Fartlek Is For All Runners

“When people ask me, “How can I improve my speed?” I tell them to do fartleks. These are short bouts of faster running interspersed with running at your normal pace. These aren’t sprints. Just pick up your pace enough so that your cadence is quicker. You’ll get a feeling for what it’s like to run faster with less ground contact time.”
Meb Keflezghi, winner of New York City and Boston Marathons 

In the mid 1930’s a Swedish coach named Gösta Holmér invented a different kind of interval training.  This would be “fartlek” training - an informal type of training where speed is varied based on how the athlete feels.  This means you change speed throughout the run oftentimes alternating fast/slow, or fast/medium, or medium/slow.  It was used by the Swedes to good effect; as two athletes came extremely close to breaking the 4-minute barrier for the mile in the pre-WWII era. During this same period the famous German coach Woldemar Gerschler came up with an interval training method based on heart rates to monitor effort. Like intervals, fartlek training made its way around the world and is still used today.

For instance, Renato Canova, an Italian coach who currently works with many of the world's best runners, believes one factor that sets East African runners apart is that they're better able than their Western counterparts to clear lactate at race speeds. He has his runners do “alternation” runs. Similar to fartlek, alternations consist of a continuous run where segments of slightly faster running are alternated with periods of slightly slower running.

Not All Fartleks the Same
Bill Bowerman used fartlek runs extensively when introducing running to adults and with his university team. He said, “This is not to imply that fartlek training is frivolous or entirely fun-and-games. On the contrary, I regard fartlek as the backbone of a distance runner's training. It provides most of the mileage for building strength, stamina and getting the body accustomed to covering goal distances without undue fatigue.”

One type of fartlek assigned to new and experienced runners alike is steady running – what Bowerman called the “New Zealand Fartlek”, popularized through the success of New Zealand coach, Arthur Lydiard. It involves a period of steady running for a specified time at a perfectly even pace. There are no bursts of speed, no walking recoveries. There is no contest to see how fast nor even how far you can run, but simply to practice running for 10, 30, 45 minutes at whatever pace you can maintain for that length of time, finishing as fast as you started without being exhausted. Bowerman wanted his runners to run this fartlek at 75 percent effort, which lines closely to a runner’s “best aerobic effort”. This fartlek is designed to build mental and physical endurance gradually. Once the runner can run for this time evenly, speed can be increased gradually, while keying in on being able to finish the workout "exhilarated, not exhausted”.

“Holmér Fartlek” was also used by Bowerman describing it, “I nearly always assign a 15-minute session of Holmér fartlek to conclude a hard interval workout. It seems logical, after concentrated practice on pace and distance judgment on a measured course, that the same lessons should be incorporated into a continuous run which would more nearly resemble a race.”

More than Physical Conditioning
Fartlek provides opportunities for practicing specific race situations and tactics. It includes mental training as well. And the goal of successful fartlek is the opposite of boredom - a state of energized well-being. Since play is emphasized, fartlek allows the runner to mentally rehearse and role play certain race situations on their run - like challenging an opponent or holding off a challenge from an opponent.

Emphasizing Strengths and Minimizing Weaknesses
By varying the pace and conditions in fartlek runs, the runner becomes acquainted with their individual strengths and weaknesses. An important question to consider: Should I concentrate on correcting my weaknesses or primarily focus on my strengths? Following the fartlek philosophy that training should be fun, I'm going to propose you should focus on your strengths during runs rather than dwelling on weaknesses!

Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts on emphasizing strength and minimizing weakness in your training runs.


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