Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Fartlek: The Workout That Dare Not Speak Its Name

This week, I want to say a few words of praise and clarification about the Swedish workout with the flatulent name-- fartlek. But first, some P-K Performance of the Month Nominees.

This being November, all of the nominees made their mark in X-C events, and at the recent school and club provincial championships in particular. Here are my picks, in order of the age of the nominees, oldest to youngest:

Myra McDonald, who won the women's 50-59 age division at the provincial masters championships in her first ever race "over the country". In fact, Myra is a rookie racer in all disciplines, having only joined the group and started training seriously a year ago! Adding to her accomplishment, she ran only 50 seconds or so over her road 5k personal best over the very hilly course in Newmarket. (Times are always a tricky measure of X-C performance, but, judging by the recent performances of her competitors on certified road courses, Myra's run would certainly have been a significant P.B.)

Michael Gill (now a repeat nominee), who finished the same hilly 5k course that Myra ran in a time only 15 secs off of his already huge breakthrough road performance from last month. A very conservative estimate would put this time in the low 16min range on a standard road course, meaning that Mike has chopped at least another 30 seconds from his time in only a month, bringing his total improvement since starting in the group up to a whopping 2:30! Honestly, I have never seen anything quite like this. (And, as only I would know, he may be just getting started. There is still much more he could-- and will-- be doing in training over the next year or so.)

Nick McGraw, who dominated the junior boys race at the club provincial championships in Newmarket. For those familiar with Nick's excellent record of performance in X-C and triathlon, this won't come as as surprise. However, this was his first serious X-C race in almost 2 years! It was also the result of very little serious preparation since returning from his many travels over the past 18 months. As his long time running coach, Nick has surprised me with his performances on several other occasions; but, this may topped them all. Nick will line up again in two weeks time at the Nationals, where he will be a member of P-K's very strong-- even potential medal-winning-- junior boys team.

Jeff Archer, a local senior high school athlete who has seen remarkable improvement over the course of his season this year. Last year, Jeff placed 57th in the school provincial championships in a time some 2:30mins behind that of the winner. This month, he finished 10th in the same race, some 55 secs behind the winner-- a performance far in advance of the average rate of improvement for an athlete of his age. And, to top off his school championship performance, he finished a close 4th in the club provincial race a week later in Newmarket, and even looked like he had a chance to win it in the final km! Jeff will join Nick in two weeks as a member of the P-K junior boys team at nationals, his first trip to this fall classic.

Adrien Noble, another local high schooler. Adrien joined the group a year ago and has made very steady improvement ever since. Like Jeff, he put the exclamation point on his progress this month at the school and club X-C provincials. Not even qualifying for school provincials last season, Adrian won the qualifying race this year in convincing fashion, and finished a strong 18th at the championship itself. Then, a week later, correcting the tactical errors that probably kept him out of the top 10 in the school race, Adrien finished a close 8th in the provincial race. Too young to run for the junior boys team at nationals, Adrien will now take a well earned, albeit short, break from training.

All results from these race can be found at: www.trackdatabase.com

I will no doubt add further nominees following the Nationals weekend on the 28th, after which I will declare a November Performance of the Month, the owner of which will join October winner Lauren Taylor as a nominee for P-K Performance of the Year, to be announced some time in January. And nominations from members themselves are welcome. (If fact, I will be asking for members to help me select nominees for Performance of the Month going back to January of 09).

Fartek: The Workout That Dare Not Speak Its Name

If you're looking to feel silly and slightly uncomfortable, try saying the word "Fartlek" to a group of primary school students. Even if you're talking to a group of keen young runners, it will do no good to follow this up by explaining that the word is actually Swedish, meaning "speed-play". The point is, you will have said the word "fart" without any comic intent, and they will find it hilarious.

