Whether you're a 5 or a 15-minute miler, the desire to go faster is in every runner's DNA. But what's the best way to add a bit of pace in your locker? One answer is to build interval training into your weekly running regime.
Essential reading: Check out our full range of running guides
Whether you're a beginner or a pro level runner, we break down the essential info about interval training and pick out some of the best running watches to train with.
What is interval training?
An interval session basically involves running alternate periods of effort above your normal aerobic level with periods of low-intensity recovery that gives your body the chance to reset before you up the ante again.
Finding your aerobic level can be done with lab tests but a good rule of thumb to tell when you're running beyond your aerobic level is if you're puffing too much to hold a conversation.
Read this: Which Garmin watch is best for you?
Interval sessions can be based on pace or heart rate, distance and time. In the past they'd often be done on the running track by putting together 200m, 400m and 800m efforts with varying periods for recovery but thanks to distance-tracking GPS running watches, you're now free to do interval training wherever you like.
With watches like the TomTom Cardio Runner, Adidas miCoach SmartRun and the Garmin Forerunner 235 you can use web tools and smartphone apps to create your own sessions in advance or even choose from pre-planned workouts that'll help, designed to build speed.
The watches will vibrate and beep to alert you when you need to shift up and down the gears as well as giving you a friendly kick up the bum if you drop below your target pace or heart rate.
What are the benefits of interval training for running?
“Interval training is a key component in a training program," explains Giuseppe Minetti, founder of PaleoGym, a company which combines sports science and technology with personalised functional fitness and nutrition.
“It teaches your body to work at a higher threshold, enables you to run faster for further without a reduction in your speed and gives you the extra edge in the last miles of your long runs.
“By running at (or very near to) your maximum velocity for short bursts, you will increase your capacity to run at a higher percentage of your anaerobic threshold. Interval training also decreases your recovery time, so you can train harder, more often."
Best running watches for interval training
The brilliant thing about the TomTom Spark is that you can set up an interval session on the watch itself.
Choose Run, then Training and Intervals from the menus and you can add a warm
up and cool down based on time or distance, followed by periods of work and
rest also based on time or distance. The final option is the number of times
you repeat the intervals in your session.
Essential reading: Check out our full TomTom Spark review
You don't get the flexibility with the TomTom that you do with the Garmin Forerunner. While you can combine time and distance goals for work and rest, there's no option for cadence or heart rate interval sessions and you can only assign one distance for work and rest. So you're forced to do 400m fast with 200m slow for all your repetitions. You can't do 200m fast, 200m slow, then 400m fast and 400m slow in one session.
Once you've set up your session the watch will buzz and beep to alert you when your warm up is done and it's time to hit the gas. It'll log the splits for each interval as you go but sadly you won't get a breakdown either on the watch or using the online portal, which is a weakness.
The Polar V800 also has fully customisable interval training smarts. Like the Garmin you'll need to set up an account online. Once you've done that you'll get access to the training calendar and the tools to set up interval sessions of your own.
You can create and save phases based on time and distance, and choose to set heart rate zones or have a free workout depending on what you want to achieve. Phases are easy to duplicate to build quick sessions and sessions can be copied and modified to make the process of preparing a monthly plan much quicker.
Unlike the Garmin, you'll need to connect your V800 via USB to sync the training plan to your calendar but the V800 is smart enough to stores sessions in your Favourites so you can easily repeat a workout without having to add it using Polar Flow.
Garmin Forerunner 630
The Garmin Forerunner 630 is at the top end of Garmin's running watches and, while you'll certainly find cheaper Garmin devices that offer interval training, it's the most fully-featured you can buy.
You'll need a Garmin Connect account before you can create or transfer interval training sessions to your watch. Once you're signed up, you can build a plan or choose from a range of pre-made interval programmes.
It's easy and quick to do. Just head into the Workouts section on the website, hit New Workout and create your own custom interval session. You can choose from Time, Distance, Calories and Heart Rate and assign targets for each segment. For example you could opt for 400m at any given pace, heart rate zone, speed or even cadence.
The ability to add open ended warm ups and cool downs is also great, allowing you to get ready for the hard work without feeling like you have to rush against the clock.
Garmin Connect makes it fast and straightforward to duplicate sessions, add repeats within a workout and add it all to your calendar. The result is a superfast way to build your own running schedule
Once you've created your plan you simply hit Send to Device and it'll fire the workout via Wi-Fi to your watch.
Adidas miCoach SmartRun
The Adidas Smart Run is another great interval training tool. The miCoach training site offers the most complete set of training plans you can get. There's a huge selection of schedules based on targets from 5km to a full marathon and also according to your goal time.
There's also the option of creating your own bespoke calendar based on single workouts that include interval sessions.
Building an interval session on the web is fairly simple but you can also plan a workout on the watch itself. Once you have a miCoach account, you can manage your schedule and add single workouts.
The Smart Run is very much a zone training based approach and this means intervals are based on either HR zones or pace zones. So you have to select your effort and rest segments from the five heart rate zones or pace zones. Sadly you can't create a distance or time-based set.
Once you're running though the colour screen makes it easy to see if you're hitting the right levels for each period.