Saturday, January 18, 2014

Fartlek Fridays: Strongly Speedwork For Fine Tuning Those Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers

Fartlek Fridays: Strongly Speedwork For Fine Tuning Those Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers

Secret Training Techniques Of UltraPedestrianDo, Part One
(The Way Of The UltraPedestrian)

photo by Chihping Fu
by Ras

     Despite the humorous english homonymics, the Swedish term "fartlek" means "Speed play". Goodness knows I enjoy a play on words, as evidenced by my use of 'strongly' instead of 'weekly' to refer to doing something once every seven days. But the importance of speed work is serious, even if my choice of terms has an amusing sound.

     If you want to get my attention, using the word 'fart' is a great strategy. I admit it. I'm an overgrown manboy who still believes a scatological reference is the best way to maximize a statement's comedic potential. And I'm no where near mature enough to overlook a syllable in a foreign language word that has a potty-talk phonetic analog. (As an example of just how immature my sense of humor is, please note that the word 'analog' contains both the word 'anal' and the word 'log'. I rest my case.) So when I happened upon the term fartlek, needless to say my interest was peaked.

     'Speed play' just plain sounds fun, and it's supposed to. 'Workout' has the word 'work' in it, which carries burdensome implications, and it also describes a long and uncomfortable process of coming to terms with a situation. 'Speed play' sounded like the perfect way to work out my issues with speed work, so I decided to give it a go. 

     Speed work can train the body and mind to move more quickly and do it more efficiently. Your physiognomy can adapt, producing increases in aerobic threshold, lactic acid processing, and fast twitch muscle fiber recruitment. This information is easy to find with any web search, and difficult to avoid in running magazines. But it never seemed applicable to my running until I read Adam Lint's trip report for his Wonderland Trail FKT in 2011. Nearing the end of his 93 mile run he says:

Next began an intense 4ish mile climb up to Mystic Lake.   This is where I began to feel the distance that I had put on my legs as it felt like an 8 mile climb.  Since my fast twitch muscle fibers were still fresh I decide to do 30 second intervals (sprints) with a one minute break in between just to get my ass to the top of this climb.

     I had never done speed work of any sort until a year ago. I run simply to enjoy running. I don't have a formal running background, so speed work was something foreign to my experience. I would read articles about its importance, and the science and reasoning made sense. But as soon as a work out would be described in mathematical seeming terms, my mind would just wander to another topic. (In high school I had a math class in a room that was painted light blue and it would put me to sleep just about everyday. As a result I seem to have a conditioned response to fall asleep when I see numbers.)

     I began Fartlek Fridays the beginning of January 2013. On March 30 I set a 100 mile PR of 27:17 an improvement of almost two hours. Two weeks later I again improved my 100 mile Personal Record by running a 26:44. A week after that I set a 50k pr of 5:35. Then a world record at the Grand Canyon. Then a 200 mile PR. You can read all the details in my 2013 Year In Rear View. But the only thing I was doing different in my training was running Fartlek Fridays. 

     Kathy pointed out to me that these claims are correlative and anecdotal. I pointed out to Kathy that this article was for publication by, not PLOS ONEIn the interest of full disclosure I should state that I am a high school graduate and junior college drop out. I do not have a background in medicine, nutrition, kinesiology, biomechanics, physical therapy, or anything else that would grant credence to my words. My background is in doing what I dang well please and not being overly concerned with how other people feel about it. But I do monitor and evaluate my performances, and I attempt to replicate my successes.

