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Train Your Legs to “Change Gears” With This 5-3-1 Fartlek + Speed Workout

For a change of pace, try this mixed-bag workout to fine-tune your change of speed.

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Need a change of pace? While most workouts focus on hitting one or two paces, there is a lot of value to be found in a multi-pace workout right now. 

With races back on the calendar after a year of stagnation, now is the perfect time to program your legs to “change gears” and your mind to re-focus. This structured fartlek workout is physically rewarding because by giving you doses of several varying intensity levels it helps you to fine-tune your speed change. It’s also a psychologically refreshing session as it requires you to continuously shift attention as you change speeds and interval lengths. 

This workout comes from Wisconsin high school cross country and track coach Joe Hanson. Hanson traces its origins back to training articles by Running Science author Owen Anderson, combining traditional fartleks, interval training, and Billat’s 30-30. He added his own tweaks to create this plan.

The Workout Summary

  • 10 to 20 minute warmup + 5 to 8 strides 
  • 5 minutes at half-marathon effort 
  • 2 ½ minute recovery
  • 3 minutes at 10k race effort
  • 1 ½ minute recovery
  • 1 minute at a 3k race effort
  • Jog easy for 3 minutes
  • 3 x 30 seconds at 200m to 400m race effort with a 1-minute recovery

After walking or jogging for 5-7 minutes to recover, repeat 2 additional times for a total of 3 sets. Do this once every 7 to 14 days and work your way up to 5 sets over the course of 3 months.

The Workout Details 

Photo: Getty Images

The numbers in the “5-3-1 fartlek” indicate minutes, not accounting for three sets of 30 seconds of hard strides at the end of each set. 

First, as always, you warm up for at least ten minutes and do five to eight strides to get your legs adjusted to turn-over. You start by running five minutes at about your half-marathon race pace effort, erring on the side of caution. This should be fast enough to just barely dip your toes into the lactate threshold (the maximal effort that an athlete can maintain for an extended period of time with little or no increase in lactate in the blood) while still keeping up with clearing lactate. It should feel “fast but fun,” like you could keep it up for an hour if you had to.

Between each “on” section, you recover by jogging easy for half the time that you were going hard. So, after those five relatively fast minutes, jog easy for two-and-a-half minutes to recover.

Next, run at about your 10k race-pace effort for three minutes. This is fast enough to push just into the lactate threshold. You’ll start to breath harder and look forward a bit to the effort ending. Jog easy for a minute and a half. 

Then, go hard for one minute at about a 3k race-pace effort. This should be fast enough to go past your lactate threshold and be breathing hard as you approach your vVO2Max (the pace at which an athlete has maxed out his or her oxygen consumption ability). 

Jog easy for three minutes after this, and proceed to do 3 x 30 seconds at about a 200 to 400 meter race effort. Between each, rest for one minute. 

After jogging easy for five to ten minutes to fully recover, repeat that set twice more for a total of three times.

Don’t worry about the exact pace on this workout, in fact don’t record what your pace is at all. This should be done entirely on effort and time. 

Variations

As you continue to do this workout, you may decide to add in more sets, working your way up to five, or boosting the intensity of each “on” section. For example, you could do the five minutes at 10k race pace, the three minutes at 5k race pace, and the one minute at mile race-pace effort. 

If you would rather incorporate more endurance training into this workout, you can begin the session with a two to three mile tempo run and just do the sets twice while scratching the 30 second-sprint strides from the workout.

Benefits

This was my favorite workout while training for cross country over the summer in college because of its variety and is based on time rather than distance. As someone who was easily mentally fatigued by runs done at the same pace or tempo runs, I found that this workout allowed me to get in fast miles “in disguise” as my mind was distracted by making it through each “on” section and recovery. I also wasn’t wrapped up or anxious about hitting a certain pace, because it’s based on time and effort. 

Another added benefit to this workout is that you can do it almost anywhere. This is particularly helpful right now when not all of us have ready access to a track. Take it to the roads, a bike path, or a relatively well-kept trail. If you want to add in an extra challenge, you can find a mildly hilly route to do this workout on. 

What’s exacting about this workout is that, if you do the entire thing a total of three times, you’ll find that you ran at a hard effort for a total of just over a half-hour (31 ½ minutes). You run harder and cover more ground than you would simply going for a half-hour tempo run at a single pace. 

The bottom line: This workout touches on endurance, speed-endurance, and raw speed. The perfect mixed-bag session for early-season, mid-season, or late-season training. 

Molly Hanson, PodiumRunner’s Associate Editor, ran track and cross country for the University of Wisconsin, where she clocked bests of 4:15 for 1500m and 4:41 for the mile. She earned two All-American finishes in the NCAA 1500 finals.