Fartlek Running


Fartlek Running

The cliché, “to be able to race fast we need to train fast,” sounds overly simplistic but, most often, the simple course of action is the best. One of the best ways to improve your running speed potential is to vary the speed of your weekly runs and also, to vary your speed in certain sessions in your week. Adding one ‘Fartlek Session’ a week will have a significant difference to your latent speed over all distances. Running fast is also very good for your biomechanics and has the potential to reduce your chances of succumbing to injury.

Fartlek Session

The Fartlek session should be a weekly staple in every runner’s schedule. The more experienced will know that I did not just swear. Fartlek is in fact Swedish for ‘Speed-play’.  It is said to have first been coined by a 1930s coach called, Gosta Holmer but I think that for as long as people have run, there has been speed-play. Why do I think that? Well there’s a clue in the name… play… because it makes running fun.

 The benefits of including fartlek into your weekly training are well established. Running at race pace with intermittent recovery periods will train the body to handle those speeds and, when rested, you will be better adapted to hold those speeds for the duration of your chosen event.

Now although the original definition of a fartlek session is an unstructured variation of pace, there are many ways to perform a good fartlek session, including some quite structured runs.  

Session One – the unstructured session:

Keeping things simple to start off – on a route that you have with lots of twists and turns (perfect for a trail). Warm up for a period of 10-15 minutes. The warm up should start very easy and gradually build in speed and effort as the muscles loosen. So that by the end of the period, you are running at a nice steady, conversational pace but not just jogging. 

Your ‘base-pace’ for the rest of the run is more or less at your long, endurance run pace. So not fast but not at recovery levels. I estimate around 75% of your maximum HR or within 15-20 bpm of your 8km time trial effort HR.

After every corner accelerate (you might have to limit the number if you have lots of corners on your route and if your fitness is still in the early stages). Do this in a smooth manner so that you gradually increase your speed from your base-pace to about your 5km running speed over 100-200m. At that point, ease up again but only to your base-pace, there is no slowing right down to completely recover. 

You should always be focusing on your form while running but while dong the accelerations concentrate even harder.

  • Lean slightly forward from the hips.
  • Foot-strike under the body’s centre of gravity.
  • Pulling back with the hamstrings at the moment of contact with the ground.
  • Fast, springy cadence.
  • Quick, economical arm movements and position.
  • Relaxed upper-body.

Make sure to end off the run with a cool down period. The opposite to the warm up this should be a gradual easing up in pace.

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Session Two – the hilly fartlek: 

Now running a hilly fartlek session is probably the most natural thing in the world for any runner to do. Hills push the effort up as the gradient climbs and we, not unsurprisingly, ease up over the top and recover on the way down. 

So running on an undulating course becomes a fartlek session quite naturally. What we want to do with this session is to put some effort into the hills. So a bit more than is required than to just get over them. 

What can often happen in this kind of session is that the runner, fresh and motivated at the start of the run, smashes the first climb they encounter, right from the bottom and then have to really fight to hold that effort and pace all the way to the top. Then, each subsequent hill is done with a little less power as the energy and enthusiasm wanes. 

What we want to do is build our effort. Not only through each hill but also through the length of the workout so that we finish strongly and with good form instead of dragging our tired bodies over the last hill and then staggering on the last downhill to the finish. 

So some points to make this a good, productive session:

  •  Know your route and the hills. So that you can accurately judge your pace on each climb and also throughout the run.
  • Start each climb at a conservative pace and dividing the hill into thirds, pick up your intensity as you pass each segment. The first third at your flat road heart rate + 10bpm; 2nd third plus another 5bpm and then the final 3rd a further 5bpm higher.  
  • Run each hill in the first third of your overall session at those HRs and intensities.
  • Then, during the middle third of your run, start the first third of each hill at the same HR that you were doing the middle third of the hills during the first third of your route. Then increase it in the same way so that the last third is done at a HR 5bpm higher than you were reaching in the first third.  
  • Then repeat that procedure again in the final third of your route. So you will now be starting your hills at the HR that you were finishing the hills in the first third of your route and finishing them 10bpm higher than you were in the first third.
  • Always make sure that you start and finish the session with some easy running.  
  • Running hard up a hill is an excellent way to work on your form. Focus on maintaining good posture. Lean into the hill but don’t look down at your feet and hunch over. Drive with your arms and keep the cadence nice and high.

In ‘Part Two’ we will bring the watch to the session and perform some timed Fartlek sessions. Keep an eye on the page for that…

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