FARTLEK step aside! It’s time for RYTMLEK

FARTLEK step aside! It’s time for RYTMLEK

We’re big into our wild and wacky Fartleks in ChampionsEverywhere – these workouts are a staple part of every athlete we trains weekly training during the general practice and conditioning period. First engineered by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér, Fartlek means ‘speedplay’ and is a way to shake yourself out of that metronomic trance that can sometimes turn distance runners into one-trick ponies. I found an unfortunate limitation in the Fartlek concept, recently, and during my search for the solution found a new variant – ‘Rytmlek’, Swedish for ‘Rhythmplay’, as you had probably guessed already.

A popular format

In group training, the Fartleks are probably the most fun and the most popular among runners, so it has been a constant irritation to us that some runners are not yet able to participate on a regular basis. The runners I am talking about are the runners retraining their running form – in about eight out of ten cases these are runners making a return from several years without running. They are understandable cautious and have lost fitness and speed. Thus it can be difficult to have the confidence to throw yourself into a group of runners with regular mileage under the belt – even if there is a good mix of performance levels in the group. You’ll have too many unanswered questions floating in your head – “Can I concentrate on keeping it together more than 10 minutes”, “can I run fast at all?” and “will I be the slowest” (let’s face it, being the slowest in any group is a good incentive to train, but it get’s old!).


‘Overclocking’ your rhythm

… it can be very easy to slip back into a ‘walking-style’ running stride at these paces because the motion you are executing is very subtle. – René Borg

The other week I was reviewing a warm-up designed by the CrossFit Endurance coach Brian McKenzie. McKenzie’s warm-up was based on getting the runner ready to run at a high cadence – what we would call ‘over-clocking’ and the basic format looked like this:

  • Running drill + 30-60 seconds @ 186-192 steps/minute (repeated x 4)
  • Running drill (another) + 2-4 minutes @ 184-186 steps/minute
  • Route can be repeated 1-3 x as needed

Rather than think too much about this warm-up, I went down to the local GAA pitch to test it and see what it had to offer. My observation was that it was an excellent way of achieving three things:

  • Warming up the running stride over the fullest possible range of motion
  • Making ‘normal’ running cadence (180 steps/minute) seem ‘easier’
  • ‘Implanting’ a strong ‘reminder’ of how the proper ‘pulling action’ of running should feel like

The final point is the most important ahead of a slower run because it can be very easy to slip back into a ‘walking-style’ running

Jason Kehoe descent running
Jason Kehoe showcasing full range of motion – ‘ankle to bum’ during descent

stride at these paces because the motion you are executing is very subtle. On the way home, I pondered whether we could do better than this warm-up in this respect. The answer to my question was the simple workout format we have now dubbed ‘Rytmlek’ – a workout that anyone wanting to refine their stride, particularly those going minimalist, can implement in their training with minimum fuss for maximum payback.

I decided to test my concept the very next day. During treadmill analysis and gait retraining, teaching an exaggerated pulling action of the legs (basically you pull from A to B: Ankle to Bum!) can almost instantly make a runner complete his transformation from plodder to Kenyan-impostor. The downside is that doing this too much is a) unsustainable and b) can create an overly tense runner with an over-active stride.

A to B means ANKLE to BUM! – CE

A workout for every runner

What I was looking for was ‘just the right dose’ administered in a simple way that would allow it to be integrated with minimum disruption into regular runs. This was the genesis of my first ‘Rytmlek’ – the 15/45. Before beginning any ‘Rytmlek’ you have to integrate two elements into the immediate warm-up to the run:

  • A ‘Rhythm’-focused easy trot or set of drills that includes the general cadence of 176-182 that most efficient running happens at.
  • A ‘McKenzie’ style warm-up which includes some ‘over-clocking’ (cadences higher than 182 bpm).

Both parts of this warmup needs to be done with the help of a metronome such as a Seiko clip-on or the Mobile Metronome app widely available for SmartPhones. You can also download this mp4 (kindly provided to us by an attendee from our workshops – Carolyn Goulden). Another option is to purchase the new Garmin series of watches that provide cadence information (the ForeRunner 610 and 910) – if you have more money to spend or want to record it for posterity*.