In its original form, fartlek running was defined by the use of spontaneous changes in speed introduced within the course of an otherwise easy, aerobic training run. Its Nordic inventors intended it as a kind of hybrid of easy, recovery-pace running and formal interval training; and, like a lot of training techniques, it was given rise to by a combination of necessity and opportunity. Fartlek training was born in the forests of Scandinavia as a means of taking advantage of the opportunity that the natural environment afforded, and of making do without easy access to a running tracks or stopwatch-bearing coaches (there was, recall, a time before convenient, affordable and easily portable hand-held timing devices). Its pioneers also intuited that it was perhaps a more accurate simulation of the precise demands of actual long distance races, and of off-track races in particular, than the then standard track interval session run at faster than race speeds and with more passive recovery periods. Early fartlek sessions would have athletes running freely and picking their own landmarks between which to do pick-ups of varying speed and length. Later, with its broader international dissemination, fartlek would become more formalized in terms of the length and intensity of the accelerations, and more tailored to the needs of athletes in specific event ranges. It remains, however, an ideal way to combine the volume of a longer, easy run with the intensity of a track interval session, as well as an occasional alternative to the grind of standard interval and tempo sessions.

It it important to understand, however, that fartlek training is not form of compromise between two more ideal forms of running-- easy recovery running and hard interval training, or simply a psychological respite; it is its own form of training, and it offers its own unique psychological and (I think) physical benefits. Fartlek training is ideal preparation for longer, off-track races in particular. What makes it ideal in this respect is the imperative to recover on the fly, to accelerate when already running at a fairly high heart and respiration rate, and to focus throughout a longer, continuous bout of running. And the top speeds in fartlek workouts are typically no faster than those reached in a race of 5kms or longer, with the average pace in a good session frequently matching exactly the athlete's proper tempo run pace. The active recoveries and the typically longer duration of the fartlek session tend to prevent athletes from ever approaching their 1500 or 3k paces, forcing them to spend more time at their actual long distance race paces rather than above or below them, which frequently happens when the training plan includes only easy runs, interval sessions and tempo runs. So, while the foundation of any correct training plan remains the MV02 interval session and the tempo run, punctuated by the easy, aerobic run, the fartlek session remains a vital adjunct. It provides both psychological respite from these other kinds of sessions; but, more importantly, it offers a useful simulation of the physical and mental demands of long distance racing, which include the ability to respond to mid and late race changes in effort and speed, and the mental discipline to maintain focus under prolonged stress.

As my most of my athletes will have learned, I have a few favourite fartlek sessions, including:

-the 60/40, in which athlete runs for 60 secs @ 5k race pace and recovers for 40 seconds at or slightly faster than typical easy run pace; and

-the 6 to 1 "hybrid" tempo and interval-pace session, in which the athlete completes a series of runs descending from 6 minutes mins down to 1 minute, taking 1 minute recoveries @ typical easy run pace between each segment, and attempting to increase his/her pace from tempo speed to down to interval speed in the final 3 segments of the session.

The fartlek form, however, allows for infinite variations, and I never tire of inventing and self-testing new combinations of speed, recovery and total volume. And the introduction of different terrain expands the possibilities that much more.

So ingenious is the idea contained in fartlek running that it was bound to be invented at some point. It's just a little unfortunate for us anglos that the Swedes, whose word for speed happens to be "fart", got there first!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

physi-kult for the junior boys gold.
you heard it here first

18 November 2009 at 22:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently had a discussion with an exercise physiolgist and coach who perscribe the following workout to an athlete as a Fartlek. This workout was 3 x 10 min Tempo with 3 min easy pace between. I questioned his use of the definition "Fartlek" in this situation. Daniels would describe these as "cruize intervals" or threshold workout. By definition there is changes in speed but does that make it a fartlek?

21 November 2009 at 12:09  
Blogger Steve said...

Seconded! P-K boys for the win.

And the 3x10mins with 3mins recovery could only be described as a fartlek session if the recoveries were run at at least average easy run pace. However, this is much better described as a cruise interval, or simply "tempo-pace", session. I've rarely heard of anyone doing pick-ups in a fartlek session of more than 8mins (as in the classic Australian "Mono-fartlek", named for the great Steve Monaghetti). Fartlek pick-ups are much more typically in the 30 secs to 3mins range.

21 November 2009 at 13:28  

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