You can beat the tyranny of the watch by using fartlek when doing speed work. Fartlek is a Swedish word that means “speed play", and 80 years after it was popularised by Swedish runners, Gunder Haegg and Arne Andersson, it remains an extremely effective and fun way of doing speed week.
In the early 1940s with the world at war, Sweden remained neutral, and this meant that although athletics continued, all races were against fellow Swedes. It would have been reasonable to expect that athletic times would then have stagnated in Sweden, but in a three-year period from July 1942 to 1945, Haegg and Andersson, went on a mile world record-breaking spree that has not been seen since. In this three-year period, the pair broke the mile world record six times, with each breaking it three times.
Sadly, it was in the days of amateurism and both runners were then banned for receiving payments for running, cutting short their track careers. And the race to be the first to break the 4 minute mile ended for both runners. Their system of fartlek was done on quiet, forest dirt tracks, and the only times that Haegg and Andersson stepped onto a track was to race. This is about as far removed from our world of GPS watches and Strava stalking as we can get.
The beauty of fartlek is that it is very flexible, enabling runners of all levels, from beginners to elite, to benefit from it.
Although this system was originally used on dirt forest tracks, it can be used virtually anywhere and while golf courses and parks are ideal, quiet suburban roads can also be used.
One of my elite runners, Debbie 'O Mahoney, doing a fartlek session on soft dirt tracks, showing perfect speed form with a high knee lift, straight back leg, and good arm carriage. Fast, but relaxed.
In its most basic form, fartlek comprises fast running at various speeds with recovery jogs. The speeds may vary from steady pace to sprints and the distances may vary from 50 metres to a few kilometres. The recoveries may vary from slow walks to steady pace running and be any distance. Think back to when we were kids out playing and you get the picture.
After a warm up jog and some stretching, you are ready to start your first fartlek session. This session is run using how you feel, without worrying about your pace on your GPS watch. You can ditch the watch completely and be as free as a bird, and end the session when you feel you have had enough. This means alternating fast running with slow running and doing it for as fast and for as long as you feel like. If on the road you can use landmarks such as lamp poles or any thing that you want to. You will be surprised at how good a session you do, and how much you will enjoy it.
You can also run it according to time and decide to stop after 10min, 15min or 20min etc. An elite runner may easily do an hour or more of fartlek.
If this is too much freedom for you, then you can do structured fartlek sessions which fall between fartlek and interval sessions, giving you the best of both. I use this with my runners instead of pure fartlek, as it gives me more control over their sessions. With this session you may do intervals of 30 seconds, 1 minutes, 2 minutes or 3 minutes etc. The recovery would then be equal in time to the interval or slightly shorter.
Some typical sessions are: 3 x 3 min with 2 min jog recoveries, or 4 x 2 min with 2 min jog recoveries. There is no specific pace for these as they are run on how you feel. But a rule of thumb is the shorter interval, the faster it will be.
Fartlek sessions can also be done in a group and be loads of fun, provided all the runners are of similar ability. One of my favourite sessions back in the 1980s was “follow the leader” on the Nelspruit golf course with Chris Reyneke (2.23 marathon), Johan Ferreira (2.33 marathon), myself (2.34 marathon) and Piet Smit (2.36 marathon). With this session we would run in single file taking turns leading and the others would have to keep up, not knowing how far or fast the leader would run. This is tough mentally, as you have to believe you can keep up with the leader, without knowing how far he will go. When the leader is done, the next runner takes over and decides how short or long, slow or fast the recovery will be before running hard, making it hard for the others mentally. Remember only the leader knows the plan and the others don’t. This was an incredibly tough session on the rolling hills of the golf course and a typical session would be an hour, with speeds varying from max effort sprints to tempo pace.
Two of my elite runners: Jeannie Jordaan clearing a natural obstacle and Debbie 'O Mahoney, just behind her in a fartlek session. Jeannie uses a change in pace and power to clear the log, which is great training.
Another fun session was with Piet Van Rensburg, a sub 4 minute miler and 2.25 marathoner, using a tennis ball. With this session we would run carrying a tennis ball. One of us would throw the ball down the road and we would then sprint after it, with the other person then catching it and throwing it further down the road, and we would chase after the bouncing ball, again and again. Sometimes it would be short and fast with the ball bouncing high, and other times the ball would skim along the ground making it a long chase. And yes, sometimes we would end up in the bushes. This was a session for a very quiet road or park, and would mean lots of laughter but also hard running.
Fartlek is also ideal for days when you are feeling a bit flat and want to do a speed session, without worrying whether your pace is fast enough. It is also great for just before a race or after a race to loosen up.
Try it some time, have fun and watch your speed improve!