitness? Simple, you implement faster paced intervals at 8k to 10k paces with a short amount of rest.

These intervals allow you to run much faster than a tempo run (usually 6-7 percent faster), but because of the short rest, you can maintain a threshold effort. During these threshold intervals, you’ll often barely catch your breath before starting the next interval, but that means the workout will also go by quickly.

Bonus Benefits

The added bonus of performing these intervals are the pacing practice and strategies you can develop. If you start out too fast during the first interval or two, the short rest will come back to bite you during the middle and latter part of the workout. You may feel good going faster for the first three or four intervals, but the big hairy gorilla will jump on your back during the second half and make the rest of the workout a struggle and a test of wills.

Not for the faint of heart

When performing threshold intervals, it is important to pay attention to the paces and the rest. If you begin to feel tired during the workout and your paces start to slow, make sure you continue to maintain the timing of the rest. You can slow down if you need to, but keep the rest the same.


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7 Responses on “Threshold Intervals

  1. Jeff,
    I get all the tangible benefits but I think the last one you mentioned here is the one I struggle with the most.  As a new runner,  I find it very difficult to hold a steady pace.  The interval work has been huge for me as I’m one of those that goes out way to hard on the first few intervals.  This wasn’t a big deal until you jammed 12 or them in a row with 30 sec rest.  When you get to the 5th interval and you can’t keep up the speed it hits you that you better learn what the right pace “feels” like so you don’t have to keep looking down at your watch!  Or looking down at your lungs after you cough them up following the 8th interval…

    • Hi Marty,

      That’s a great point, the workouts can be a great way of “forcing” you to run the right pace. As you’ve now experienced, going out too hard means getting your butt kicked.

      I think one thing that most people forget is that racing is a skill, just like shooting a basketball or kicking a soccer ball. Pacing is one of the most important parts of a race, so if you can’t do it, you’re going to struggle more than necessary. However, like shooting a three-pointer, it takes a lot of practice and some time before you can get really good at it. However, once you do, you’ll be the Lebron James of the Baltimore running circuit :)

  2. Do you think the following work out is a theshold tempo: 1 mile at 5k pace followed by 1 mile at 10k pace followed by 1 mile 1/2 marathon pace, no rest inbetween and repeat. This was given to me 20 years ago from a runner at Tampa U and I have never seen it before in any workouts, and it lowered all my times. I did this off a solid 25 miles per week and no other speed work. I keeped my long run to 8 to 10. i did this for 6 weeks then 2 weeks later pr 5k and then 10 k then less than 2 months 1/2 marathon.

    • Thats great Rick! Sounds like you found what works for you! That would probably not be considered a threshold tempo, as threshold tempos are usually between 10 mile and half marathon pace, and you were significantly under that for most the workout, but sounds like it helped you to some great PRs, especially with low mileage. Great job! Are you still using that workout today?

  3. I havent did this w\o in 10 yrs. 3 summers ago i did vo2 w\o twice a week an easy run and one long run and lowered all my master times in mile, 5k and 10k. 3 hot months with a friend.

    • That is great you are continuing to improve Rick! Keep up the good work, and keep up those vo2 workouts if they are working for you! Maybe it is time to try the threshold intervals again to see if they can help too.

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