* As an added bonus this is the first series of watches to have ‘technical’ metrics that tell you something about the movement quality – including cadence, vertical oscillation and ground contact time. How precise these new Garmins are remains to be seen but we’ll be testing this when we get around to purchasing new watches (Christmas will come eventually…)

The first part of the warm-up provides you the actual target, the second part of the warm-up shows you the area beyond target where you are beginning to ‘overshoot’ and ‘overdo it’. This aids you in two respects: it makes the target rhythm feel relatively easier and it gives you a recent memory of what ‘too frantic’ cadence feels like. When you try to do a ‘full pull’ a common error is to also speed up your cadence – for this workout we are trying to avoid this.

Now for the main session:

Running pose
In ‘easy’ running the ankle does not travel ‘all the way’ to the bum (less range of motion) – but the direction and basic technique is the same

The 15/45 – the original ‘Rytmlek’

The main workout simply consists of splitting every minute of your run into 15 seconds of ‘full-pull’ (A to B! remember?) with 45 seconds of easier running. The rhythm should stay consistent at 180 step/minute regardless of whether you are doing ‘full pull’ or ‘easy’. If you feel too self-conscious to wear a metronome, play it one last time just before you start running so at least he beat is in fresh memory. It is very easy to be delusional about your cadence.

It is easiest to learn the correct ‘full pull’ with the help of a coach – but if you want to try this before working with us or another technical running coach, then these two sensory cues can help guide you on whether you are doing it correctly:

  • You should feel the lower part (calf) and upper part (hamstring) of your legs touching as if you’re rapidly squashing something between the lower and upper leg
  • You should sense the rear part of your heel just whistling close by your bum (you might kick yourself accidentally if you exaggerate a tad too much)

You should not feel like you are running on the spot when doing this. As you begin to pull your foot through the full range of motion, you should naturally increase your pace to what feels natural. Speed is not the goal – but by no means should you resist it.

you condition your body to regular changes in pace – a skill that is lost to the majority of modern runners and thus an advantage you can claim for yourself. – Rene Borg

The usual question – how much?

Volume can be as low or as high as you can currently run in general. I did my first experiment by completing 48 x 1 minute of 15 seconds ‘full-pull’ and 45 seconds ‘easy’ as part of a 50 minute workout. Try to stay well within a distance you are comfortable with the first time until you ‘find your feet’. But there is no reason you should not be able to do this over the course of a 2 hour run if you can already comfortably run 2 hours or more. As a bonus: when you ‘add-on’ this format to a regular 40, 60 or 120 minute run, you condition your body to regular changes in pace – a skill that is lost to the majority of modern runners and thus an advantage you can claim for yourself.


Making the Rytmlek more endurance or more speed-based

Running flight phase
Don’t run on the spot – this is not a drill. We’re going somewhere!

The 15/45 workout provides you the basic vocabulary with which to string together complete sentences but as with any ‘new language’, the permutations are endless once you know the words. You can shorten the ‘full-pull’ time and/or lengthen the ‘easy’ time for a more endurance based workout that you can maintain longer. Or vice-versa: increase the ‘full-pull’ time and/or shorten the ‘easy’ time for a more challenging workout.

Two basic examples:

  • 10/110: 10 seconds of ‘full pull’ followed by 1 minute 50 seconds of ‘easy’ running. This workout allows you to maintain a very relaxed heart rate (such as in the 140ies) because the fast section is very short and there is plenty of recovery
  • 30/30: A technically-focused version of Billat’s famous workout, this variant will be exhausting very quickly – within 5 to 10 minutes for many runners and perhaps 20 minutes for strong runners.

When you train tougher variants such as the 30/30 be extra vigilant that you are keeping the rhythm and the ‘full pull’ – as fatigue mounts it will become increasingly difficult to maintain good movement. The advantage of the 15/45 is that it allows you to recover between each spell of full-range of motion running – thus you are ‘fresh’ for most of the important practice.


How does Rytmlek differ from Fartlek

Because the focus is on interspersing periods of running with the full range of motion but generally plenty of recovery, Rytmlek is first and foremost a way to reinforce better running form and to train your body and mind to fire the right muscles rapidly over the full range of motion.

Where traditional Fartlek was designed with cardiovascular training in mind, Rytmlek could be seen as primarily a neurological and muscular workout (although it would be more correct to call it simply a ‘movement-focused’ workout and dispense of the scientific lingo). Of course, both workouts train all of these factors (and more) – what differs is only the emphasis.


Let us know how you get on with your first dose of ‘Rytmlek’ or join our workshops so you can take part in our weekly ‘Skill & Conditioning’ sessions which feature this workout and other interesting formats to train fitness while at the same time keeping a strict eye on efficient running form.

The following two tabs change content below.


Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

Latest posts by René (see all)

Leave a reply