In this regular running column, we talk about training, shoes, gadgets, nutrition, racing, hashing and more. This month, Verne Maree talks about getting faster, interval training and new findings on the huge health and fitness benefits of high-intensity intervals. Want the latest list of marathons and races in Singapore? Head here.
So, you’ve got the running bug, you’re out there at least three times a week, and now you want to get faster – but how? Well, once you can comfortably cover 8K or 10K at a gentle pace, that becomes your long, slow run; for the other two or three, you can look at doing more “quality running” over shorter distances to improve your strength and speed. That’s how we were taught, anyway.
One of them could be a tempo run: after a 2K warm-up jog, you run from 3K to 5K at a pace that feels somewhat uncomfortable. Or you do a hill run, but probably not every week. The third would be an interval run: a good warm-up followed by a predetermined number of fast-paced intervals, anything from 100m to 1,000m, between which you walk or jog gently to get your breath back. Internet sites like Runner’s World are full of training plans for runners of every level.
As a very average sort of runner, I most enjoy my interval-type sessions. Yes, for short periods you may be going flat out – what our mildly obsessive Run for Life coach, Alf Burgess, called “bleeding from the eyeballs” – but then you get to stop, walk or jog to recover, and the pain immediately goes away.
Alf used to explain that the recovery period between intervals was the most important part, because that’s when your fast-pumping heart is expanding and adapting to the anaerobic stress you’ve just put it through.
Serious runners might require the perfect regularity of a standard 400m oval track for their interval training, but for the rest of us it can be horribly boring, like the gym treadmill – and frankly, just too hard.
In my old running group, we were introduced to intervals through something called fartlek. (I know, it doesn’t sound pretty.) Meaning “speed play” in Swedish, this creative training technique incorporates faster intervals into a continuous run. For example, you could choose to sprint between every third and fourth lamppost, or run harder every alternate block, or whenever you see a black Mercedes. (On a lazy day, opt for yellow Porsches.)
My run from home to the East Coast Park is perfect for interval training, as the path along the canal, down Guards Avenue and along to the underpass is marked at 100m intervals. Otherwise, I measure the intervals on my Garmin GPS watch (which I absolutely love, by the way).
Elite Aussie runner Suzy Walsham, who, surprisingly to me, doesn’t use a GPS watch “or anything technical like that”, says the markings along East Coast Park are crucial to her training sessions. She also likes the 4.3K route around Bedok Reservoir, partly because its fairly flat, even gravel surface gets her off the hard road, but also because it has stone markings every 500m.
“I will often do 1K or 2K reps with a short rest in between,” she tells me. “I also do fartlek based on distance. For example, I’ll do an 8K fartlek including 2K hard, 1.5K easy/steady, 1.5K hard, 1K easy/steady, 1K hard, 500m easy/steady and then 500m hard. I do this in a little over 30 minutes.” Wow.
What is HIIT?
Compelling new research shows the amazing benefits of high-intensity speed training (HIIT). Whether you’re a runner or not, says my current favourite health and fitness guru, Dr Phil Mercola (mercola.com), exercising at very high intensity interspersed with periods of moderate rest is one of the best ways to get in shape.
Workouts may be a lot shorter than what you’re used to; a total session could take as little as around 20 minutes. There are as many possible variations as there are people to dream them up, but here’s a classic session: After at least a ten-minute warm-up run (I prefer 20), run as hard as you possibly can for 30 seconds, then walk for 90 seconds to recover. Repeat eight times. At the end of each 30-second interval, you should be gasping and feel unable to run another step.
Because HIIT is so intense, Dr Phil says you should do it no more than two or three times a week. Personally, I find it too knackering to do more than once a week. But if you’re ready to get out of your comfort zone, this is the way to go.
Reported benefits of HIIT (from mercola.com):
• A tremendous boost in human growth hormone (HGH), also known as the fitness hormone.
• Significant reductions in total abdominal, trunk and visceral fat, along with significant increases in fat-free mass and aerobic power (Journal of Obesity).
• Immediate beneficial change to DNA, specifically an increased production of fat-busting, or lipolytic, enzymes (Cell Metabolism).
• Improved insulin sensitivity and blood sugar regulation.