Cross-country sessions and fartleks – OMNIUM

Fartlek training is a perfect way to mimic the unpredictable nature of cross-country running and to bring an element of real fun into your running workouts. Fartleks can take any shape or form and are always best done over natural terrain making them perfect simulations for the cross-country running season.

I’ve designed and/or stolen many cross-country sessions over time including Roger Robinson’s famous “sausage sessions” and the “Brazilian” or “Indian miles”. But I wanted something new and fresh and today I’d like to share the “cross-country OMNIUM” fartlek with our readers. Today, thinking about a session for the evening’s workout, I suddenly remembered the super-entertaining “OMNIUM” discipline of track cycling which was won by my countryman Lasse Norman Hansen in dramatic fashion. Could this work for runners? Tonight, we tried it and I’m glad to say – it works!

What you need to execute this fartlek

  • First: find a nice park or other grassy area of dirt trail or similar. If there are a few hills, that’s fine, but they are not required.
  • Second, you might need one or two cones or other objects that you can use to create a start line and a midway line.
  • Next, find a circular or square area such as a lap of a park or a football pitch around 300-500m long (shorter for beginners)
  • Finally, you need a coach to take times or everyone to wear watches so they can time themselves
Since this is “a game” or a “competition” you can decide to use the point system below. If you do you need a piece of paper and a pen and a clipboard (or a guy with a nice flat back). If not, every competition is run just for the laughs and the bragging rights.
Now before you start doing anything, place the midway cone halfway around your loop and the other at the start. Try to get a bit of a nice flat run-in to the finish as there’ll be a lot of sprint finishes in this fartlek session.

Overview of the workout and exercises

The OMNIUM track cycling event has a number of disciplines and I tried to bring as many as possible into this training exercise. Here is the full list of events you can consider (cherry-pick if you have less time):

  • Prologue: 1 lap to be run at 10k to half-marathon race intensity (coach decides)
  • Event 1 – flying start: Run easy for half a lap, clock starts the moment you cross the midway cone
  • Event 2 – Points race: 1 lap/person (max 10 laps), first three on each lap score points
  • Event 3 – Individual pursuit: Runners compete in pairs starting at start or midway point and running directly against each other
  • Event 4 – Scratch race: 1 lap/person (max 5 laps). Straight up race – first man across the line wins
  • Event 5 – Elimination: “Devil take the hindmost” or “miss and out” format, last finisher on each lap is “out”. Last man standing wins.
  • Event 6 – Time trial: 2 laps individual time trial. Start runners with good gaps between each other so there’s no overtaking.
In addition, you can remove some of these events and/or add in some of these optional events:
  • Optional – hill sprints: 1 lap/person. Identify a hill on each circuit and place a marker at the top. Score points by “winning the hill”
  • Optional – Handicap: At the end of the race tally scores and give runners a 5 second handicap on a 2 lap time trial for each point they are behind. This could be the decisive event, or just another event, depending on what you want.
  • Optional – Madison: 6-10 laps or more. Divide group into teams of 2-3 runners – described below! Best done as a separate session.
  • Optional – Relay: 1 lap/person. Traditional relay event. Team up the 1st, 4th, 6th, 8th etc. placed runner with the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th etc runner or random teams
  • Optional – Team sprint: 3 laps. Divide groups into teams of three. Half of the teams start at start line, the other half at the midway point. One runner must lead each team each lap and then step off the course. First team to have the last man home wins.
  • Optional – individual sprint: 1 lap. Pair off your most evenly matched runners. They start together and first man across the line wins. (Can be done as a longer round-robin session)
  • Optional – team pursuits: Exactly like the “individual pursuit” except you split the group into teams of 3 to 4 runners but here the winning team is decided by the second-last runner across the line (so the 2nd person in a three man team). Works well with 4-16 laps.
  • Optional – Win and out: 1 lap for each runner less one. The opposite of “Devil take the hindmost” – first runner across the line in each lap is taken out. First man out wins, second man out takes 2nd etc.

Further permutations are almost endless but the above are some of the classical cycling disciplines translated into running terms.

Purpose of the prologue

The prologue is used to establish a starting order, so by sending people off to a staggered start and telling them to pick their pace, each runner should run to their ability and the fastest runners should run the fastest time. The slowest runner goes first in the first individual events, thus giving them more recovery. If you’d like to skip this, or think people are likely to slow down on purpose, just go straight to the points race and let that sort out the standing for the first individual (one to one) event.

When doing this for the first time, I don’t tell my runners why I’m doing it. To make it matter, you could allow runners to score points for their prologue as well.

