“Most of us have enough areas in our lives where we have to meet others’ expectations. Let your running be about your own hopes and dreams.” — Meb Keflezighi
When we start running for the first time, just putting one foot in front of the other continuously for any length of time can seem like a miracle.
But sooner or later, once you get the hang of it, most of us like to find new ways of challenging ourselves. Or at least to run as well as the people we see out there on the roads alongside us.
That’s exactly what a reader asked in our Slack group last week, noting that he was about to begin a training program for a marathon coming up this fall, and wanted to learn how he might shave multiple minutes off his splits.
What he asked about specifically was a speed training technique called the fartlek — pronounced exactly like it looks ;) — which is a Swedish word that means “speed play.”
Unstructured speed training
The word “play” gives you a hint about the fartlek — it’s a type of speed training you can do on your own or with a group, any way you want to. The point is to mix up your running with easier and harder efforts, alternating between the two.
Here’s how Runner’s World describes it:
After a warmup, you play with speed by running at faster efforts for short periods of time (to that tree, to the sign) followed by easy-effort running to recover. It’s fun in a group setting as you can alternate the leader and mix up the pace and time. And in doing so, you reap the mental benefits of being pushed by your buddies through an unpredictable workout.
If you’re running solo, you can use it as a playful way to pass the time by targeting random markers as the finish line for the hard efforts. The goal is to keep it free-flowing so you’re untethered to the watch or a plan, and to run at harder efforts but not a specific pace.
The last part is key: the fartlek is designed to help you push your body and feel the effort you’re making physically, and not to look at your watch as you’re doing it. It helps both improve your fitness and your awareness of how you feel at different levels of effort, without getting hung up on your time.
Fartleks can be done how you want do them. Find a starting place like an intersection and run at a faster speed to the next intersection; start at the bottom of a hill and sprint to the top of it — its all up to you.
It’s best to find fartlek workouts you can repeat multiple times (with easy recovery runs in between) to get the most out of them.
(If you’d like a guide, there’s great resource for fartlek training available on your phone — the Nike Run Club app, which features a guided run called “How Fartlek Can You Go”?)
Structured speed training
For runners interested in something more specific — such as meeting a goal time in a half marathon or marathon — there are plenty of workouts to choose from. Everything from Yasso 800s to sprint workouts to mile repeats can work.
Before diving into the details of any of those, however, it’s important to note the degree to which every runner is different. Each of us runs at our own pace — that might be a 1:30 half marathon or a 3-hour half marathon.
A lot of these plans call for you to run at different paces that their creators assume you already know, such as your 5K pace or your 10K pace or your half marathon pace. But I’d wager that many of us have no idea what our paces are at different distances; we just go out and run.
So keep that in mind as you evaluate different speed training options — some are designed with experienced runners in mind, who can tell you to the minute what their paces are for each distance.
Here are some great resources on speed workouts to try:
Yasso 800s — Named after Bart Yasso, the famed Chief Running Officer at Runner’s World, these were originally developed for runners training for 26.2 miles, but can be a great workout for half marathoners too.
Sprint workouts — Start with the beginner version of these, which involve a warmup run and then an all-out sprint for 20 seconds, followed by a 30-45 second recovery jog; and then repeat that another 3-5 times.
Mile repeats — These are similar to Yasso 800s, and a great tool if running fast seems a bit daunting. The goal of these is to run one mile at a faster pace than your 5K, followed by a recovery run, and then repeat.
Hill sprints — These help you both improve your running form and your fitness level, and involve very short sprints up hills (usually 8 to 10 seconds).
This may sound like quite a list of things to try, bear in mind that there are many, many variations on each of these. And once you get comfortable trying them out, don’t be afraid to improvise your own variation on the one(s) you enjoy the most.
That said, what do you find most helpful when it comes to your training to become a faster runner? I’d love to know, either in the comments below or by replying back.
As always, I hope you’re having a great week and getting some great runs in — let me know how your running is going, and keep in touch.
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Minneapolis, Minn. | Sunday, May 19, 2019
A beautiful 10-mile run along the banks of the Mississippi River where it flows through the heart of the Twin Cities, at a race designed just for women. You’ll start the route in Minnehaha Regional Park, home to a 53-ft.-high waterfall and scenic limestone bluffs along the river, and from there run the rest of the race almost entirely along the river, on the roadways along either side. If you’re not up for the 10-miler, the race also offers a 10K and 5K distance for walkers and runners.
$45 - $75 | Sign up here
Great Falls, Mont. | Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019
The banks of the Missouri River, along which you’ll see plentiful waterfalls and rapids as you run, will be your route at this small late-summer race that usually draws just over 100 runners and walkers. From the start in Riverside Park, you’ll run long stretches of Great Falls’ River’s Edge Trail, which spans some 60 miles along the Missouri if you ran the entire thing. Along the way, you’ll take in mountains and prairies while you under under bridges and past waterfalls out in the river, before crossing the finish line back where you started.
$65 - $75 | Sign up here
Fort Hancock, N.J. | Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019
One of the oldest distance running events in New Jersey, this half takes runners underneath the breezy skies of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a 26,000-acre park with marshes, sandy beaches, and wildlife sanctuaries and historic military installations, nestled on a barrier island that sticks out into Sandy Hook Bay. Thanks to its island location, the course is fast and flat, and features long stretches along the shoreline within view of the bay.
$40 - $60 | Sign up here
Redding, Calif. | Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019
Run across three of this Northern California city’s signature bridges including Ribbon Bridge, Diestelhorst Bridge and the famous Sundial Bridge — which really is a working sundial, and (at 217 feet high) one of the largest in the world — at a race that hugs the Sacramento River for most of the route. From the Sundial Bridge, you’ll follow a combination of roads and riverside trails, nearly all the way to Keswick Dam before turning around and heading back to the bridge where you started.
$50 - $60 | Sign up here
Havre de Grace, Md. | Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019
Run through a place Smithsonian Magazine says is among the nation’s “best small towns to visit” at this race, which features a pair of bridge crossings over the river it’s named for and plentiful scenic views of the river and the parks along the way. The race starts in the small Maryland shore town of Havre de Grace, which has a history that dates all the way back to the nation’s founding, and from there heads across the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge. Long stretches along the riverfront are followed by a run back across the bridge and a finish near the Concord Point Lighthouse.
$95 and up | Sign up here
Albany, N.Y. | Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019
One of the most forgiving courses you’ll ever run, on the trails that wind alongside the Hudson River between a small city named Cohoes and the finish at a riverside park in the state’s capital city. The first four miles of the half marathon — which is the second 13.1 miles of the event’s full marathon — follow a gentle descent from the stretch of the course along the Mohawk River to the Hudson, and then it’s flat all the way in to the finish line at Jennings Landing park. You’ll run mostly on paved bike trails, with a few city streets thrown in, and it’s considered a great race for first-time half marathoners.
$70 - $80 | Sign up here