Speed workouts can overwhelm runners of all experience levels. If you're a beginning runner and find track work daunting, you're not alone: I haven't stepped on a track since senior year of high school, thanks to many unpleasant memories and a general unwillingness (and inability) to discreetly hop a fence when no one’s looking.
That said, speed workouts also help runners of all experience levels. They build muscle, they train your legs to run despite fatigue and, well, they make you faster.
When I feel as though I would like to run fast (I refuse to quote Top Gun), I do a fartlek workout. It's fun to say, it's easy and it's quick.
Fartlek is Swedish for speed play, and the original fartlek workout included long intervals, speed work and hills. (You can also borrow from the U.S. Marine Corps and incorporate calisthenics if you’re feeling particularly badass.)
I don't go to that much trouble -- partly because hills are few and far between in southern New England, partly because there’s no way I could keep track of all that and partly out of fear that doing jumping jacks in the center of town may rob me of what little dignity I have left -- but I do give my fartlek workouts a bit of structure.
First, you need to figure out the duration of your run. (This is one of those runs where time matters more than distance.) You can do a quick, effective fartlek workout in 30 minutes. Anything longer than 60 minutes is pushing it, figuratively and literally; you're just going to tire yourself out.
Remember, too, that though you’re sprinting, the run as a whole will be slower than a plain ol' run. My warmup/cooldown pace is generally at least 2:30 slower than my 5K pace -- enough that I'm sweating but not breathing too hard -- and between sprints I’m not going much faster than a jog.
Once you get out there, do a warmup for 10 to 15 minutes. Any less, I find, is insufficient to "shake the lead out" of my legs. Any more and you might as well just do an easy run.
Next are the fartleks. I do these in sets of two to four, depending on their duration:
- 30 or 45 seconds: Sets of four.
- 45 or 60 seconds: Sets of three.
- 60 to 90 seconds: Sets of two.
(Note: If you sprint for more than 90 seconds, you're edging into interval training as opposed to fartlek training. This serves a different purpose, which I’ll cover later.)
I tend to stick to 30, 45, 60, 75 and 90 seconds for my fartleks, as math is easy enough to do while glancing at a watch. My break between sprints in each set is as long as the spring itself -- i.e. 30-second fartlek, 30-second break. Between each set I'll add a minute to my break.
The number of sets I do also varies, though it's usually inversely proportional to the number of sprints in each set.
- 30-45 seconds: Two sets of four sprints each.
- 45-60 seconds: Three sets of three sprints each.
- 60-90 seconds: Four sets of two sprints each.
The idea here is to give yourself a decent amount of recovery time while still pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. You may not think eight 30-second sprints in a nine-minute span will hurt, but it does. On the other hand, doing a set of four 90-second sprints will hurt like hell.
These are also inexact. If I do 45-second sprints, I don’t always do them in sets of three; there are some tricky intersections in my town, and I try to avoid sprinting through them since, well, that’s not safe. (Besides, race conditions are inexact.)
Finally, do your cooldown. This should be 10 to 15 minutes. There's nothing wrong with extending it, but don't cut it short. (If you're doing a route for the first time, and you think it may take longer than the time you’ve calculated, tack the extra time on the cooldown.) And stretch well after you've showered and refueled.
Who else likes fartlek workouts as much as I do?