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Embrace the Fartlek

What is a fartlek?

A fartlek, or pickup workout as it’s also sometimes referred to as, is a continuous training run where you alternate between slower and faster paces for given intervals of time. Although specific paces can be prescribed for the various intervals, paces used in fartlek workouts are usually effort-based. For example, one workout may ask a runner to alternate between recovery run pace and tempo run pace. The loose-structure of a fartlek workout makes it a highly versatile training tool, one that can be beneficial to runners of all levels. Below is some information regarding when and how to incorporate fartleks into your training!

When is a fartlek useful?

When you are just starting to get in shape or are coming back from an injury

The fact that fartlek workouts are time and effort based means they give a runner the freedom to run at a pace and intensity that is appropriate for their current fitness level. When you are just beginning to run or are getting back into running after a break, it can be easy to get wrapped up in trying to hit specific splits or mileage. You may get discouraged by what your GPS watch is telling you and wind up pushing yourself too hard to do more. During a fartlek workout, rather than obsessing over exactly how fast you are running or how much distance you have covered so far, you can simply focus on yourself and how you feel. Maybe you are tired after a bad night of sleep or are sore from your race a few days ago. Running based-on effort allows you to get in a solid workout but also encourages you to listen to your body.

When you are running in a new place or don’t have access to a track or marked path

The beauty of a fartlek is that it can literally be done anywhere. All you need in order to successfully complete it is a watch, and it doesn’t even have to be a GPS watch either! This makes the fartlek a very convenient workout for when you are traveling or have limited access to facilities. Say your training schedule calls for half mile repeats, but you are on a business trip in a city you have never visited before. Rather than waste time searching for a public track, simply convert your would-be half mile repeats into comparable time-based intervals. Now you can get your workout in at the park across from your hotel and not stress about hitting exact splits after a long day of travel.

When weather conditions are less than ideal

Bill Bowerman is famously quoted as once saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just soft people”. While the point he was trying to make with that statement is an important one – successful people don’t make excuses – there is no denying the fact that weather conditions do impact performance to some extent. If it’s 100 degrees with 90% humidity, chances are you are going to run significantly slower for the sample level of effort. Conversely, if it’s 10 degrees out and the road is a little icy, you’ll likely also wind up running slower due to tight muscles and poor footing. Knowing when and how to adjust your training so you can safely and effectively train in sub-optimal weather conditions doesn’t make you soft, it makes you smart. A effort-based fartlek allows you to get in solid workout and may prevent you from straining to achieve paces that are unrealistic given the weather.

Sample fartlek workouts

The Pyramid

1:00 on / 1:00 off
2:00 on / 2:00 off
3:00 on / 3:00 off
2:00 on / 2:00 off
1:00 on / 1:00 off

As you get more fit throughout your training cycle, you can increase the length of each of the intervals to increase your total volume of work.

3:00 on / 3:00 off
4:00 on / 4:00 off
5:00 on / 5:00 off
4:00 on / 4:00 off
3:00 on / 3:00 off

The Inverted Pyramid

A slightly more challenging version of the Pyramid where you start and end with the longest intervals. The key to the Inverted Pyramid is to be relaxed and controlled early on so you can maintain your pace as you go back “up” the pyramid in the second half of the workout.

3:00 on / 3:00 off
2:00 on / 2:00 off
1:00 on / 1:00 off
2:00 on / 2:00 off
3:00 on / 3:00 off

Cut-downs

This workout is a great way to practice progressing and changing gears. Do 2-3 of the following set:

3:00 at tempo pace / 3:00 easy pace
2:00 at 10k pace / 2:00 easy pace
1:00 at 5k pace / 3:00 easy pace

To make this workout a bit longer and more challenging, turn it into a 5-3-1 cut-down with the same general structure. Again, do 2-3 sets of the following:

5:00 at tempo pace / 3:00 easy pace
3:00 at 10k pace / 2:00 easy pace
1:00 at 5k pace / 3:00 easy pace