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Home / Workout of the day: Pyramid Intervals

Workout of the day: Pyramid Intervals

pyramid-intervals

Running can sometimes be boring. You might dream of running faster, but running for more time doesn’t inspire you. You may even worry about exhaustion from longer efforts. To get faster you might buy into the idea that you need to train more and more. However, there is a way to train yourself to get fitter and faster, while keeping your body fresh and the time efficient way is through high intensity interval training.  Interval training is how you get faster and fitter without burning yourself out.

Intervals are mentally helpful because you’ve got to push so hard your brain won’t have time to get bored. There will be nothing else you think about as you use all your energy to keep your legs moving. 

The goal of interval training is to slowly ramp up shorter periods of time spent running at a very high threshold level, which will steadily increase your comfortable running pace. You do this by running faster than you are used to in short spurts. Intervals have an added benefit of increasing your confidence as you start to prove to yourself you can sustain bursts of faster speed. It makes sense; if you want to run faster you need to get your body used to running at faster speeds.

The challenge and the benefit of running intervals is deeply rooted in controlling and limiting your recovery time. Because you never fully recover between sets, you are working at a level of intensity that makes you fitter and improves your performance. Researchers have determined active recoveries ranging from two to four minutes are the sweet spot before starting your next interval at a high intensity.

From these sessions, your body responds with physiological changes resulting from pushing the body beyond its comfortable speed of running. Technically speaking, you  increase your aerobic and anaerobic capacities and recruit the full potential of your fast twitch muscle fibres. The benefits from training all three muscle fibres allow you to operate at a faster speed and increases your tolerance levels to lactic acid build up.

One type of interval training is the use of pyramid intervals, also known as ladders. Pyramid interval workouts are  a variation of the standard interval session and based on an incremental increase of duration, while maintaining a similar recovery duration. They are a pyramid scheme where everyone wins, and they really work. It is not called the interval method from hell for no reason and are regularly used in training by championship level atheletes. Pyramid workouts are tough but I feel they are more mentally engaging than just doing the same interval distance over again.

The benefits of pyramid intervals over traditional intervals of the same length and duration is you cover a range of different distances and speeds in a single session. This allows the session to overload you in different ways and helps you to practice good pacing strategies. For each interval, you’ll need to find a pace you can hold throughout the entire interval staying at a controlled and sustainable pace, right on the threshold of overexerting yourself. You won’t get this right the first few times you try, but the aim of these sessions is to begin training your mind to figure that out. Do enough pyramid workouts, and you’ll soon understand where the threshold line exists for you at different distances.

Another crucial aim of the pyramid interval session is to train both your fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres. The short sprints of 15-30 seconds, recruit fast twitch type 11b. These fibres generate a lot of power, but fatigue fast. Intervals of 1-3 minutes in duration recruit fast twitch type 11a, they generate a lot of power with some resistance against fatigue. 5-minute or longer endurance intervals recruit the slow twitch fibres with lower power generation, but are highly resistant to fatigue. 

Physiologically the levels of lactate in the athlete’s body can be determined during pyramid sessions to find the specific strengths and weaknesses of the athlete. One athlete may cope well with short fast intervals but not long slower repetitions. Another athlete may respond differently. Then you can determine where an athlete needs more attention in their training.

By working these different muscle fibres, you create a more demanding training effort forcing your muscles to adapt and grow stronger and more powerful. After this workout, you may notice a bigger than normal “pump”, swelling of the thighs as more blood flows through your muscles.

While the pyramid workout is taxing, the hardest part of the session exists in the middle. So, once you reach the peak—and gotten over the hump—the intervals start to shorten. This is mentally beneficial when you find yourself on the downward slope, as you will need a little extra mental strength for the final stretch as you train yourself to push through fatigue. You can try to increase your speed as the interval distance decreases, which mimics pushing hard at the end of a race when your legs are feeling fatigued.

Some final caution:

Beware! Intervals are like a decadent dessert. You only want a small amount to fly high, but too much and you’re going to be sorry. I recommend no more than 1-2 high intensity sessions a week, no matter how fit you are.

Secondly, this high level of intensity training approach requires a good base of fitness to start off with. A beginner or untrained athlete trying to do this workout would probably do more harm than good.

I offer coaching services, so I can create tailored training plans and sessions for you that will appropriate for your level of fitness and goals. Click here for more information.

 

Some examples of pyramid interval sessions I use on hills or stairs:

With intervals there is always a huge variety of ways in which you can construct a session.

All intervals must be done at highest possible intensity – go as fast as you can – treating each like a mini time trial or race. 

Make sure you warm up properly before starting. I have an article about this here.

Shorter (you could also make the rest periods 2 minutes instead of 1 minute):

15 minutes warm-up.
15-seconds hard. Rest: 1 minute.
30-seconds hard. Rest: 1 minute.
1-minute hard. Rest: 1 minute.
2-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
3-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
4-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
5-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
4-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
3-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
2-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
1-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
30-seconds hard. Rest: 1 minute.
15-seconds hard. Rest: 1 minute.
10 minutes warm down.
Duration: 65 minutes.

Longer:

15 minutes warm-up.
4-minutes hard. Rest: 4 minutes.
6-minutes hard. Rest: 4 minutes.
8-minutes hard. Rest: 4 minutes.
10-minutes hard. Rest: 4 minutes.
8-minutes hard. Rest: 4 minutes.
6-minutes hard. Rest: 4 minutes.
4-minutes hard. Rest: 4 minutes.
10 minutes warm down.
Duration: 95 minutes.

Alternatively, one of my favourite indoor sessions on stairs is running up one flight of stairs, walking down, then running up two flights, then down and so on. Maybe I reach 9 flights before I began to reduce the number of floors I do each interval.

If you cannot finish the workout, you can adjust the routine and build up the number of your sets as your fitness improves.

For example:
15 minutes warm-up. 
15-seconds hard. Rest: 1 minute.
30-seconds hard. Rest: 1 minute.
1-minute hard. Rest: 1 minute.
2-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute.
3-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute. 
2-minutes hard. Rest: 1 minute. 
1-minute hard. Rest: 1 minute. 
30-seconds hard. Rest: 1 minute.
15-seconds hard. Rest: 1 minute.

10 minutes warm down.
Duration: 45 minutes.

Pyramid intervals can also be used in flat speed sessions. For example, on an athletics track you could do intervals such as: 400m, 800m, 1200m, 1600m, 1200m, 800m, 400m.