One of the workouts runners have been turning to during the time of coronavirus, when tracks may be closed or difficult to use safely, are fartleks.
They have the advantage of being workouts you can do effectively alone, anywhere, letting you maintain some semblance of focused training at a time when that may be one of the few normal things remaining in your daily life.
Most fartleks, however, are more akin to track workouts than the original fartlek concept.
So, what better time than now to rediscover the basics of this method, invented in the 1930s by Swedish cross-country coach Gösta Holmér, long before today’s heart-rate monitors and GPS watches.
Fartlek, as you might have heard, is a Swedish term (probably invented by Holmér), meaning “speed play.”
Most discussions of it today focus on structured fartleks—workouts in which you follow a predetermined pattern, such as 2 minutes hard, one minute easy, or repeats of 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 minutes on equivalently predetermined recoveries.
These are great workouts, but the very concept of a “structured fartlek” is an oxymoron. A true fartlek is inherently unstructured.
The idea of doing something totally unstructured sounds unscientific, but it can be surprisingly effective. Years ago, I got all of my lifetime PRs from them.
I did fartleks at noon on a road where someone had marked off the quarter-mile marks. I’d jog to the start, then run hard to the first mark. At that point (never more than a few seconds before), I’d decide if I was going to go on at the same pace for another quarter-mile. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. Ditto at the half-mile mark and the three-quarter-mile mark.
That meant my speed bouts were anywhere from 400 meters to a mile (I never went beyond a mile). Recoveries were always a quarter mile, simply because that was how the course was marked. (If I had it to do over, I’d go back and mark the 200-meter splits.)
After the last marked quarter, the road climbed a hill, about one-third of a mile long. Sometimes I charged part or all of it. Sometimes I jogged it. Sometimes I turned around at the base. Again, the decision was made on impulse, never pre-planned.
At the end of the route, on the way back to my office, there was a series of telephone poles I sometimes used as markers for sprints…but only sometimes. Again, it was a decision I didn’t make until I was only a few steps away from the first of them.
By true fartlek standards, even that workout was still a bit structured, because I always used the marked quarters. But it had the gist of a true fartlek, because I never knew what exactly I was going to do until I did it.
Playing with Pace
One of the advantages of such workouts is that they can be a lot more fun than grinding out repeats on the track. More fun, in fact, than the structured fartleks currently in vogue.
“You can really play with it,” says Eugene, Oregon-based coach Peter Thompson, who calls them Holmér fartleks, in honor of their inventor.
His preferred variant includes only 20 minutes of speed, but constantly varies the effort, shifting every 20 seconds to two minutes among a wide range of paces or effort levels: 1500-meter, 3K, 5K, 10K, 15K, or marathon pace, with occasional breaks in which you recover more fully. “I want to access four to five different paces,” Thompson says.
He also suggests finding a place where you have a lot of running options, ranging from pavement to grass. That not only makes it easier to avoid too-close encounters with other runners, bicyclists, children, or pedestrians, but takes advantage of the strength-building that comes from mixed terrain.
If you don’t push the speed portion beyond 20 minutes, Thompson adds, you can even do several such runs per week. “Holmér would do them three to five times a week,” he says.
Free to Fly
Amy Begley, coach of the Atlanta Track Club, loves such workouts for newbies and people who are in a rut. Newbies, she suggests, can go block to block, or pick a number and run until they’ve passed that many mailboxes or telephone poles.
For more experienced runners who are in a rut and “having a hard time hitting their splits in repeats or tempos,” she says, “I tell them to take off the GPS watch—or don’t look at it. Go old school and just go by feel.”
That said, these workouts can be difficult for people raised on GPS watches, heart rate monitors, and other such technologies.
“I really struggle to explain this to the athletes I coach,” says 2:10 marathoner and online coach Ryan Vail. “It is like pulling teeth to get them to not check their Garmins. The compromise is usually that they can look at the data after, but I’d prefer they didn’t even do that.”
They can also be hard for people whose primary focus is the track. “I always felt lost because I had no idea if I was pacing myself correctly,” says American-record miler Alan Webb. “My insecurity would make me go all out, for everything. I never felt in control.”
For others, however, these workouts can be ways of building toughness by tricking yourself into discovering you can do more than you thought you could. That was definitely the case for me, because once I committed to running to the next mark, I was fully committed, even if initially I’d not expected to run that far, or that fast. Doing this, again and again, taught me a lot about holding pace, or even negative splitting in the latter stages of a race, by schooling me in trusting that whatever pace I was running when I made the decision to press on, I could indeed maintain.
Meanwhile, these workouts are also really good for those who can’t use their normal tracks or trails.
“You have so many controlling factors in your life [today],” says Thompson. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that. If you want to have a compete break, run something you’ve never run before.”
“A hard effort is a hard effort even if the splits are not marked, measured, or predetermined,” adds Begley.