Running Tips – Intervals for Beginners

Do you want to try intervals but you have no idea where to start, what distance to run, or how long you should recover? Or are you already running intervals on a track but want to take your workout outside? Here are some tips to help you incorporate intervals into your training.

Running Tips - Intervals for Beginners

Before adding intervals into your running routine, you should have a solid running base. I would suggest you add interval training once you are comfortably running 3 times a week.

What Are Intervals?

Intervals might also be called speed work, repeats, fartlek, repetitions, or interval training. When you head out for your run, there are segments of the run which are run at a faster pace, with ‘recovery’ time after each prescribed segment (usually slow jogging or walking). Intervals are usually based on distance, but can be based on time with a less structured workout. When you see ‘interval’, the word actually refers to the length of the recovery time. However, most training guides apply the word interval for the ‘repetition’ which is the fast-paced segment of the workout.

Why Run Intervals?

Including intervals in your running workouts are a great idea, especially for runners stuck in a pace rut and those looking to improve their time. Interval training can improve your running form, improve endurance and improve Vo2 max (although this last is more dependent on genetics, so there will always be an ‘absolute’ when it comes to your Vo2 max). Just in case you’re lost – Vo2 max is the highest rate at which your body can transport oxygen to your muscles to be used for activity. Basically, the higher your Vo2 max, the higher your cardiovascular fitness! 🙂

Mentally, intervals increase your ability to ‘tough out’ harder running and have an added benefit of making your regular pace, or your race pace, seem easier in comparison.

What Length Intervals Should I Run?

If you’re training for a race, let the race length be your guide. In general, the longer the race, the longer your intervals. Of course, there are a lot of factors involved, like your current fitness, the intensity of your training plan, the length of time spent training, and where you are in your plan. If you are unfamiliar with intervals, I would use the following as a beginners’ guide to length of intervals:

If your race distance is 5km or less: 200 meters (0.124 miles), 400 meters (quarter mile), 800 meters (half mile) intervals.

If your race distance is 10km or less:  400 meters (quarter mile),  800 meters (half mile) intervals.

If your race distance is between 10km and Half Marathon: 800 meters (half mile), 1000 meters (0.625 mile), mile intervals.

If your race distance is between Half Marathon and Marathon: Same as 10km to Half Marathon, but you could also add race goal pace intervals into your speed workouts, usually 1 mile or longer.

If your race distance is greater than Marathon: Then why are you reading tips for beginners? 😉

Not training for a race but want to incorporate speed work into your running routine? Try these simple intervals workouts for the track deprived.

How Many Intervals Should I Run?

There is no hard and fast rule for how many intervals you should run. Make sure you have a set plan going in to the workout, so you are pushing yourself to finish. If you’re just starting out, you might want to try 4 – 6 intervals, then base your next session of intervals on how difficult it felt and how your body felt afterwards.

As a general rule, unless you are following a specific training plan that calls for more, you should stick to just one speed workout a week, in order to allow your body to rest. Remember, it’s when your body is resting that your muscles recover, repair and grow stronger!

How Fast Should I Run Intervals?

If you have raced before, base your speed on your race paces. Short intervals could be done at 5K pace, or 10K pace. Longer intervals can be done at 15K pace, half marathon pace, or marathon pace. Your speed will depend on you current fitness, and your goal. If you are following a training plan that only gives you the time/pace for each interval, then you can save yourself a lot of math by using this calculator that gives you the minutes per mile pace for any interval length in meters or miles.

How Long and How Fast Should the Recovery Segment Be?

There are so many variables in interval training, there is not one cut and dry answer. Basically, the recovery segment of your interval training is what dictates the intensity of the workout. If you are trying intervals for the first time, begin by seeing how it feels to run a 1:1 work to recovery ratio. So, if for example, you are doing half mile repeats at a 8:00 minute mile pace, the half mile will take 4 minutes. So your recovery at the 1:1 ratio would be 4 minutes (not a distance).

Wearing a heart rate monitor can come in really handy for gauging recovery time. Many coaches go by heart rate for recovery periods, usually wanting to keep their athletes’ heart rates at, or above 120 beats per minute for the recovery.

The speed for recovery is also dependent on the intensity of the workout and the speed of the intervals themselves. If you are running mile repeats at marathon race pace, for example, you may do the recovery at your long run pace; whereas if you were running 200 meter intervals at 10K pace, you might want to do a slow jog, or walk if your recovery time is short. Base it on how you feel! You can always cut a speed workout short, increase recovery time, or do less intervals if you feel like it’s way too hard. Just like you build your long run distance over time, get your body used to speed work before you go all out.

How Do I Work Out Intervals Distance Without a Track?

If you have a GPS watch, then you are all set. Take note of your mileage at the beginning of each interval and check your watch during your interval to see when you hit the required distance. With most GPS watches you can also make each interval a split as well, so you can compare split times for each segment once you’re home.

Without a GPS, the internet is your friend. Check out different online mapping tools for runners, so you can find sections of your local park, or regular running route, that match the distance you want to run for intervals.  Be careful to pick a spot that’s roughly a straight line (you don’t want any turns when you’re running a repeat) and try to find somewhere as flat as possible. If you run on a road, you can always use your car’s speedometer to map out a good interval spot.

Ready to Get Started?

Try these interval workouts to add some intensity to your running workouts, but remember, you can build your own intervals workout, based on the tips above!

On the treadmill

Simple guide for track workouts

Beginner interval training for 5K

Beginner and advanced interval training for 10K

Basic training for Half Marathon, including speed work

A little more advanced


Do you incorporate intervals into your running workouts?

How do you feel when you get a PR in a race?


  1. I find intervals to be very good at improving my overall abilities. Sometimes I do them by running upstairs 3 sets of 10 reps.

    • Stairs are great for intervals, too! Perfect recovery built in, since you have to get back to the bottom.

  2. Great tips, Carly!!!
    I laughed on the marathon intervals – “why are you reading tips for beginners if you are running a marathon?”

    • Ha ha ha! This post was more of a 101 style rather than aimed at the ultra runners! 😉 (But thank you for reading it, anyway!)


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