3 Great 30-Minute Running Workouts

Here's how you can squeeze a great workout into a half hour

All runners know that in order to make progress, you have to put in the training time. For marathoners, this can mean 2 or even 3-hour runs. And even for those seeking improvement for 5K or 10K races, it’s imperative at times to work out for more than 60 minutes in order to get in some longer runs to build muscular strength and aerobic endurance.

But what happens if your daily schedule constrains you to a mere 30 minutes? Is it worth running for that short of a period of time?

The answer is yes.

A half hour of running can provide both mental and physical stimulus for distance runners.

“Any exercise gives you benefit,” says elite coach Greg McMillan of McMillan Running. “Certainly 30 minutes is plenty of time for that. But the benefit depends on how you exercise in that time frame. Any time you can lace up your shoes and get out the door is worth it.”

McMillan cautions, however, that any 30-minute workout should begin with some kind of warm-up and end with some kind of cool-down.

In order to get the most of this precious half hour in your day, consider these three types of workouts:

1) Cut-down runs

This is Coach McMillan’s top choice to making the most of the 30 minutes. In a cut-down workout, you begin with a longer repeat at a slower intensity. You then increase the pace of the repeat you progress through the workout. An example would be as follows: warm up for 5 minutes, then run at a medium-hard effort (i.e., 10K goal pace) for 8 minutes and jog for 1 minute. You then do 6 minutes at slightly faster pace with another 1-minute jog and then 4 minutes at an even faster pace, which would be faster than your 5K goal pace with a 5-minute cool-down. “This is a really efficient workout,” McMillan says. “Because you don’t have a long warm-up, you aren’t really hitting it hard at the start, and that’s good, because some people with only 30 minutes may go out too fast, and that increases the risk of injury. You touch on all these energy systems, like lactate threshold and V02 max, but in a gradual way that gives your body time to get used to what you are trying to do it.”

2) Fartlek runs

These “speed play” workouts are ideal for someone with a time constraint. Fartleks are mid-run, rapid accelerations of pace for a relatively short period of time—varying from 30 seconds to 3 minutes—followed by a similar duration of slow or moderate recovery running. Coach Sarah Crouch from Runners Connect recommends these workouts since they are typically measured by time and not by distance. “This will save you a drive to a track or to a gym and can be done in your own neighborhood,” she says. Specifically, Crouch recommends starting with an easy 10-minute warm-up jog. Then transition right into five sets of 2 minutes at a hard pace (your 5K goal pace for example) with one minute of very easy jogging in between. End the workout with a 5-minute cool-down run to round out the 30 minutes.

3) Progression runs

These are similar to cut-down workouts in that the pace is slowly increased during the duration of the workout thereby reducing the risk of injury. However, unlike cut-down workouts, there is no recovery break for progression runs. This means your pace throughout the workout should be maintainable. Start with a 5-minute warm-up and then begin running at a slow pace similar to what you’d run on an easy day. You will then break the next 21 minutes into 7-minute increments where the pace is increased slightly at each 7-minute mark. The final “third” of the run (minutes 14-21) should be at a much faster pace than your first third (think of it as a finishing kick in a race). End the workout with a 4-minute cool-down jog.

No matter what workout you decide to choose for 30 minutes, be sure that you don’t pick one that entails simply running as hard as you can for that entire duration. “We have this concept in physiology where it takes 2 to 4 minutes where your body reaches what we call steady state,” says McMillan. “If you don’t allow your body to reach that, then you risk having too much lactic acid in your blood.”

Not to be overlooked in the 30-minute window of time is cross-training. Even a few minutes of simple exercises like planks or burpees at the end is worth your time. McMillan says that even doing some jumping jacks before starting your warm-up jog up or some light stretches to open up and focus on areas where you might get tight when you increase the pace is time well spent. “If you’re injury-prone, it may be worth sacrificing a couple minutes up front to make the most out of the hard work you will do later,” he says.

Duncan Larkin
Duncan Larkin is a freelance writer and 2:32 marathoner. His latest book, "The 30-Minute Runner," will be published in January.