Tutorial: How to do Interval Training on a Treadmill

pics of Julie Schlenkerman doing intervals on a treadmill by Arun Shanbhag

In Interval Training, you combine a short, 1 minute burst of high intensity exercise followed by a 4 minute recovery period of low to moderate intensity. You string together these 5 minute cycles, or intervals, and end up with a very intense exercise regimen with amazing consequences. Also called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), a 30 min interval training is the quickest way to lose weight, get physically fit and enhance your running speed.

Benefits of Interval Training:

  1. Burn Fat Faster: The combination of slow and fast running increases your metabolic rate, causing you to burn more calories. And your metabolic rate stays higher long after the workout, resulting in continued fat burn and effective weight loss.
  2. Engage Fast-twitch fibers: The sprint component helps to functionally isolate and train the ‘fast-twitch’ muscle fibers in the legs. Thus your legs learn to turn-over faster, resulting in higher running speeds.
  3. Increase Lactate Threshold: When you run, accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles is what tires you. While sprinting intensely for short bursts of time, lactic acid accumulates faster than can be cleared and reaches the “lactate threshold.” Beyond this point muscle fatigue forces you to stop.But push for a full minute, then slow to a moderate pace during recovery. This trains your muscles to clear lactic acid faster and also forces muscle mitochondria to metabolize lactic acid under anaerobic conditions. Thus lactic acid levels plateau as you continue running, effectively increasing your lactate threshold.
  4. Build Endurance: By constantly bumping against and raising the lactate threshold, your body learns to clear and/or metabolize lactic acid efficiently. This gives you an increased capacity to run further without fatigue. Thus building endurance to go longer distances.
  5. Increase Speed: Two reasons converge here. First, because you trained ‘fast-twitch’ muscle fibers, you can run faster. Second, because you now have a higher lactate threshold, you can run further, always staying under the fatigue threshold. Together, you increase your overall running speed AND run further without getting tired (relatively).

pics of Julie Schlenkerman doing intervals on a treadmill by Arun Shanbhag
Julie Schlenkerman, certified physical trainer and good friend, kindly agreed to model and guide my interval training. She also ran the 2009 Boston Marathon in a blazing, 3:16:14! I immediately anointed her Running Devi (Goddess) and asked her to train, coach and nag me for my upcoming NYC Marathon!

Getting Started for Running Intervals:

  • Some treadmill have arrows to increase or decrease the speed – not ideal. Find a treadmill which has a number pad to punch in the speed and ENTER.
  • Plan a 30 min Interval Training. Consider the 30 min as 6 separate intervals of 5 min each.
  • Warm up during first interval (0-5 min) at a comfortable speed. Cool down during the 6th Interval (25-30 min).
  • Only during the middle 4 intervals, you sprint for 1 min in each interval. Easy, right?
  • Pick a warm-up and cool down speed, which is comfortable and you could easily run at for 30 min. For beginners, this may a walking speed. For my example below, I pick 6 mph setting on the treadmill.
  • Pick a Sprint speed which you can run for 1 minute. For beginners who are starting with walks, this could be a slow jog. I pick a fast run of 8.0 mph on the treadmill.
  • Set treadmill incline to 1% (0.01).

Get Set, Go!

  1. Interval I: (0-5 minutes)
    Warm up: 6.0 mph
  2. Interval II: (5-10 minutes)
    Sprint 1 minute: 8.0 mph (push yourself to complete 1 min)
    Recovery 4 minutes: 6.0 mph (catch your breath and prepare for the next interval)
  3. Interval III, Interval IV and Interval V.
    Repeat Interval II; Adjust your sprint or recovery speeds based on how you felt.
  4. Interval VI: (25-30 minutes)
    Cool down: 6.0 mph
  5. Hydrate, Stretch, Rest! Drink enough water during and after the run. Stretch well. I recommend doing Intervals only once a week, allowing your muscles to recover.
  6. Life is Beautiful! Run farther! Live Well!

See my other Distance-Running Related Posts:

66 thoughts on “Tutorial: How to do Interval Training on a Treadmill

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  1. Thanks so much for your post. I am trying to get back into running after sporadic summer running over the past several years. I am training for what will be my 3rd half marathon in May 2016. How should I go about increasing the duration and the intensity of the interval workout you outlined?