How pursuits work

In a team or individual pursuit, you allow the team that has the least points or that you know is the weakest and allow them to pick their starting point (midway or the start line). Both competitors or teams run in the same direction. The first team/competitor to get to the opponents starting point wins (take time as a backup). So if runner A starts midway and runner B at the start line, then runner A wins if he gets to the start line before runner B makes it to the midway point. You should always put the 1st (or best) runner against the 2nd (or second fastest), 3rd against 4th and so on, so each context is very close.

The Madison

This is the “weirdest event” in track cycling possibly and the longer you run it for the more interesting it get’s. You need to divide your group into a number of teams preferably of at least 3 runners. You should either provide a set number of laps as a goal (e.g. “10”) or set a time limit (e.g. “20 minutes”).

The goal in the running version is to “score as many laps as possible” during the time provided or to be the first team to get to the set number of laps (such as 10). Only one runner can score laps at any given time. The other runners are just walking or running slowly around the lap (they cannot stop or run backwards). If the scoring runner wants to be relieved, he has to touch one of his team mates who now takes over as scoring runner.

Each time a scoring runner crosses the start line, his team accrue a lap and the winning team is the team that accumulates most laps or get’s to the set number of laps first. If two teams accumulate the same number of laps, the first to cross the line within the time provided are the winners. When using time, score the first team with 3 points, second with 2 and third with 1 and all other teams with 0.

What does the workout achieve for your runners?

This is a very relevant workout or fartlek for cross-country running because it forces runners to compete against other in a wide range of disciplines that will suit different strengths. Take a few examples below:

  • Devil take the hindmost: The most important racing here takes place at the back, because its important not to be eliminated but less important if you win every lap. This psychologically prepares you for tough battles at the back of the field and tactical racing to win late on but not necessarily “impress early”
  • Time trials, prologues and pursuits: These are excellent pace judgment exercises especially on challenging terrain and suit endurance types or runner who know how to select the best pace over distance. Erratic runners can use this to learn how to put in concerted strong efforts and keep that effort going. These are therefore best done over 1000m or longer so they don’t turn into sprints. Pursuits have the added benefit of giving you a “sense of the chase”.
  • Handicap races: These races enforce parity and means you can train an uneven group and have them put pressure on each other that would normally not exist. For slower runners this is a great way to try and “keep a faster runner behind them” and learn how to “lead from the front”, something they will be unaccustomed to.
  • Team pursuits and team sprints: The team events teach runners to “run in packs” which is a very helpful skill in cross-country running. Slower runners get the feeling of working together with faster runners and getting spurred on. It also teaches you to “hang on just that little bit longer”.
  • Points race and scratch races: This event teaches runners to position themselves well at important parts of a course (such as a bottle neck or the finish) and put in sprints during the race. Runners with a poor sprint can use this session to learn how to “get the jump” on the more powerful sprinters and perhaps win laps or the event by making a surprising move early on.

Even better, this type of racing is fun and unpredictable and challenges the often monotonous even pacing displayed by so many modern runners. There is nothing wrong with holding an even pace (and indeed you can do well in the time trial events if you are good at this) but in cross-country running and mountain running, as well as challenging road races, you need the ability to improvise and change pace as well as make tactical decisions about “do I stay or do I go”. All of this can be practiced within the format of an “OMNIUM fartlek” workout.

How to score points

Generally, the winner of each event (or each sprint within an event) get’s 3 points, 2nd get’s 2 points and 3rd get’s 1 point with everyone else getting zero points.

In head to head events such as team pursuits and sprints you get 3 points for a win and the loser or losing team get’s 0 points.

As a coach you can take score throughout or you can simply let each team or person enjoy their win without taking score. Alternatively, you can bring some small marbles or stones and throw them into a hat or similar for each team or competitor so they can see how they are doing without needing to write anything down.

Time taking

To make life easier for everyone, require everyone to time themselves and use a trust-based system. For sprints, require that each person remembers how many points they scored during a points race. If they forget, they lose the points. Simple.

You could change this into a “stage race” event by making everything time based and make sprints score bonus seconds instead of time but this will be more difficult to administer and is almost an article in its own right. But its an idea!

Recovery and length of the workouts

You should implement some rest and recovery between each event, an easy lap or 1-2 minutes downtime as you take score and tell people how they did or tell them how it stands if you want to “stir things up a bit”. Try and plan your event so it’s between 30-60 minutes of hard running with a 15 minute warm-up and a 15 minute easy run afterwards.

Runners will be pretty adept at taking breaks in this when they need to, so you don’t need to be too worried about overcooking it. Those who feel they are “out of an event” will usually rest themselves for the next one and that all helps keep things interesting and entertaining to the end.

To further keep things even, whenever you have an event where two runners or teams are competing against each other while others are waiting, ensure the fastest runners go first so they get the least recovery.

I hope this article gives you plenty of ideas for “spicing up” your fartleks or your cross-country training sessions.

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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.

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