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Can fartlek training help your marathon?

London Marathon
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Over the past couple of months, and leading up to the London Marathon, 13 April, I've been testing various online training regimes in an attempt to get marathon fit.

(These regimes and all my previous articles are on one handy Stumble Upon page, for your lovely reference. There are also photos of me in action available on both Flickr and Facebook.)

This week I'm looking at Fartlek (Swedish for 'speed play') regimes, designed by coach Gosta Holmer in the 1930s in a bid to revive Sweden's cross-country ski teams.

So, how did I get on over Christmas week?

More miles than I expected but still less than I should have.

I should have run 34 miles (the median average of all recommended schedules for the week) but only ran 27 miles, walked 10 miles, and cycled two (I'm learning to ride a bike, having been inspired by Phil S' column).

The dearth of sweaty self-flagelation is due to my first week of not following a prescribed training regime (not to beer and cake), but I have learned the following:

First pre-emptive Fartlek session (plus normal jog): Always take the southbank from Twickenham to Kew - there is a convenient and pleasant towpath all the way. The northbank is actually nowhere near the Thames aside from the odd 20 yards through an overpriced riverside development. I apologise for running through Syon Park gift shop, I was lost.

Running four miles in proper, thick, Sherlock Holmes' London fog is cool. Literally and figuritively. Couldn't see more than 20 yards ahead of me. Again, had a practice of Fartlek principles: sprinting up hills and varying what I ran on (in London that's a choice of pavement, cycle lane, or ocassional grass).

As promised, I ran six miles at 8am on Christmas morning. Waved to all four other joggers on the way. The M4 is an odd place when there are no cars about. The shop on South Ealing Road really is always open.

I can run dead on eight miles in an hour, though my 10k split time is 20 seconds off my PB and my 20-minute split is still 700m off my PB (5.1km). Although this was on a treadmill it was still a Fartlek variant. With gradient set at 1, I varied the speed from 10km/h to 16km/h, using five-minute, one-minute, and 30-second intervals.

Also, when pushing new boundaries in a public gym never cry out "woo-hoo, I've done it! I rule! I am the daddy", etc. You never know when Football Focus presenters will be stood close by (sorry, Droity, no Sharon Davies) and you're known as the unprofessional maniac among BBC Sport by the time you get back to the office.

So, in a Carry On... stylee, has one of you fartlek'd?

The routines are variants on interval training to increase anaerobic threshold, and so can be painful, but, as the examples below show, can be tailored for many sporting needs and in conjunction with other training styles ('no pain, no gain', Maffetone, team sports).

The emphasis is to run for your usual length of time (say, 45 minutes) but divide that in to bursts of anaerobic exercise to test lactate thresholds and simulate the urgency of racing, and jogs to let the body recover and stimulate aerobic exercise.

Many of the articles and sessions below suggest listening to your own body to judge when anaerobic exercise is getting too tough, or jogging is just too easy, and improvising with the landmarks and gradients you find on your run, rather than fixing times and distances.

For those that want fixed times and distances, there are a couple of them included, too.

So what makes Fartlek any different from how you or I probably run anyway? Well, I'll be trying out some regimes of varying flexibility and will let you know my findings each day (below).

The schedules I'll use are below, one for each day of the week. Each should be around five miles long. Handily, according to my hugely unscientific analysis, with 15 weeks to go until a marathon, we should all be running 35 miles.

Friday - Wikipedia's definition includes a detailed and varied regime to introduce you to Fartlek.

Saturday - I'll be trying Gerschler or Hill, depending on where I fancy running. There are many other routines in the link above, hopefully one to suit all of us.

Sunday - San Domenico Running Club's guide also includes a detailed session, in the context of other training such as hill or speed sessions.

Monday - Momentum Sports advocate the fun and laissez-faire structure of Fartlek.

Tuesday - Shrewsbury Athletics Club add heart rate measurements to the mix, for those that have monitors.

Wednesday - GB Personal Training have a session designed for treadmills.
If you don't have a treadmill, Teach PE (scroll down the page a bit) include a simple outline of a session.

Thursday - finally, one from a public Men's Health forum, why don't you add your own below? - I'm using Longy's suggestion at the end.

As ever, have a good run!

Latest 10 comments

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posted Jan 15, 2008

32 years ago in my prime I usd intervals/fartlek combo to "sprint" distances from 800m up to 5000m. In support of othr comments it was only once my body was race conditioned and the new approach was about tuning it. It enabled me over 2 seaons (in conjunction with maturity to knock 8 seconds off my 800 times and 25 seconds off my 1500 times.

Not convinced it is appropriate for marathons but then I never ran more than a half marathon.

My coach at the time approved its use on the basis it propmted ever increasing smooth pace (ultimately). he once commnetd that my original technique of saving my best for a gut busting 300 m sprint at the end of say a 5mile X-conutry impressed no one apart from the lassies !!