    1. Hi Nicole,
      I am sorry if I set a very high bar there in my description of the intervals. The idea is to do the speed burst, only a bit faster than your regular running. I don’t know your running speed, but lets say, you normally run at 5.5 on the Treadmill, then for 1 minutes, try running at 6.0, or even 6.5. Try pushing yourself for the 1 minute, knowing that you will come back to your regular 5.5, or even slower after that 1 minute has passed. You could even get back to walking to catch your breath after that burst of higher speed.

      The goal is to push your body to ‘try’ the higher speeds and then come back to a slower level. As this gets more manageable, you could either increase the speed further, or do it for a longer duration.

      This is a great way to improve your endurance for the half.
      Good luck with your running.

  2. Perfect explanation ! Just what i needed for my training, all i did was increase the incline by 0.5 each interval and felt great afterwards!

  3. Hi Arun,
    Can I sprint and walk intervals? on our treadmills they are 2 minutes long, So you sprint for 2 minutes and then walk for 2 minutes. But what is preferred, Jog for 2 minutes and sprint for 2 minutes?
    Thank You
    Naomi Kalani

    1. Absolutely, you can, Naomi.
      Yes, You can sprint for 2 minutes and walk for the next 2 minutes.
      Then, as you build your endurance (lactic acid threshold) you will perhaps do a light jog 🙂
      I’m always hopeful.
      Go for it!

  4. Our home treadmill has an interval setting where I can program the rest & work times, but when the work time comes, the incline automatically goes up to 3. I can’t figure out the best way to get an effective interval workout. I’m a 50-year old female who exercises daily, using the treadmill 3x week (other machines the other 4 days). I’m not training for a marathon and am concerned about pushing my heart too hard, since my dad had a heart attack at age 52. I wear a heart monitor when working out & would not want to exceed 140bpm. What can you recommend for a good 40-50 minute interval workout?

    1. Oh, I wish the intervals I used had an increase in incline that was automatic or I could add it. I would like to increase to 3 every time I sprint, anyway, I would say do a slower speed, then, but that’s just me. For example, instead of doing 5.3 jog and 7.0 run, I might do a 5.3 jog and 5.6 run.

  5. Arun,
    I discovered this “speed interval” button on the treadmills at the gym and tried it out. I had read about it and then I found this article which helped me. I run either steady for 3 miles or I do two miles (5.3-6.1) of the speed work. I run 3 or 4 days a week and cross for one and then 2 to 3 rest days. My speed is jog for 5, sprint one, jog 4, sprint one, jog 3, sprint one by then I’m getting close to my 2 miles so I sprint for like 20 to 45 seconds and jog in between until right before I hit 2 miles and I kick it into high gear which could be high 6 or low 7, like 7.2. Then I walk for like a mile.

    So, today I ran intervals and I was feeling good so I did extra sprinting and shaved 37 seconds off my time. I have been doing a split of 5.3 and 6.1, today I actually had even done higher (6.4 sprint). I felt so good today I felt like I wanted to keep running 6.4, it felt kinda easy. So my question is: should I up my jog, sprint or both? Obviously, I’m ready for more challenge. How much should I up them?

      1. Hi Nicole – Congratulations.
        You are doing it just the way it is supposed to, and you are already reaping the benefits by being able to run further.

        I think you should now extend the number of intervals (sprint and jog pairing) and possibly go for 3 miles. Also within each interval, you could sprint for 2 or 3 minutes and then jog for 3 or 2 minutes respectively. This will train your body to manage the lactic acid build-up.

        Just keeping at it, should get you to a faster and longer run.
        Awesome! and good luck.

        1. Thank you, I just now saw this. I have been tweaking my speed work around and last time was doing a split of 5.4 jog and 6.8 run and after the first 5 mins that’s a 1 min run, 1 min jog until 2 miles and then just jog out my 30 minutes. I found out the course to my first race- 5k is hilly so I’m doing hill intervals instead of flat speed intervals. The machine does 1 min flat, 1 min hill, 1 min flat, 1 hill and the inclines get bigger then reset then bigger then reset. Then I ran to and from work last Monday and Tuesday and was able to run the steep hill on route.

          I do 3/3.25 miles when I do steady runs but the branch I usually go to has two kinds of machines. The ones that do hill and speed intervals have a 30 time limit in the machine itself (same machines at a Manhattan branch of Bally’s didn’t have that) so, I use the other machines for my steady runs.

