speed illustration

An Olympian’s Secrets to Get the Most Out of an Interval Workout

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor

I waited two years for an interval workout. To be fair, those years were full: retiring from one sport, attempting to start a new one, injuring myself, and most of all, working on the perennial challenge of developing a mindset in which it didn’t matter if I ever did another interval workout at all. After all, I had left bike racing and had no competitive events on the horizon. Nonetheless, I had a hard time concealing my excitement when I got a text from my coach Dean with instructions for a workout with intensity – this time, on a track. Like, a running track.

Why it matters

After I stopped racing bikes competitively I decided it would be a good idea to try some running races. This ambitious goal quickly morphed into simply “learn how to run very slowly and cautiously and maybe try not to hurt myself”. I needed strength and a bit of pounding. It was going to take time to get enough miles in my legs that ramping up the speed would lead to a benefit, not a breakdown.

I once heard a strength coach compare weightlifting without core strength to putting a big boat motor on a canoe. It’s similar with intensity training – yes, in terms of structural strength, but also in terms of the rest and recovery habits you use daily to support that exertion. Intensity training is powerful, but it can hit you both ways. Using it strategically creates great leaps in fitness and ability, but over-use of intensity, or indulging when you aren’t rested or prepared, quickly leads to injury and overtraining.

How to do it

As I excitedly planned for my interval workout, the habits I had used for so many years on hard training days as a cyclist came rushing back. Every athlete only gets to do a certain amount of tough training without breaking down, so to reap the full benefit of your training cycle you have to make the hard days count. (I do want to offer a disclaimer before folks start asking questions – I don’t actually have an athletic goal in mind at the moment. I’ve always loved challenging myself though, even if just for the sake of an experiment.) I consider getting to do a tough workout to be a privilege – and I did not intend to waste this one. I used four tactics to make the most of my morning of the track, and they can help you too.

Free Cycling Training Assessment Quiz

Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.

  1. Rest – I restrained myself from going on a long trail run the day before my scheduled workout, even though I felt full of energy and the conditions were perfect. If you enter a tough workout fatigued and can’t put out your maximum power, you won’t be able to get the full benefits of that work – and that’s a shame, because it will still be just as uncomfortable.
  2. Focus – Checking out mentally can be one of the best parts of long runs or bike rides. Unfortunately, it requires focus to reach peak exertion while maintaining form and efficiency. Both mental and physical discipline are important if you want to excel at hard workouts. Acknowledge – without judgment – if this is a challenge for you, so you and your coach can honestly strategize solutions.
  3. Be ok with inefficiency – I couldn’t just run from home to do my track workout, because it would have meant too many additional miles before and after my workout. That meant that I had to travel to the track as a separate trip – which I will confess I found a bit irritating. I also had to slow down and walk in between intervals. Hard interval workouts aren’t the ones where you rack up mileage or kilojoules on your power meter, and that isn’t their purpose. Don’t make it complicated. Your job as a coached athlete is quite simple: Put your very best effort into each prescribed challenge. Then, go home.
  4. Recover – Right after my workout I ate, did a bit of stretching, and then took it easy for the rest of the day. It was beautiful out, I didn’t have to work, and a short bike ride or hike seemed very appealing, but I restrained myself. Our bodies don’t get stronger when we put out an effort, they get stronger when we rebuild from that stress. It’s still possible to wreck a workout after it is over – so recover properly.

With intensity comes responsibility

A high-intensity workout is an opportunity. In an ideal world, it is an opportunity to challenge yourself in a way that allows you to grow stronger, rather than a chance to thrash yourself just for the sake of feeling accomplished. I had so much fun getting out and testing my physical limits last week after such a long hiatus, but it was also a reminder of the patience it took to train at a high level. To be your best on the day that it counts – whatever that may mean for you – you have to be willing to step back and take care of the details. If you’re going to put the work in, the best advice I can give is to follow through on the little things that make your work effective and allow you to fully enjoy the benefit.

Free Ultrarunning Training Assessment Quiz

Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.

FREE Mini-Course: Learn How to Maximize Your Limited Training Time

Learn step-by-step how to overcome limited training time and get faster. Walk away with a personalized plan to increase your performance.

Enjoying This Article? Get More Free Running Training Tips

Get our coaches' best training advice, delivered straight to your inbox weekly. 

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Comments 6

  1. Hello Mara, Your comment “Hard interval workouts aren’t the ones where you rack up mileage or kilojoules on your power meter, and that isn’t their purpose”, is so trues. Many athletes, especially us Masters guys, have this issue with a hard intensity bike interval workout only totaling 12-14 miles as being inadequate. Short hard intensity is not a mileage builder workout, as you point out, that adds too much load. Excellent advice.

  2. Dear Mara, This is an excellent article! You are a gifted athlete and writer/contributor to this platform and the athletic world. Thank you for sharing your experiences and insight. I’ve really enjoyed following your journey.

  3. Good day,
    Thanks for this useful boost. I am training for a 202km team event in Swellendam South Africa. Going into the unknown and 45 years old will be attempting a 31km/hr average. Shoe. No coach, but I know I must now incorporate HIIT. 1min – 4 min with decent rest days.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *