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Workout Of The Week: Fartlek Session

  • By Brandon Laan
  • Published Mar. 28, 2012
Fartlek sessions are best done off the track and guided by effort rather than pace.

The name sounds funny, but these workouts are no joke!

You can blame the Swedes for the name, but you also have to give them credit for creating one of the best running workouts known to man. If you are new to the running scene you may have heard the term, assumed someone mispronounced the word, and dismissed it all together.

Fartlek, which translates to “speed play”, can be a great way to introduce some faster running into your training, typically in the later stages of the base phase before venturing into more structured workouts.

RELATED–Workout Of The Week: The Short Fartlek

One of the best aspects of a fartlek workout is it allows you to tax both the aerobic and anaerobic systems while running by feel. In other words, you can run everything from 800-meter race pace up to marathon race pace (and various paces in between) in the same workout. This is an effective and fun way to incorporate some speed work into your training schedule.

“You have to practice running fast in order to run fast.,” says Bob Vigars of Western University in Canada. This might seem like a no brainer, but it can be difficult to perform productive speed workouts when your training volume is high. Fartlek-style workouts allow you to add some faster running into your training schedule and still get in the volume necessary to compete over longer distances.

Fartlek workouts can be either structured or unstructured. Traditional fartlek is unstructured and involves surging from one landmark to another at various intensity levels. A more structured session would involve surging for a fixed amount of time at a predetermined effort level. Examples of structured vs. unstructured fartlek can be found below.

Structured Fartlek

2-mile warmup

2-4 sets of:

4 minutes at half -marathon race pace followed by a 2-minute recovery jog

2 minutes at 10K race pace followed by a 1-minute recovery jog

1 minute at 5K race pace followed by 30-second recovery jog

30 seconds at 1-mile race pace

Take a 4-minute recovery jog between sets.

2-mile cooldown

Unstructured Fartlek

2-mile warmup

20-40 minutes

An unstructured fartlek is less exact to explain and envision, but is still a great workout to incorporate into the base phase of your training. An unstructured fartlek is just that. You don’t need a track or even a measured stretch of road. Instead, focus on running by feel at a pace that is comfortable at that particular time relative to the distance. Your goal is to spontaneously change pace throughout the run. Here are three easy examples/suggestions:

1) Run hard for 2 minutes when you pass a stop sign.
2) Run hard from street light to street light.
3) If you are running with a slower running partner, run ahead for 1 minute, then back for 30 seconds.

The distance you cover on your pickups isn’t so important, and between those faster efforts you should run at a conversational pace.

2-mile cooldown

Chantelle Wilder, the assistant cross country and track & field coach at Santa Clara University, says that the Broncos use fartlek-style workouts with all their athletes. “It is a great way to tackle several different systems in one workout,” Wilder says. Wilder credits these workouts for developing athletes who are not only fast, but strong all-around runners.

Emil Zatopek, also known as the ‘Czech Locomotive’, took home three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. He won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters on the track before deciding at the last minute to jump in his first -ver marathon. He won that, too. He is arguably one of the greatest runners of all time and was widely known for his brutal training methods, which included many grueling fartlek-style workouts. Zatopek was famous for saying, “Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast .”

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About The Author:

Brandon Laan is a runner, coach, and entrepreneur. He is the co-owner of RunnersFeed.comand Race Director for Rock The Road 10K. He is a Level II Certified USATF coach and holds personal bests of 1:06 and 2:21 in the half marathon and marathon, respectively. He also enjoys running to eat, not eating to run…and always will.

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