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posted Jan 16, 2008

The comment for BigGut is because he is a runner and therefore one assumes he puts into practice what he preaches. Therefore releveant to know what he can run to see if what he says works for him! Fair comment?

Don't know anyone who can "sprint" 800mts let alone 5000mts.

No doubt about it. Fartlek (as previously defined and explained) is an integral and essential part of any distance training for any event from 800-marathon.

Plodding will only result in plodding. To race fast you have to train fast. If you don't do in training relevant sections of your chosen race distance at race speed and above on an progressive programme, you cannot expect to improve at an optimum rate and achieve anything near your potential as determined by the daily/weekly/monthly work load you are prepared to undertake.

(nb Your potential may be to run 2.10 but in order to achieve that potential you need to train like a 2.10 runner not like a 2.50 runner)

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posted Jan 17, 2008


And how would we know whether it was working for him? If he says he can run 3 hours, what will that tell us? Do you know what his fastest possible time is?

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posted Jan 17, 2008

Also, Big Gut's comments are aimed at the novice marathon runner; he hasn't mentioned his own training regime.

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comment by BigGut (U1688772)

posted Jan 21, 2008

James is purely out to demean me as he is in every thread on this site. My own times are pretty much irrelevant and I have only a limited number of marathons to my credit owing largely to getting ME at 22 and not training for sustained periods since then. I have run 4:02 for 35.2 miles off 10 weeks training.

However I have coached my father who is a 5 distance world record holder and I have worked with 2 national squad coaches and a midlands region endurance coach. Three of my training partners have run internationally at marathon or ultramarathon and I have helped members of my hockey club with their preparation for first marathons in London, Paris and new York.

As usual James misrepresents everything I posted. In his post he goes on to say basically the same as I did that you need to be in condition to do fartlek and that miles are the basic staple. As such I don't see why he is arguing with my advice other than to once again personally attack me for no apparent reason.

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posted Jan 22, 2008

BG, James - advice from both of you is more than welcome here, and a lot of it complementary.

Just be positive here, I'm sure you'd both trounce me over any distance you care to name.

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comment by Martin (U7215813)

posted Jan 23, 2008

Hello all,

this is my first post on any athletic-based thread. You'll have to excuse the verbosity, but I think that explaining who you are and what you do seems to be fairly important to avoid being flamed for doing something 'wrong', or suggesting something 'wrong'.

Personally I think that is a sad state of affairs, and attacking the unknown rather than trying to understand it is the reaction least likely to ever benefit anyone.

Anyway... I am not a long-distance runner at all. In fact, I'm not a runner at all at the moment. I started poking around the 606 boards to see if I could dig up any useful or interesting threads on picking up marathon training for a stab at the gt. South run, london etc.

I would say I have a decent base fitness as I play football 3 times a week - 1.5hr training (varying tempo), 40 mins 7-a side (high tempo), and 90 mins on a saturday (again, varying tempo)

I also try to fit in 2 tennis matches a week, which generally are 1.5 hours ish, at varying tempo. I am invariably sweating hard by the end of all of these 5 sessions each week.

You'll understand then why I was interested to see opinions about fartlek training and long-distance runnning then, as I would describe all my sporting exploits as fartlek training, in so much as they involve varying tempo activity, followed by short/inadequate recovery time, followed by more activity.

The difference being that the activity dictates the recovery time and activity, so it's not really 'training'.

The answer to my initial question about where I would need to start to move from sporting fitness to marathon fitness was probably already known to me in all honesty, which is that I would have to start putting in the miles.

In all honesty, that is utterly unappealing to me. I have the utmost respect for those that do it, but I can't think of anything worse than road-running several times a week at a given pace. The only thing likely to make me do it would be company - but then I have to join a club or find willing company of a similar pace to myself.

Do most of you train together, or is it a lone persuit?

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posted Jan 23, 2008


I prefer training on my own because I always have a pretty good idea of what I want to do (how far, how fast etc), but I can rarely do exactly what I want when running in a group. However, if not running in a group means not running at all, then joining a club is the best solution.

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posted Feb 1, 2008

^ What he say.

Good fitness, though. I started training from a base of 3-4 footie games a week.

Yes, running at set tempo is unappealing to me to. It's only about 2/3 of the way in to a run that I remember why I think I enjoy it...

And don't worry about a few tiffs on here, feel free to offer any point of view.

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posted Feb 1, 2008

Hi Richard
I got selected in the King Henry Relay team for the Wednesday just gone and ran! We came 4th out of 36 schools but unfortunately lost our title sadface
I ran on leg 3/6 and more than held my own i took 1 person and was 3rd fastest in a team that included 2 sixth formers and 2 year 11's

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