WORKOUTS: Ferocious fartleks!

WORKOUTS: Ferocious fartleks!

Autumn cross-country is almost upon us again and there is no better time to experiment with “Fartleks“, the Swedish concept of “speedplay”. When I look around the internet there are many examples of Fartleks but in our opinion, the format is still not being used to it’s full potential. This is a session to be super-creative and a bit crazy. Here’s a few examples from our recent “Old School Fartleks” run in Marlay Park – the Steam Train, Stop-Lights and Madison. In the next part of our series we’ll look at “The Chain-Gang” and other new inventions our coaches concoct!

 To try this in person, check out news in our ‘Old School Running’ group or the social running group ‘Mud, Sweat and Runners’ – ChampionsEverywhere are currently supporting the community project to establish an athletics club in Laragh, Co. Wicklow, and will also be announcing the relaunch of our Dublin Mountains/South Dublin-based sessions soon (Facebook info here or email us for a Google Calendar invite)


steam train fartlekTHE STEAM-TRAIN

Our first Fartlek is an unpredictable workout playing with a train metaphor that is well suited for kids and childish adults.

Here’s how to run one:

  1. First decide on the “journey length” (after warm-up. We said 30 minutes)
  2. Each person take turns to be the LOCOMOTIVE. The other runners are PASSENGER CARS and thus cannot pass!
  3. LOCOMOTIVE yells out the length of the rep (say “2 minutes”) and the pace (FULL STEAM, HALF STEAM, STATION) meaning Hard, Steady and Easy.
  4. 10 seconds before the rep ends the coach asks the next person in line to yell out what’s coming next (i.e. “1:30 STATION”)

We suggest a few rules to avoid people killing each other completely and making a meaningful session:

  • There can never be two stations in a row (train’s got to leave one to get to the other!)
  • Set a maximum distance “between STATIONS” – for instance “6 minutes”. If no one has “pulled in” by six minutes, the group automatically have to move into STATION with the next runner in line deciding for how long
  • Set a limit to how long the train can stay at a STATION (don’t want to be running late!). We used 3 minutes yesterday
  • Set limits to how what time segments people can yell out – generally 30 second segments is the most practical for the coach (i.e. 30 secs, 1 min, 1:30, 2 min, 2:30 etc.)

To further make the session easier you can also:

  • Set a minimum limit (or set time) for station (i.e. no “30 second breaks” for your session perhaps or “minimum 2 minutes break”)

This is an example of a STEAM TRAIN fartlek we ran recently:

90 secs HARD, 2 min STEADY, 3 min EASY, 30 secs HARD, 1 min EASY, 2:30 min STEADY, 4 min EASY, 30 secs HARD, 2 min EASY, 1 min HARD, 1 min EASY, 30 secs HARD, 2 min HARD, 2 min EASY, 3 min HARD, 3:30 min EASY

OVERALL: 9 minutes HARD, 4:30 min STEADY, 16:30 min EASY

This essentially provided our group with 9 minutes at 5k to 10k race intensity, 4 and a half minutes at half-marathon to 10 mile pace and just over half of the time was spend on recovery. But these sessions can lead your group in all sorts directions which you can control by setting limits on


STOP-LIGHTS (with and without a twist)

Stop light fartlek

A very simple fartlek for any type of group and closely related to the steam train workout. In this fartlek you set a time limit on how much harder running you want during the session (say 45 minutes fartlek not including warmup and cooldown) and you then take turns to “lead the pack”. Before starting each repeat, the coach (or leader of the session) asks the leading runner the pace (Red, Yellow or Green) as well as the time. So if the runner says “RED – 2 minutes”, this means 2 minutes of very hard effort. “Yellow – 1 minute” would be 1 minute at steady effort whereas “GREEN” is “easy”.

It is recommended that you put in place some restrictions to avoid the group of runners killing themselves off. These rules work well to make the session balanced yet unpredictable:

  1. No more than 2 or 3 Red and Yellow intervals in a row. I.e. you can say “after 2 back to back Red or Yellow, the next runner must select Green”
  2. Set a maximum on each colour. Red works best between 30 seconds and 3 minutes whereas Yellow works well between 1 and 6 minutes.
  3. As an alternative have a rule of the maximum time between green lights – i.e. “no more than 5 minutes between green lights”. So if the first runner selects 1 minute RED and the second runner selects 3 minutes YELLOW, then the next runner can only select 1 minute of RED or YELLOW before going into “Green” You will need a leader/coach to help keep track.
  4. Have a minimum time for “Green”. It is recommended to have at least 1 minute but generally a good session includes longer recoveries than the intervals early in the season. Trust your runners to make the season varied. A good mixture of short and long recoveries keeps everyone guessing and the body adaptable
Generally stick to 30 second intervals (no “80 second” repeats for instance) as keeping track becomes a nightmare otherwise. If you don’t have watches, use landmarks instead such as “RED for 1 lap” or “YELLOW until that lamp post!”
Madison fartlek
An old school Madison track cycling race


This workout was first introduced in our “OMNIUM Fartlek” article last year where we tailored events from track cycling to running fartleks. Here’s a more personal overview of how the session can be played out.

We had our first run of the “Madison Fartlek”, another workout modelled on track cycling in July. Infamous as the most complicated event in cycling, we weren’t sure how it was going to go and whether it would be too complicated to ensure a nice flow.

Rules are simple for the running version of the Madison event: teams of two or more are trying to run as many laps as possible in a set amount of time (we had 20 minutes set aside on a grassy lap in the meadow 500m in circumference). So the first thing you need is a lapped course such as a football pitch or a track. We use the undulating meadow in Marlay Park with a track of around 800m in circumference and light uphills and downhills.

We established counter-clockwise as the “official” direction and one runner from each team was tagged as the first scorer. Only the tagged runner can score laps. To tag another runner in your team you need to touch them. These runners can run towards you, slowly away from you, walk or just stand around.

With a small group of 5, the CE coaches (Team Jason/Rene) teamed up against a team of three (Ger/Oli/Sinead) narrowly edging a 12 to 11 lap victory or 6000m in 20 minutes with an additional 283m of wasted effort trying to catch one more lap!

In the tight finish, Ger almost snatched his teams lap 12 as your trusty author frenetically pushed in 283m at sub-3:00min/km in a frantic attempt to setup Jason for a final sprint and a 13th lap.

Why use this workout? Firstly it is unpredictable and good for team bonding and very sharp and race-specific work. By partnering strong runners with weak runners you can create even teams and add many tactical dimensions as runners move into the right positions for each other (stronger runners taking longer shifts for instance) ensuring everyone get’s an even workout.

With uneven numbers pitting 2 stronger runners against 3 other runners is another way to even it. Our verdict: A keeper!

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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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