A woman trail running
(Photo: Getty Images)

Workout of the Week: Yo-Yo Fartlek

This fun and unique workout teaches you to pace with precision.

A woman trail running

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One of the first things I teach my runners is the importance of learning to manage their energy throughout a run or speed workout. The ability to accurately pace yourself to avoid slowing or hitting the wall during the later miles in a workout or during a race is an invaluable skill for runners of all abilities. 

Learning to Pace

The biggest culprit of mismanagement of energy throughout a race or workout is delayed fatigue. The first few reps or miles feel the easiest because you’re fresh, and the inevitable fatigue has yet to set in. This makes it all too easy to overshoot your goal pace during the early stages, accumulating excess fatigue that has to be paid back with interest. Run too fast early and you’ll slow drastically toward the end, losing far more seconds than you gained.

The key to successful energy management is having a sense of how to adjust your effort level as you begin to tire so your pace stays even. However, executing even splits is much easier said than done. In today’s GPS driven world, it’s easy to rely on your watch for pacing, ignoring its relation to effort. The problem, as we explained in “How to Stay on Pace in the New York City Marathon (Even When Your GPS Doesn’t),” is that GPS watches often lose their signals, and can lag behind pace changes, displaying an inaccurate pace. 

This is a fail-proof workout that will teach you how to manage your energy and evenly pace without relying on your GPS watch. 

The idea is simple: Each fartlek begins at the same spot. At the end of each fartlek you’ll turn around and slowly jog back to the starting point as you recover. Once you reach your starting point, you’ll turn back around and head off on the next repetition. The goal of each round is to finish at the exact point of your prior repetition, without having to suddenly speed up or slow down to reach the finishing point. If done properly, the workout requires a “pretty strict pacing sense,” while “adjusting to the increasing fatigue to keep on pace,” says Jonathan Beverly, PodiumRunner Editor-in-Chief and long-time high school coach.

The Workout

Start by doing a warmup of 1 to 2 miles followed by dynamic stretching and strides

Before starting your first fartlek, make a mental note of where you start  — a tree, a street sign, anything you can easily remember — or drag a line in the dirt if you can. Then run one minute at goal 5k pace. At the end of the minute make another mental note of where you finish or drag another line. Then turn around and jog slowly back to your starting point. Turn around once more, and start fartlek number two at the exact point you started the first one. 

Here’s where the workout gets interesting and fun! Continue the second fartlek with the one-minute 5k pace interval, but your goal is to finish at the exact point of your first fartlek, without a rapid pick up or slowdown of pace at the end. Turn around again and jog slowly back. Repeat this back-and-forth yo-yo, aiming for the same finishing spot each time. 

Depending on your ability, start with 10 to 14 one-minute reps and work up to the total finishing time of your goal 5k pace (i.e. if your goal is a 20-minute 5k, aim for 20 x 1 min at goal 5k pace). Cool down one to two miles followed by active isolated stretching and refueling. 

A word of warning; be patient during the early reps — they will feel relatively easy. The crux of the workout (and the pace-learning part) comes in the later reps as you start to fatigue and the once easy pace becomes more challenging with each interval. 

If you manage your energy properly throughout this workout, and successfully finish at the same point for each fartlek repetition, you’re well on your way to mastering your pace and becoming a smarter racer. And one step closer to your goal 5k time.

Cory Smith is the founder of Run Your Personal Best, an online running coaching business that has helped hundreds of runners achieve personal bests in distances ranging from 800 meters to 100 miles.

From PodiumRunner
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