Interval Training – How Often, How Hard

FasterSkierJune 18, 2008

Andrew Johnson is a two time US Olympian in Cross-country skiing and an assistant coach at the University of Utah. He recently launched a personal coaching service. For more information, visit or email Andrew at

When should I start doing intervals? When should I start adding level 4 intervals? How often should I do intervals? These are all questions I hear fairly often and they are questions that don’t have simple answers. Intensity, and the methods by which to make it a productive and beneficial compliment to the rest of your training, is a big topic that is easy to over-complicate. Here are a few ideas that will hopefully help you get the most from your intensity training this year.

I have utilized many different methods of intensity training in my racing career. Some have been obviously successful and others have been obvious failures. However I don’t feel that there is a “right” or “wrong” method of interval training. It’s too much of an individual issue; one athlete’s ideal intensity plan might be very different from an other's.

Having said that though it’s important to realize that it can take many, many years of serious training to find the ideal intensity strategy for you. If you find it. During the latter stages of my racing career I tried some different approaches to intensity training that were not an ideal fit for me. But, after over a dozen years of serious training I was attempting these new intensity plans with the belief that they were the right moves at the right time.

Not all of them were successful which proved to me the fickleness of intensity training. Since then I have come to view all intensity training with a simple “risk-vs.-reward” approach. Training a lot of intensity means a possible chance of gaining a little more fitness and speed but the risks are great. Too much intensity has prematurely ended careers and can even cause serious health problems. On the flip side, too little intensity might leave you a little slow in the first part of your race season but can also leave you more room for improvement as you “race” your way into shape during the winter. For me this type of approach let me patiently get a little faster throughout the season and always had me racing the fastest towards the end of the winter. In general, for most racers of every age group, I’m a firm believer that erring on the side of less intensity will be more beneficial than trying to push the envelope with intervals.

Training a lower volume of intensity in the spring and summer will also let you spend more time and energy on other training fundamentals like strength training and low-intensity volume. More time spent on these parts of your training will make your intensity training later in the summer and fall more productive.

Spring and summer intensity should be limited mostly to level-3, threshold style intervals. These can be fun workouts and there are many different ways to do them. There’s no need for much repetition with these as you can vary the length, number of reps, and method of the workout from week-to-week. Start with easier and shorter workouts in the spring, roughly once a week. Work towards longer workouts with less recovery. A good example of an early June workout might be 4-by-five minutes, with equal recovery between intervals. Work your way to longer intervals and shorter recovery times, but in a very gradual manner. The summer is long and there’s lots of time to work towards harder workouts. If the “4-by-5” is a good workout for you early in the summer work towards 4-by-6 intervals and then 6-by-5 for example. Some workouts could include less actual interval time but less recovery as well to make them a little harder. It’s also a good idea from time-to-time to utilize pace workouts. These longer, continuous workouts of 20 to thirty minutes of threshold-level work are great way to simulate a race but with less effort and wear-and-tear.

If you start with intervals once a week work towards mid-summer to once every five days or so. Threshold-level intervals should be easy enough to make for quick recovery and little disruption to your other training. Also, substitute an occasional interval workout with an actual race or time-trial. Racing is a great workout. Racing once or twice a month is the best way, in the summer, to train the very high ends of your training zones and keep you familiar throughout the hot months with just how tough racing is. For my money there’s no better hard workout than a running race in the summer. However be careful to make the necessary modifications to the rest of your training to make sure that these races don’t add too much stress to your weekly plans.

In the fall it’s time to start ramping up with harder workouts on a regular basis. My suggestion is to look at your race schedule and take into account when you think you’ll first get on snow and plan according to that. For example, if I’m planning to get on snow for the first extended period over Thanksgiving, and if that’s where my first race will be, I’ll move back from there 2 months to 10 weeks and make that the beginning of my harder period of interval training. So, starting in mid-to late September I’ll start two interval sessions a week. I’ll continue one threshold workout a week but will also add one harder workout per week. At this time in the fall your strength training and easy volume will need to be decreased a little to compensate for the extra effort you’re putting into the extra intervals.

I like something along the lines of six weeks of increased intensity in the fall. It’s important to continue the workouts that are core to your weekly routine during this time and remember that you just want a small increase in the overall effort and volume of your intervals during this time. The intervals should trend towards more specificity – more roller skiing, bounding, and ski walking but don’t totally neglect the less specific intervals you might enjoy as these allow you the benefit of a hard workout without as much fatigue of your specific ski muscles.

After a six or seven week intensity period such as this it’s a good idea to spend the first couple weeks leading up to your first races and on-snow time with a block of very little intensity and a return to more “fundamental” training such as some core strength training, lots of easy distance, working on technique, and a big focus on rest and recovery. This should continue into your on-snow time, although when you feel confident that you’re fully recovered from the intensity period your volume should increase back to what you were doing earlier in the fall.

The first few weeks of the racing season are a pivotal time to set the stage for the rest of the season. For most racers it’s a very long season and I feel that the first few weeks or month of the season should essentially be approached as a continuation of the fall training period. Use the races to improve your fitness and be patient. Keep up with the basics of your plan as well and if you manage training and rest in a capable manner than you should get a little faster with each race. After a few races it’ll be time to back off the training and focus strictly on the racing. This approach will insure that you don’t peak too early and should allow you to continue a gradual increase in speed and fitness throughout the entire season.

Follow these basic guidelines but don’t be afraid to customize to your own needs and schedules. If you feel that you can handle more intensity then get after it. If less seems like the right approach then don’t be afraid to blaze your own path. But remember that there has been far more harm done by too much intensity then by too little. Let the training you do in the summer set the stage for a fun and fast winter!

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