Nothing new about intervals?

Towards the end of last year, a coaching colleague made me aware of a British website called “New Interval Training”, a non-profit site that shares insights into what they call Lactate Dynamics and New Interval Training methods. “New Interval Training” differentiates itself from what it calls “Old Interval Training” by the use of “roll-on recoveries” meaning that you run the recoveries between hard interval repetitions rather than having a complete rest.   

At this point, I must disappoint the reader because while the website “New Interval Training” offers some very up-to-date information about the science behind such intervals and useful specific instructions on how to ease in and out of the “roll-on recoveries”, the concept itself is not new but has seen widespread use over the last six decades.

“There’s nothing new under the sun” – Eclesiastes

My first thought upon reading the description of “New Intervals” was: “this is what we have been doing all along!” My runners had been uneasy at first when I had asked them to do workouts such as 400m repeat with 400m “floats” (the term I tend to prefer for active recoveries). Most of my runners had been weaned into interval training on the track and told to stand still and recover their breaths before commencing the next interval and indeed this was my first introduction to intervals too.

But this was never how Lydiard advocated intervals; he would point out over-relying on that type of interval training often led runners to become conditioned to “expect breaks” in the middle of races, fatal lapses in pace that his own athletes, trained on longer, more consistent efforts, could exploit. I discussed Lydiard intervals in detail in a previous article on my blog early last year but in typical succinct style this is how Arthur Lydiard summarised interval training (which he called repetitions) in his 1962 book “Run to the Top”:

  • Repetitions: for anaerobic capacity development. Run one and jog one.

The Lydiard Foundation, wisely, decided to expand somewhat on these instructions based on the experiences of actual Lydiard athletes, training with the old master in the 50s and 60s, and the Foundation adopted as their standard approach a jog or walk recovery of equal length to the faster repetition or lasting until the athlete’s heart rate returns to between 120-130bpm. Keith Livingstone, author of “Healthy Intelligent Training”, was one athlete influenced directly by Lydiard, and I asked him his opinion on whether the “New Interval Training” constitutes a truly a new concept or if they were essentially the type of training done all along by athletes in the Lydiard system. This was his response:

 “We always did them (ed: “running recoveries”), and the Aussie guys always did “floats” at 6-minute mile pace in their weekly 8 x 400 sessions. When Mal Norwood and I were doing our VO2 max sessions in 1984-5, we jogged our recoveries quite briskly. I’d say that Woldemar Gerschler is the true father of intervals as we know them. He’d start people jogging into the next interval as soon as their pulse got down to 120. Harbig ran 1:46.6 in 1939 off a mixture of intervals and super-slow “recovery” runs of up to 90 minutes in the forest, under Gerschler…I can remember doing 20 x 400 @ 64-5s (3000m pace for me) to start a season, but with 400 jog. That was a good long solid slog, with 8000m cumulative at 3000m pace, but the longer recoveries at 90s/lap made it quite ‘do-able’.”

New interval training – should you get excited?

“New Interval Training” claims to be “the most significant advance in running training since the original interval training”. This claim should be taking with a grain of salt: “New Interval Training” offers some strong guidelines on how to ease in and out of each hard repetition to better develop a better rhythm and trigger better physiological adaptations but coaches have been employing similar methods for their interval training based on trial-and-error experience since the time of Lydiard and likely before.

Likewise, the scientific reasoning underpinning “Lactate Dynamics” are fascinating but not entirely new either:

Lactate Dynamics Training is any form of training where lactate production is deliberately increased by the intensity of exercise and then alternated with periods of less intense activity. In this way the muscle cells learn how to both use and clear the produced lactate during the less intense recoveries. This alternating of pace produces a massive improvement in running economy, the vVO2max and tlimvVO2max, all of which are very strong predictors of performance. (Olympia Training Systems)

Coaches have known since before Lydiard’s time that using active recoveries rather than standing recoveries reduces the heavy feeling of “acidity” in the legs. Once a better understanding of physiology became available, it seemed clear that the increased blood-flow during active recoveries helped the transportation of the positive metabolic products (lactate) and negative metabolic products (hydrogen ions and other waste products) from the anaerobic energy system out of the muscles, benefitting performance.

The Olympia Training Systems article goes on to give an interesting creative example of how you can employ the rolling recoveries for a session that feels more dynamic. They ask us to look at the traditional 3×1 mile session and imagine that you do each 1 mile repeat as a series of 3x400m with a 100m lead-in and 100m floats in between. In their example an elite runner doing 65 seconds for the 400s and floating the 100s in 20s would still run every mile in 4:35 but the session would feel very different from a standard 1 mile repeat session even with active recoveries.

In this context, the theory and the concept of “New Interval Training” does shine and provides a creative view on how specifically you can modify your interval sessions to maximise your body’s usage of lactate. But if you have been using active recoveries, wind sprints and fartleks regularly in your training already then do not expect major changes to your training routines or performance. Like many aspects of the Lydiard training system and other older methodologies, “wisdom” such as doing active recoveries, whether they are called “roll-ons”, “floats” or something else, tends to be forgotten, replaced by “newer thinking” and then presented as “new” when it is rediscovered. Barefoot running is one example of this and so is the story of the Tarahumara Indians, told by Christopher McDougall in the 2009 book “Born to Run”, but covered much earlier by Bruce Tulloh in his 1977 “Natural Fitness”.

Coaches see what works and what doesn’t work, on a daily basis, and the contribution of exercise physiology is primarily to verify what training adaptations have occurred and provide insights into what happens “under the hood” of the human body. We recommend running recoveries for most interval training sessions, following Lydiard’s proven advice, so any athlete training with us does not need to fear that they will be saddled with “old interval training” and neither should the many athletes out there who have intuitively used this system for some time.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.