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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

The Art of the Fartlek for Distance Runners

Fartlek: 1952, Swedish, from fart "speed" (O.N. fara "to go, move;" see fare (v.)) + lek "play" (O.N. leika "play;" see lark (v.))

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The fartlek has become a lost art in recent years as modern training has embraced all the trappings of technological advancement.  GPS devices on our wrists and heart rate monitors all give us quantitative and instantaneous feedback.  Nevertheless, the fartlek remains one of the most valuable tools in the training arsenal.   Done in its purest form, the fartlek exploits our natural sense of play and adaptability in movement.  Perhaps there is an evolutionary basis in how we once foraged for food (or avoided becoming food ourselves) or in how we thrive on unstructured play as children.

Before the advent of fancy stopwatches, when tracks were poorly maintained, and when bike paths were rare, “old-school” runners would pick out random points during which to elevate the pace.  They
might surge to the next mailbox, charge up a hill, or pick up the pace when approaching telephone poles.  The fartlek remains a staple in Kenyan training camps.  Nevertheless, many runners mentally need
something quantitative to enter in the training log and coaches need some objective measure of the athlete's workload.  We can modify the playful and unstructured fartlek into a time-based rather than distance-based session.  (Example: 8 x 400m at 5k pace with 90 seconds rest becomes 10 x one minute at 5k effort alternated with one minute easy).

Fartleks are especially useful during a base phase.  After the previous season’s, taper, peak, and recovery we usually aren't in the same form as when we concluded a previous season.  However, our mind often has difficulty checking the ego and training at our present fitness level rather than at the fitness level at which we left off.  Even if we do have the discipline to train at current pace, running slower than during our peak phase can test the confidence of some athletes.  Fartlek allows for quality work without playing the mental games and allows for a quality workout when we aren't sure of our exact fitness.  If we go in with a set pace in mind (which might not be an accurate pace), we're less likely to adjust based on our present day's condition.  There will be plenty of opportunities later in the season to answer to the stopwatch.  Fartleks allow for a smoother transition to more structured training.  You can also judge fitness based on the pace of the easy running between “pickups” during the fartlek.  If the easy running
pace stays honest without slowing to a shuffle-jog, it’s a positive sign of robust fitness.

Comeback runners, or runners who return after a long layoff, can also use fartleks in the same manner as runners making the transition between seasons.  The considerations are identical, but with a less compressed timeline.  Many comeback runners struggle with the mental hurdle of comparing themselves to their best times, which often seem far removed from their current fitness.  Fartleks allows the comeback runner to restore the feeling of fast running without the short term frustration of answering to the stopwatch.  As with any training, long term
consistency is key regardless of whether the goal is to recapture previous magic or break new fitness plateaus.

For longer distance runners, hitting fast times in short interval sessions is not the main priority.  In a week with two or possibly three quality runs, it is not a good idea to “push” in every single workout.  Far wiser to pick our battles based upon the priorities of the current training period rather than going for a maximum effort in our secondary or tertiary workouts.  Fartlek allows runners to self-select the appropriate effort level in the context of how the rest of the week is going.  When long runs get hard (and for triathletes, if you throw the bike and swim into the mix), pounding out reps on the track can be counterproductive.  Experienced athletes know there is a fine line between a workout that’s just right and one that carries excess fatigue into the next quality session.  Speed just needs a nudge,
not a shove when the focus is upon other types of training.  Fartlek is a great way to address speed without the mental and physical pressure of the track.  Long distance runners must harness their energies for other workouts but must not neglect speed in its entirety.

Examples:

True fartleks are only limited by the imagination, but here are some common examples of structured fartlek:

Moneghetti fartlek (named after the legendary Steve Moneghetti): sets of 90 seconds hard-90 seconds easy, 60 hard-60 easy, 30 hard-30 easy, 15 hard-15 easy

Minutes: 8-16 cycles alternating one minute at 5k effort/one minute easy

30s: 10-20 cycles alternating 30 seconds at 5k effort/30 seconds easy

Critical velocity fartlek: 4-7 cycles of three minutes at 10k effort/one minute easy

Step-down fartlek:  Four to six sets of Two minutes at half marathon effort - One minute 10k effort - one minute 5k effort.  One minute rest in between each pickup

Strides substitute: 8-10 cycles of alternating 20 seconds at 3k effort/40 seconds easy 

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