     Here's my basic fartlek workout:

15 minute warm up, running very easy

10 sets of running a hard & fast interval for 90 seconds, then running a very easy recovery interval for 90 seconds: 3 minutes total = 1 set
1 bonus set of super skips for 90 seconds
15 minutes cool down, running very easy

     Important Note: I do not push or force myself during the hard & fast interval. I focus on perfect running form, and allow the technique to produce the speed. My goal is tall, engaged posture; completely relaxed legs, ankles, and feet, everything from the knee down; forward lean at the ankles, not the waist, to produce what is essentially a long, controlled forward fall; and very rapid foot turnover, 180 strides per minute, resulting in a rapid and light footstrike. During the hard & fast interval, all my mind is doing is going over the above mental checklist and counting strides. I count strides like a waltz: one-two-three, two-two-three, three-two-three, four-two-three. If you build this technique, the speed will come. 

copyright Altra Zero Drop Footwear

     Super skips are essentially just what they sound like: skipping by means of a technique designed to propel you as high and far as is reasonable. This is accomplished not by pushing hard off the ground with your back leg, but by swinging your front leg and the opposite arm up to a 90 degree angle explosively. Again, use your mind to guide your body in letting the technique do the work.

     My Fartlek Fridays are actually rather rigid in their structure, but I enjoy it and it works for me. The same session could be done without a watch, using landmarks and self awareness. Pick a tree or powerpole or fencepost and run the hard & fast interval to it. Then run very easy until your heartrate and breathing level out. When you feel ready to make another concerted effort, look ahead and pick the next landmark. Or perform a quick internet search and you'll find a wide variety of different fartlek sessions.

     Beyond their very definition as play, fartleks are somewhat free form in nature, allowing me the flexibility to customize my work out each week according to my needs, physical condition, and mood. On days when I don't feel 100% or am lacking motivation, fartleks aren't intimidating. I tell myself, "It's just fartleks. Go out and do what you can and have fun with it." But I invariably end up doing my full session as well or better than usual. 

     I instituted Fartlek Fridays because I like alliteration, but it turns out that Friday is the perfect day to do speed work. Since most races are on Saturday or Sunday, I can easily skip a Friday work out immediately before a race without throwing my entire schedule off. And five or six days later, when Fartlek Friday rolls around again, I'm recovered enough to push myself, but can allow myself the flexibility to back off my effort as my body demands, all while still fulfilling my training goals.

     Future articles will explore the overall application of alliteration as the basis for a training plan. Here's to hoping that Mixed Martial Arts Mondays and Trials Bike Tuesdays will reap as many benefits as have Fartlek Fridays.



  1. Quite convincing, although I agree with Kathy on the corollary nature.

    How bout Wilderness Wednesdays? Tough Trail Thursdays and Swimmingly Sundays?

    1. Great ideas for alliteration based training, Benedict!

      Yes, Kathy can be very convincing, but I think the basic premise that practicing running faster will help you to run faster is essentially sound. But remember, I'm the subject of the experiment. The reader is the observer, and therefore the one to draw conclusions. :)

  2. Interesting premise... so, running myself into the ground more often will make me better at running myself into the ground, and get faster at the same time? ;-) all kidding aside, you're inspiring me to consider speed play once a week also...

  3. On non-race weekends, will you do a long run on Saturday, right after Fartlek Friday? Or do you wait until Sunday to go long?

    1. Good question, Mike.
      Much of the time my goal is to train on tired legs, and I will do a long slow run on Saturday and sometimes another on Sunday. But if my body is feeling beat up or I have niggling pains that concern me I will take a rest day Saturday and do a long run , or a shorter long run, on Sunday.

  4. Considering the fact that Swedish is a rather uninteresting language, and the added fact that us Swedes seems to come off as a bit too Serious and - frankly - Boring to the rest of the world, I take great comfort in knowing that our little concept of fartlek brings you such joy ;)
    I asked Pete Larson (Runblogger) a while back if he didn't find the word a bit awkward to use because of the, well, "fart" part, but he replied that it was one of his favourite words - go figure! But then he actually has Viking blood running through his veins, so that might help.

    Anyhoo, sorry about the ramblings; discovered your blog today and find it really inspirational to my own tiny endeavours in life.
    Keep moving!

    1. I love both the term and the training technique! And one thing I've always loved about ultra running is the international culture and scope of the sport.
      Mutual inspiration is the goal! Keep moving indeed!