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Workout Of The Week: The Short Fartlek

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published Jul. 3, 2013
Photo: John Segesta

This short speed session can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be!

Let me know if this scenario sounds familiar: The last race you ran was a couple of months ago, and since then you’ve enjoyed some well-deserved down time–long runs and speed workouts have been put on the back burner and all your running efforts of late have been easy and unfocused. But recently the itch to race has returned. You know it’s time to start boosting your volume and increasing the intensity once again but the thought of stepping on the track for a speed session stresses you out. What to do?

Easy: stay away from the track. Aside from rattling your nerves, the cold, hard feedback of lap-after-lap splits is an unnecessary evil at this stage of the game. Tough workouts on the track have their time and place in a training schedule, and it’s not the first speed session after a lengthy layoff.

Instead of going round and round your local outdoor oval for your first fast workout in a while, stick to your regular road route or favorite trail and perform the following short fartlek session:

  • * Run easy for 10 to 20 minutes to warm up.
  • * Follow with four to six 20-second pickups, jogging 40 seconds in between each pickup.
  • * Perform 2 to 5 sets of 2 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds, starting at 5K race effort for the 2-minute interval and increasing the intensity for the 1-minute and 30-second segments. Adjust the effort level of each interval, as well as the number of sets, depending on your experience and training focus. Starting off at 10K or even half-marathon/marathon effort is fine, too.
  • * For recovery, jog one minute after the 2-minute interval and 30 seconds after the 1-minute pickup. Take a 2-minute jog for recovery in between sets.
  • * Cool down with 10 to 20 minutes of easy jogging.

This is a great short speed session for transitioning back to faster workouts after an extended time away from hard training, but can also be used as an intense off-the-track interval session when you’re fit and in flying shape. It’s good for runners focusing on the 5K or even those preparing for a marathon. The key is adjusting your effort level, along with the number of sets, to suit your individual needs.

RELATED–Workout Of The Week: The Halftime Fartlek

As a collegiate cross country runner preparing for a fall season full of 8K and 10K races, my teammates and I performed 5-6 sets of this session at roughly 8K race effort once a week during the summer months to maintain leg speed and break up the monotony of heavy mileage. Later in the season, we’d run fewer sets at a faster speed to improve our anaerobic fitness and get ready for the rigors of racing.

Don Kardong, a collegiate track champion at Stanford who went on to represent the United States in the marathon at the 1976 Olympics, liked to do a variation of this workout when he needed a break from running around in circles on the track. If Kardong was getting ready for a track race, he’d do fewer sets with less recovery. Before a marathon, however, he’d often opt for more sets with longer rests.

“I liked using time because it’s easy to keep track of on a digital watch,” Kardong was quoted in Michael Sandrock’s book Running Tough. “This had some of the advantages of fartlek since I was relieved of the mental burden of trying to run a certain precise distance in a certain time, and I wasn’t confined to an oval. And it had the advantage of a track workout in that there was structure to it, which I found helpful. I also liked the mix-up of distances.”

Runners preparing for races ranging from 5K to 10K can benefit from 2 to 5 sets of this workout at 5K effort or slightly faster depending on experience and ability level. For half marathoners and marathoners, performing 5 to 7 sets of this workout at half marathon to marathon effort in the middle of a long run is a great way to practice running faster on a fatigued set of legs, as well as to get ready for dealing with the irregular rhythm and pace changes you’ll surely face on race day.

Whatever race distance you’re getting ready to tackle, the beauty of this workout is that you can make it as easy or as hard as you want or need it to be. Don’t worry about hitting set after set of specific splits, but instead focus on running at a given effort level for short amounts of time. Before you know it, you’ll be flying across the finish line!

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Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a senior editor at Competitor magazine. A cross-country All-American at Stonehill College in 2003, he now coaches the Prado Women's Racing Team in San Diego and was the men's marathon coach for Costa Rica's 2012 Olympic team. His first book, The Official Rock 'n' Roll Guide To Marathon & Half-Marathon Training (VeloPress, 2013) is available in bookstores, running shops and online.

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