The lost art of Fartlek

Building on the concept of the intuitive runner is the topic of Fartlek or speed play. Fartlek sessions are one of our favourite tools in assisting athletes in becoming more intuitive with their running. True Fartlek teaches the athlete to learn to run on ‘feel’ and to ‘play’ with speed. A common mistake coaches and athletes make is to make these sessions too prescriptive. Let’s be clear, fartlek is not running a set time with a set recovery over a set distance. Instead, fartlek is playing with different running speeds over varied terrain using feel and intuition to decide when to speed up and when to slow down. There are no rules.

We like to explain fartlek to our athletes by outlining what they need to get out of the session. Let’s say for example that we want the athlete to feel moderately fatigued because it is still early in the season. In this instance we may say to our athletes warm up for 20 minutes, then for the next 20 minutes we want you to pretend you have 5 gears and to play around with all those gears in a way that feels fun and intuitive. Instead of using time, rather run to objects such as to the next tree or up the next hill alternating speeds as you ‘feel’ like it. If you get too tired then run easy until you feel like going fast again. Fast might equate to 10 meters of all out sprinting or as the season progresses it could mean running up a hill that lasts you 10 minutes. The key to coaching the session is to give the athlete an idea of just how fatigued they should feel at the end of it. If they are relatively new to running or to running fartlek workouts then give them some broad outlines but try not make the mistake of over-coaching it. Examples of guidelines might be the type of terrain they are doing it on as well as just how hard the effort should feel by the end of the workout.

Fartlek can provide a wonderful transition between early season aerobic focused work and more structured interval workouts as you approach your racing season. For some athletes it can provide an excellent way to sharpen up for a race. The beauty of fartlek work is that it can closely mimic the chaotic and unpredictable nature of racing far better than running around your local track in perfect conditions.