Intervals bring back painful memories of high school and college track workouts. Pushing to the physical and mental limit, running faster than race pace, with short recoveries. It hurts.
The benefits of intervals, even for young runners, are clear: Increase VO2max. Improve strength and form. Gain mental fitness.
Challenge: how to make intervals safe and fun for kids?
Here are a few thoughts that I have tried with my 8 and 14 year old boys:
- Talk with your kids. Explain to your kids the entire workout and the benefit.
- Set modest expectations. Start with a small set of intervals and increase workload (number and pace of intervals) slowly over weeks and months based on the runner’s progress and comfort level.
- Stress consistency over speed. To maximize running economy, kids needs to able to produce consistent splits whether running a mile race or a 5K. Although it may be tempting to “race” the first interval, it will adversely impact the pace of the remaining intervals.
- Monitor and adjust. Maintain a recovery period roughly equal to the interval. Observe your runner during the interval and the recovery period, and back off if necessary. Adjust for other conditions, e.g. weather.
- Make it fun. I introduced a slightly longer “Gatorade break” between sets of 2 intervals (my guys really love taking a swig of their favorite Gatorade flavor – small drink only!).
- Motivate and encourage. Talk with your kids during the intervals and recoveries. Provide real-time, constructive feedback. Be positive. It is a bonus if you can participate in all or part of the workout – the kids will be extra motivated if their mom or dad run with them.
- Take a long term view and be prepared to sacrifice the short term. On a particular hot and humid day, we were all struggling, and I cut the last interval. Huge grins. But the next time they worked even harder.
- Measure progress with intermediate goals. Although a parent should take a long term view, a young runner will expect medium-term validation that his/her interval workouts are “worth it.” Consider a local race every 4-8 weeks to check progress.
We started with 4×400 meters and run at a pace that is slightly faster than race pace. For my 8 year old boy, who has a mile PR of 8:30, that means 2:00 minutes intervals (8:00 pace). For my 14 year old boy with a mile PR of 6:52, we started with 1:40 minutes (6:40 pace). Ability to repeat consistent intervals is more important than running fast.
We stepped up the intervals from 4×400 meters to 8×400 meters over a two month period. We normally run intervals on Sundays, after an easy medium distance run on Saturday. On a couple of weekends, we cut back the number of intervals or the pace (based on weather conditions or how the kids were feeling). We start with a half-mile warm up, and after the intervals warm down with another half-mile. I alternate, and run the 1st interval with my 8 year old son and while he recovers by walking the straightaway and back (200 meters), I run the 1st interval with my 14 year old son, and then have him recover while I do the 2nd with my 8 year old, and so on. When each has run his 2nd interval, we take a quick Gatorade break, and then continue.
On Tuesday evenings, we participate in informal 3 mile / 5K races on the trails of Waveny Park in Connecticut, which incorporates a tempo run on a soft surface into our training, and give the kids feedback about the progress of their training.
We have been able to increase the intervals to 8×400 and reduce the pace from 2:00 minutes to 1:50 for my 8 year old son, and from 1:40 to 1:35 for my 14 year old. I let them “empty the tank” on the last interval, with my younger son running 1:38 and my older son 77 seconds.