Want to improve your running performance? Less might be more!

As a recreational runner you understand the frustration with not being able to increase your pace. You do your long-slow runs and you cross-train and you run up hills and you speed through those shorter runs, but you can’t seem to get faster. Well, the answer to your pace problems might just be 10-20-30.

High intensity intervals are the “new” way to workout. They’re good for your health, they’re good for performance and they’re used by athletes around the world. But the question is, what type of intervals are optimal for a recreational runner? A recent study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Physiology showed that 10-20-30 might be the answer. Two scientists in Copenhagen conducted a small experiment with recreational runners (5K times of approximately 23 minutes). They split the participants in to two groups. The intervention group was asked to do a 10-20-30 training regime. This consisted of approximately 1.2k of warm up at low intensity followed by three to four 5 minute running sessions with 2 minute breaks between each session. Each of the 5 minutes of running consisted of 5 consecutive 10-20-30 second runs at an intensity of <30%, <60% and 90-100% of their max intensity respectively (see the note below for more information on how to determine these intensities). The other group (control group) continued to train as they were before with an average weekly volume of 24-25k/week (around 120-130 min/week). The authors found that those in the 10-20-30 group significantly improved their aerobic fitness, 1.5K time and 5k time compared to the control group in just 7 weeks. Another advantage to those in the 10-20-30 group was that their systolic blood pressure (the higher of the two blood pressure numbers) and their cholesterol ratio (total cholesterol to good cholesterol (HDL)) improved significantly while it did not change in the control group.

It seems that high intensity exercise sessions can lead to significant improvements in performance and in health. By simply doing 3-4 repetitions of the 5 minute 10-20-30 intervals, young and healthy participants were able to able to improve their 5K time by 4% and their 1.5K time by 6%! Moreover, they improved their already healthy levels of cholesterol and blood pressure; a difficult task for most. The greatest part of this story is that the runners in the 10-20-30 group were only training three times/week for no more than 30 minutes each session. In other words, less time + higher intensity = greater gains in performance and health.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE: If you are a runner, no matter the level, you can benefit from incorporating high intensity intervals. The intervals in this particular study were 10-20-30 seconds in length, but there are others out there that have been proven beneficial. The benefit of a workout such as 10-20-30 is that it takes less time and is of a lower volume. This gives your body more time for rest and recovery, making it stronger and faster!  If you are not a runner and are not regularly active, be careful when taking on high intensity exercise. It is certainly beneficial, but if you push yourself too hard, too fast, you could get injured. Also, be sure to get clearance if you have high risk for heart disease or have been inactive, before starting high intensity training.

NOTE: You can estimate your 10-20-30 intervals based on heart rate or speed/incline on the treadmill. For the heart rate method, determine your age-predicted maximal heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Take this number and determine 30%, 60% and 100% of it. Use these heart rate zones to determine the appropriate intensity. The heart rate method will underestimate your zones, but is an easy method. The alternative is to use the treadmill to determine your maximum capacity/workload. Start running on the treadmill at an easy speed with an incline of 2%. Every two minutes, increase the speed by 1mph until you are at your maximum running speed. Then start increasing the incline every 2 minutes. When you get to a point where you can’t run the full two minutes anymore, you have determined your maximum capacity. From this, you can calculate the 30% and 60% workloads on the treadmill. This latter method should not be done without a buddy standing close by. It is also essential that you be screened for exercise prior to attempting this method if you have been inactive up until now. Please use this method with caution!