          After the 5k next Sunday, I have a month and a half to get up to 4 miles for my next race. BTW, can you blog more about running? I looked everywhere on how to do speed intervals and you explained it better than anything I could find. I’m a beginner, but I’m thinking about doing the NYC marathon in 2013, so I’m a serious beginnner determined to become not a beginner.

  6. What do you think of negative intervals? I do 4 miles, 1 at a time, with 3:30 rest between, but the first one is at 11.6 MPH, then 11.9, then 12.2, then 12.5. Would it work better for getting a faster 5K if I started faster but slowed down, maybe 12.8, 12.4, 12.0, 11.6?

    1. I think the negative splits will definitely help. That is what we hope you’d do during intervals – run each subsequent interval faster and/or for a longer duration.
      Your negative splits will only help you run faster and finish stronger. If you are planning a 5K, great way to keep running 4s.

      Goodluck with your training.

  7. Hi Arun,

    I’ve been Googling about pacing/interval training versus just running at a constant speed and I found your tutorial. Thank you for sharing!

    I’ve been doing this on the treadmill for a couple of months now. I walk at 6.0 then sprint from 8.5 to 9.5. Then I always notice the average speed on the treadmill when I’m done. If I do the average (let’s say 7.5) for the full 30mins, will I have the same results?


    1. Daphne,
      It is fabulous that you have been doing interval training.
      After a period of interval training, you will find that your average speed during running is faster than before – that is the whole idea. But simply running at the average speed will not help you ‘improve’ your speed. See, a key aspect of HIIT is bumping against your bodies ability to metabolize the lactic acid, keeping at it for some time and then recovering; and repeating that process. If you run at the average speed, no such adaptation is happening.

      After HIIT, you will find that you can bump UP you entire HIIT protocol. Start with the warm up at 6.5 for 2 minutes and do the higher speed component for 3 minutes (or more). This way, you adapt the body for higher and higher speeds.

      Hope this was not too confusing.
      Best Wishes in your Running,
      Happy New Year,

      1. That’s good to know! I have asthma and I’ve been wondering about this because when at the gym I feel like a loser for not being able to run at a longer time. So far I can only run for 1.5-2mins max.

        Thank you so much and Happy New Year to you too!

  8. Pingback: Interval Training Running
  9. Arun,
    Do you know whether most electric treadmills are capable of being programmed before starting the workout for the various speeds used in interval training? I’m just afraid I will lose track of where I am in the cycle if not. I am interested in buying a treadmill for the winter months but cannot find out information regarding their potential for being used with HIIT. Thanks so much for any insight you may have regarding this matter!

    1. Kim,
      What a fabulous idea!
      I have not seen any treadmill which can take this programming ~ at least not the ones in the bourgeois Gyms I go to. But they SHOULD!

      And exactly ~ during running intervals my brain is starved of o2 and I too lose track of where I am in the program. One trick I use is, since I have the Treadmills timer on, and each interval is exactly 5 minutes, I know that at
      5, 10, 15 and 20 I should be starting new intervals, with the last one (25) is the cool down. So even if I forget where I am, the time kinda gets me back on track.

      Notwithstanding, a brilliant idea and I hope one of the treadmill companies pick up on your suggestion.

      Thank you also for sharing your comment here.

  10. hello i read your article and i want to start right away but i wanted to if this was a good plan (sort of a beginner)

    warm up: 3mph (0-5min)

    intervals 2-5
    sprint: 8mph
    recovery: 4mph

    cool down: 3mph

    Id appreciate a response and thank you.

  11. I’ve just started doing intervals on my treadmill and love it. I do 40 minutes every other day. I set up my intervals, both speed (2.8-4.5 mph) and incline (1%-10%), using a random number generator. This way, I really, really, do not know what routine I will be doing each session. My body has no idea what is coming. Every day is completely different from the last. I am continuing to lose weight at a reasonable rate, about 1-2 pounds weekly. I don’t want to lose any faster than that. If I had been doing this all along, man, the results that I would have gotten much sooner!

    1. Greg,
      Great job man! And I love that you use random settings on the speed and incline. That would be soo stressful to me, but I can see how it will help you get in shape and stay fit.
      My only recommendation is NOT to do intervals, at least no intense interval workouts more than once or twice a week. Cross train and allow your body to heal and recover.

      Wishing you continued success in reaching your fitness goals.
      Best Wishes,

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