By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

We live in a grass fed, farm raised, free range, wild-caught, hormone-free world. Or at least we try to. Or at least we know we probably should. Yes, it’s hard in our actual hormone pumped, antibiotic injected, processed world. But we know that getting back to a natural, organic life would probably do us well. I’m inundated daily with lists of super foods, nightmarish videos of how Chicken McNuggets are made, and lists of foods that are certain to kill me, scrolling across my computer screen. So I know. We all know. But I don’t want to talk about organic food, I want to talk about organic running, in particular a terribly under utilized and grossly under appreciated workout – the fartlek.

Listening to Your Body

There has been a strong push lately to get back to natural running, but despite the popularity of minimalistic shoes and Paleo diets we are increasingly attached to our GPS watches and data driven training method, an area some detachment would actually serve us well. I’m not hear to say data is bad and GPS watches aren’t useful, they certainly can be, but I’ve seen a growing disconnect between what our bodies are telling us and how that drives what we do on a day-to-day basis. The best runners in the world have an incredible internal gauge providing them with constant feedback that allows them to perfectly manage their effort, and that sense doesn’t come from watching the pace on their watch all the time. It comes from years of listening to and understanding the intricate signals their body sends them. The best way to develop your ability to understand your body like a world-class athlete is to incorporate some fartlek workouts into your training routine.

Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play” and was developed in the late 1930’s by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér. The idea behind the fartlek is to organically change paces within a continuous run. It isn’t completely different than an interval workout with specific distances and rest periods, but the fartlek liberates you from the pace constraints and distance requirements found in an interval session. Most of us enjoy the structure of an interval session and the direct feedback of running a set distance in a specific time, but the fartlek forces you to disengage from the data and listen to your internal feedback. The lack of pace and distance specifications in a fartlek make it a workout you can do anytime and anywhere. Additionally, the flexibility of a fartlek allows you to implement fartlek running into your program at any point during your training.

Fartlek in Different Stages of Training

In the early stages of a training program where you should be more focused on moderate intensity work like tempo runs and progression runs, fartlek can be utilized to introduce some quicker running at a moderate intensity. In executing a moderate fartlek the variance between the quicker pieces and easier pieces should be less rather than more. For example, if you were running a fartlek of 5 x 3 minutes with 90 seconds of easy running in between each you might run the 3 minute pieces at or a touch slower than 10k effort and keep the 90 seconds of easier running at your normal easy day running pace. You would want to finish this workout feeling like you could easily do a few more 3-minute pieces if you had to. If you were executing a fartlek closer to a key race where you were doing more specific work you would increase the variance between the faster and slower parts of the fartlek. For example, with the same 5 x 3min workout you would run the 3 minute pieces closer to 5k pace and take the 90 seconds jog slower than your easy day pace. This simulates a workout that would be akin to a specific interval session, but allows you the flexibility to listen to your body rather than focusing on what the watch tells you.

Fartlek Facilitating Breakthroughs

Gauging your effort rather than having a specific pace target does take some practice, but once you are able to do it effectively it will help you in all aspects of your training and racing. I know and coach many people who struggle to truly engage during their races because they are more focused on their pace than evaluating what their body is telling them. If you ask elite athletes what they are thinking about during a race you will inevitably get one of two responses (or both); they are either gauging their competitors in a tactical fashion or constantly evaluating and monitoring their internal effort gauges. This type of mentality and intuition allows for break through races. The nature of a break through race requires exceeding what you thought you were capable of. If you are limit yourself using external data rather than evaluating your internal gauges you will never allow yourself those breakthroughs. Obviously, pacing is important and there is a place for watches and set distances, but being able to harness both internal and external feedback is the space in which the best athletes operate.

Structure

Although the true sense of a fartlek is the spontaneous telephone-pole-to-telephone-pole type of workout, I suggest including some structure in your workout so that you can hold yourself accountable when its easier to stop than to keep going. In addition to the 5 x 3 minute fartlek I mentioned before; try a descending tempo fartlek. Start with a longer piece and as you progress through the workout decrease the length of the pieces and quicken the tempo. For example, start with a 6 minute piece at half marathon effort and then do a 5 minute piece, a 4 minute piece, etc. all the way down to finishing with a 1 minute piece. Each successive piece should be a hair quicker than the previous. For recovery, jog easily for half the time of the piece you just ran (i.e. 3 minutes after the 6 minute piece). For a different type of descending tempo fartlek, quicken the tempo within each piece. For example, run several 2 minute pieces starting easily and picking up the pace a little bit every 30 seconds. Take 90 seconds of recovery jog between each piece at your normal easy day pace.

The possibilities are endless, and varying the workouts will allow you to get to know your body well. Get back to natural running and implement a fartlek every couple of weeks – embrace the freedom!

*This Article Originally Appeared in the August 2014 Issue of Running Journal