Before you speed up, slow down. You're begging for achy joints and a sunken ego or worse if you do any kind of interval training without having a good base of running fitness. You'll need to log a lot of long, slower runs over at least 8-to-12 weeks before considering ladders. These longer, less-intense runs should take up to 90 minutes (if you're in good enough shape to jog for that period of time) at a pace that allows you to maintain a conversation.
Next, determine your goal race distance and pace. A veteran runner with designs on finishing in the top 100 of the Boston Marathon will, naturally, strive to finish each interval faster than a novice training for a local marathon. Additionally, the total volume of a workout in preparation for a half-marathon will differ from training for a 5K, for example.
A simple ladder workout could include intervals of 100, 200, 300, 400, 300, 200, and 100 meters run at target pace. In preparing for a 1,500-meter race, one of Olympian Shayne Culpepper's ladder workouts involved performing two sets of intervals of 600, 400, 300, 200, and 100 meters at a mile race pace or faster. A 100-meter jog separates each interval, and 3 minutes of recovery separates each set [source: Sandrock]. A marathoner might run a warm-up of several miles then conduct intervals of 0.5 miles, 1-mile, 1.5 miles, 1-mile, and 0.5 miles at marathon race pace with matching intervals of recovery run jogging (If, for example, you run a half-mile at race pace you'd then jog a half-mile before continuing up the ladder) [source: Marathon Nation]. The permutations of a ladders workout are endless -- to be a ladder, the intervals just need to demonstrate a systematic progression.
It's best to keep the total volume of the workouts low at first and ratchet things up over time. If you're a prospective marathoner, for example, you might start with ladder intervals of 200, 400, 800, 400, and 200 meters. As training progresses, you can double the distances so the longest interval is 1600 meters [source: Runner's World]. If you are performing time-based intervals, run for greater lengths of time.
Adding a competitive component to ladders can be fun and motivating. Recruit a friend and take turns setting the pace for each interval. Just make sure that you and your partner share a comparable goal pace -- otherwise, you're risking injury [source: Brown]. And don't go overboard -- ladders should only be performed once a week early on. Once your body has adapted to the workload, you can do them twice a week.
Ladders are taxing and tiring -- so why do them? There are many benefits which we'll share on the next page.