Using Swimming Intervals as Run Workouts

Friday, June 19, 2015 | By Lauren Evans
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Using Swimming Intervals as Run Workouts

In my experience running cross country for a Division I university and in coaching runners over the past ten years, I have encountered and written multitudes of interval-based running workouts. Yet, almost all of these workouts, despite their variety, are similar in two ways.

First, most workouts are written for the athlete to complete an interval in a certain goal time. The coach or the athlete adjusts this time based on current fitness and the objective is for the workout. An example of this would be to run 12 x 400 meter repeats in 90 seconds. Secondly, rest is often given in time or distance. Using the 12 x 400 meter workout from above, the coach tells the athlete to rest 90 seconds in between each 400 or to rest by jogging 400 meters easy.

There are several problems that I have experienced when athletes execute these workouts.

  1. If you run too slowly, you will be stressed psychologically and confidence will suffer. In this situation, the coach could have written a workout that is too difficult for the athlete. On the other hand, the coach may have done a great job writing the workout, but you may be having an off day. You and the coach should try to communicate beforehand to adjust the workout if necessary, but sometimes your coach doesn't know how you will respond until you start running. At this point, if the coach is present, they could adjust the times for the workout, but this will undoubtedly take a psychological toll on the athlete. If the coach is not physically present, it is up to you to make the correct adjustment.
  2. If you run the intervals too fast, there are a few reasons and solutions that present themselves. First,  the coach may need to convince the athlete to slow down, which is very difficult to do. Otherwise, perhaps the coach wrote a workout that was too slow for the athlete on that day. If this happens multiple times, the athlete may begin to question the coach’s preparation, affecting trust in the coach-athlete relationship.
  3. The same concepts can apply to rest. Maybe you are not getting enough rest to properly execute the workout, or maybe you are getting too much rest.
  4. If the coach prescribes a certain distance to jog for rest, I have seen athletes complete that rest jog at nearly the same pace they were supposed to be running their intervals! This is because some athletes find it difficult to jog slow enough to get proper rest.
  5. Finally, these kinds of workouts can be very difficult to complete in a group setting, especially if the group is of all ability levels. In this case, each person would be running a different time interval, and there would be very few people working together to help each other with the workout.


My solution was simple. I borrowed workouts from a swim coach. Before this sounds too scandalous, that swim coach is my husband, Ryan Evans, who was also the former captain of the University of Iowa swim team and who trained day in and day out with Olympians like Conor Dwyer.

Like most swim coaches, Ryan writes swim workouts that start on a particular time interval. For example, he may write a simple main set as 10 x 50 yards on 1:00. In this case, the swimmer knows to start swimming when the minute hand of a clock is at zero. The swimmer would then start the second interval at the 1 minute mark, and the third interval at the two minute mark, etc. Thus, if the swimmer finishes his or her 50 yard interval in 40 seconds, it would be followed by 20 seconds of rest. If, however, the swimmer isn’t feeling as good that day and thus finishes the interval in 45 seconds, he or she would get 15 seconds rest. This way, even though the swimmer is having an “off” day, the workout can still be completed as prescribed.

Applied to Running

Ryan suggested starting running workouts on time intervals. Using the 12 x 400 meter workout described above, the workout would be 12 x 400 meters on 3 minutes. This means that every 3 minutes, the athlete will start the next interval regardless of how long it took him or her to run the prior interval.

Let’s take the 400 meter running workout example and say that the athlete feels particularly good today. The athlete completes the first interval in 1:28, resulting in 1:32 of rest before immediately starting the second interval on the 3:00 mark. If, on the other hand, the athlete isn’t running particularly well and runs 1:35 for the 400, he or she would then get 1:25 of rest and still be able to complete the workout.

The Benefits

There are several benefits to writing workouts like this for running.

  1. The faster you run, the more rest you get, and the more rest you will need.
  2. Conversely, the slower you run, the less rest they will need, and you will get less rest as well.
  3. You have to think in order to time yourself. For some, it is back to Math 101 again! This can keep your mind occupied and focused during workouts.
  4. If you are running too slowly, the psychological pressure may not be as high as you can still complete a solid workout. (Note: As a coach, you don’t have to give the athlete the times they need to complete the workout in, so if they are running 1:35 per 400 meters and working hard, let them think that is what you intended them to do anyway.)
  5. If you are running too fast, the interval times will self-regulate. If you truly are running too fast, you will need more rest and will not be able to complete the next interval in the same time. For example, if you are able to complete 12 x 400 meters in 1:25 and start each on 3:00, then the workout was adequate for you on that day. If you starts at 1:25 for the first three 400’s but then fall to 1:35 for the last 9, then you and your coach know that those 1:25 pace was too fast for that day.
  6. A slower runner can train with a faster runner, building up the team environment and making it more fun. For example, a runner who should be running his or her 400’s in 1:45 can be in the same group as the 1:30 runner. They will start at the same time and cheer each other on, but the 1:45 runner will get less rest as the 1:30 runner gets more rest.
  7. Finally, as you get closer to finishing the workout, it will take longer for the your heart rate to return to a resting heart rate. Thus, you will be “living” at an aerobic state longer, and will also your lactate threshold sooner, making fitness gains even more possible during this workout.

My mother may have warned me to stay away from swimmers because, as her thinking went, “how can someone stare at a black line for hours a day if they aren’t just a little nuts?” Whether swimmers are a little crazy or not, one thing is certain – learning from their training habits and “stealing” a swimmer’s workout can result in better running workouts for all of us.

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