Around 1937 swedish coach Gosta Holmer, a retired decathlete who had won bronze at the 1912 Olympics in that event, invented a new type of workouts for his charges. Fartlek. Roughly translated it means speed play. This simple yet profound type of training would become the mainstay of his most famous proteges, Gunder Hagg and Arne Andersson, who would shatter dozens of world records and bring the mile world record from the mid 4:06's down to 4:01. Hagg would also become the first man ever to run under 14:00 for 5k producing a 13:58.2 in 1942. All this with the insanity of World War 2 roaring around them. Though 4:01and 13:58 are not nearly world class times today they are still, seventy years later, extremely exceptional times and when one considers they were achieved in the days before mondo tracks, before running shoes, heck before sneakers! It is really remarkable that two athletes could have reached the level they did.
There are now dozens of different structures of fartlek that have become famous. It is a type of training that has been part of nearly all the great coaches, from Lydiard and Bowermann to Canova and Salazar, recommended schedules. I will do many posts on fartlek but for this one we will focus on it in its most pure and simple state. The original speed play.
Fartlek done in its most basic and pure form needs no timing, no measurement, no plan and no specific surface, though I would suggest the most beautiful you can find and some decent footing for fast running. You do not need a watch. Heck if you really want to get in touch with your forerunners and be a full purist you can go without shoes. I often would do this on rainy days sneaking on a golf course for a barefoot fartlek on the grass.
Effort? The name tells it all, speed play, it is a game! You can play hard or play easy. Go how you feel. I have heard fartlek referred to as running animal style it could just as easily be called running like a child. Lydiard and Canova both like it as a light workout to transition into harder more specific sessions but for others, Steve Monaghetti comes to mind, it was a serous part of their hardest training. I suggest you use it in three different ways.
First Very light. Need to get in some strides and loosen up after a hard effort or in the days prior to a major race. Just let it rip a few times on a light run on soft surfaces. Open up and fly along but when it starts to get hard simply let up and recover fully before moving fast again. Your jogs between the efforts on these days should be light and slow.
Second moderate. Perhaps you want to mix in one more workout in a week but know if it is a real killer you won't be able to do your more important focus sessions for the week. Perhaps you are early in a cycle of training or you are returning from a layoff. Fartlek is perfect. You can vary the speeds and distances as well as the total time running. Easily stopping long before you are fully exhausted. Best of all you have no watch to tell you you aren't running fast enough or long enough. Your breaks between the fast efforts on these days should be at the pace of a fast training run. Not super fast but not shuffling along either.
Finally Hard. Go get it run short savage bursts. Long killing drives. Attack every uphill you see. Imagine yourself a cross country god or an ancient man hunting deer on foot. Whatever inspires you and push each effort until your lungs sear and your legs quiver. Then settle back into a jog until you are back in control enough to attack again. Go on like this until you can't go no more. Much like the moderate your pace between fast efforts on these days should be rather quick about as fast as you go on your fastest regular training runs.
How long? Until you FEEL you are finished. In future blogs we'll get into all sorts of structured fartleks but for this the pure fartlek you should not be wearing a watch or checking your distance. You are trying to communicate with your body. To tests its limits and to let it tell you how much is just right. How fast is fast, how long is long enough.
How fast? I do have a bit more direction for you here. DO NOT do just one speed! Mix it up. Your efforts should be all sorts of different distances and speeds. Vary from full out mad blitzes to just quick floating efforts, from short sprints to the next tree to long killing drives over significant distance. Really mix it up. Variety is the name of the game. Okay fartlek is really the name of the game but you know what I mean!
The fartlek in its pure wild form is not for everyone but it can be an amazing workout. You can never get the pace or effort wrong and you can develop a powerful connection with your body which is one thing you need to push it to great performances.