The four levels of recovery discipline in basic interval (repetition) workouts
For the 42,195th time, the rest period is the critical facet of high-intensity pace-alternation sessions
Eight times 400 meters at 5K race pace or faster is an example of a good track workout to do on a day you wish to avoid track workouts. You can show up for such a session oozing soy and lassitude from every pore and almost sleep through the 20 or so minutesit takes you to fulfill the requirements, yet still amass a fitness-elevating quantum of speed and sustained intensity—something more than you’d get from a few 20-second stride-outs or a five-minute surge up a single long hill within an easy six-miler, the kinds of “workouts” I do when legitimately avoiding anything systematically taxing that too vividly reveal of my progressive decline toward graphic, influencer-style immobility.
Such a workout can be stratified into four levels of discipline.
At level one sits the middle-school or Tuesday night running-singles-club version, which (using 8 × 400 as an example) consists of running the reps at any speed from almost-all-out to 5K race pace. In a group setting, the rest is whatever the last person to finish each rep decides it should be, plus whatever the whiniest person present wants to add as a slackhole bonus. Needless shoe-tying, sips of water, and imprecations directed at God are encouraged during the rest. Almost everyone slows down with every rep, allowing for a sense of shared, inexorable failure.
People who do level-one workouts alone are almost always listening to music or podcasts the whole time, and are wearing something newly washed that shows off a well-toned abdomen. Not me. I recently finished one of these sessions myself, knocking out my eighth 400 in around 73-74 seconds at a local middle school. The first rep was probably in the summer of 2019, so the average rest between reps was around five months. (One of the reps was at sea level, which kind of fucks up the workout’s otherwise elegant structure.)
This kind of workout is good for building false confidence, getting sun, and avoiding the missus for a while longer, but it doesn’t do as much for your fitness as level-two through level-four basic repetition sessions do.
Level two workouts include the requirement of a recovery jog (or walk) of fixed distance. In addition to sneaking in nontrivial amounts of “extra” mileage at the beginner level, this kind of session cajoles even those who tend to draw out the jog into a sense of rhythm or at least continuity. Also, shame.
This kind of session—which for 400-meter reps would probably have 100-meter or 200-meter recovery intervals—is suitable for a group of runners whose fitness levels are all in the same zip code, if not the same neighborhood. If the individuals in the group all know their goal pace and key off the leaders of each rep rather than try to hang with them, the less-fit runners in the group can get more out of the session than they would have if doing it alone. But more often, especially with kids, the laggards wind up doing something other than what they or their coach really had planned for them that day, even if it’s still better than jogging.
Level three workouts shitcan the distance-based rest interval in favor of a time-based one. Although standing around between reps is permitted and sometimes expected, this is a more difficult session, all else the same, than a level-two workout, because if you do the early reps too hard, you’ll later be forced to pay a price in speed that level one and two sessions allow you to dodge. (This assumes you understand, among other things, that a five-minute rest interval for a workout consisting of 8 × 400m is too long. So is ten minutes.)
These are usually best done alone, unless you're the one who’s been invited to the session after someone else thought of it. If you think of it on your own and invite a partner not used to this kind of session, he or she might consciously or unconsciously try to get you to cheat, usually by about five percent of the planned recovery (e.g., a minute becomes close to a minute-ten thanks to an extra burst of Instagram gossip).
Level four workouts are really the only kind of basic repetition workouts you should ever do. I only included the other three for people who enjoy reading bullshit, but don’t want to do anything requiring real discipline. These sessions combine the constraints of levels two and three and include recoveries that are both time- and distance-based.
That means that the recoveries themselves are reps in their own right, and that the workout is just two interlocking repetition workouts.
Let’s say you can run 5K in 15:00, which, if true, may mean that you got lost somewhere on the Internet; this site’s average readership makes that of Fox News look like the student body at a Montessori school. You might want to do 8 × 400 meters at goal pace, or 72 seconds per 400 meters. Since this is not an especially challenging pace given that the session includes only 3,200 meters’ worth of hard running, a plausible recovery interval would be 100 meters at an honest jog—say, 9:00 pace, or 33 seconds.
(If you want to sound like a bit of a douchebag at a local coffee shop, you can describe this workout as “seven times 100 meters at four-hour marathon pace, interspersed with 72-second 400-meter recovery jogs.”)
You can see that each 500-meter rep/rest combo in this workout takes 72 + 33 = 105 seconds, or 1:45. This is about 2:27 marathon pace, which is very close to what a 15:00 5K runner who is adroit at the marathon should be able to run.
Perhaps this same runner might be training for a 1,500-meter race, making 4:00, or 64 seconds per 400, a reasonable goal. He or she might then elect to do 8 × 300 meters in 48 seconds or slightly faster, and take 200-meter recoveries at a fast jog (60 seconds, or 8:00 pace). The workout offers quite a different experience from the one above, with a greater amplitude between the perceived maximum effort and the end-of-recovery-jog ebb, but each rep/rest combo takes about 108 seconds—very close to the same average pace as in the 8 × 400m session.
There is nothing magical about having a rep session average out to about marathon pace—and, as you may have already noticed, the overall pace of the above workouts is a little faster than 2:27 because there are only seven recoveries, not eight. But I have found that the average pace in a session consisting of monotonic reps and recoveries is a useful measure of how hard the session really was, and therefore of how burnt you might expect to feel the next day.
As I did yesterday, I’m going to close this not with an overreaching verbal flourish that pretends to tie the above yak-yak together, but with another music-related video. I’ve discovered that these not only offer a dodge an editor would disallow, but also sometimes even inspire readers to make videos of their own.
Actually, that depends. See entire above article (Substack, 2022) for details.
I generally follow Pfitzinger's plans from Faster Road Racing. He typically prescribes recovery periods that are 50 to 90% of the interval duration. In the absence of someone motivating me to do otherwise, I always choose 90%. I can never decide how guilty I should feel about this / how much fitness gain I'm leaving on the table.