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Let's Get Faster: Form and Fartlek

“Can you point me to some running advice? I can jog for ages, not even breaking a sweat -– but I just can't make the jump from jogging to running. It is frustrating.”

A friend recently expressed some frustration at not being able to “make the jump from jogging to running.” He said he could “jog for ages,” but wasn’t getting any faster. While I’ve written recently about working on cadence as a way to speed things up, the process of getting faster really deserves a more detailed discussion. During the next several weeks, I’ll give some advice about how to take your running up a notch.

Let’s be clear: “faster” is a relative term. One person’s “easy jog” is another person’s “very fast.” This is always made readily apparent to me when elite runners talk about running 6:00-6:30 minute-per-mile recovery pace on their “easy” runs (Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 meter champion Mo Farah moves along at 5:30!). Moreover, “faster” is merely one aspect of running and you can still have fun and experience the benefits of a healthy lifestyle without ever worrying about your pace. If you want to get faster, however, you will need to start thinking about diversifying your workouts to change your training stimulus.

My aim here is to point you towards some targeted workouts that will move you towards your own “faster,” however you define it.

Assess Your Form

If you’ve already been running for a bit and have reasonably good endurance (a good “base”), it’s now time to examine your running form. An easy way to gain speed is to adjust your form. Make sure that you are not “bounding” while you run –– do not reach out with your feet as you stride. Instead, cut down the length of your steps while increasing your cadence or turnover. Not only will this adjustment help improve your speed, but it will put less stress on your lower leg joints. While working on an increased cadence, be sure to keep your arms moving. This will also help with your leg turnover.

Think about taking short, quick steps on an egg-covered field. If you step lightly, you won’t break any eggs. Be aware that after an initial period of adaption that might see you get a little slower, your form improvements will kick in and you will witness some improvements to your speed.

Change Your Workouts: Fartlek

Next, assess your workout routine. The main cause of running stagnation is…stagnation. Many runners find themselves doing the same route at the same pace and intensity day after day. If what you want from running (or what you have time for) is a short predictable run for stress relief and fitness maintenance, then you can make your peace with a relatively static pace. If you want to get faster, you’ll have to mix it up, vary your workouts, and get out of your comfort zone by pushing yourself.

I suggest incorporating some fartlek training into your run. Swedish coach Gösta Holmér developed fartlek training in the mid-1930s, but it’s clear that it owes a lot to kids running around in schoolyards across the world. Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. The ability to do it anywhere and at any training level makes it very useful.

Playing With Speed

Warm up at an easy pace for ten or fifteen minutes, then increase your pace sharply upward for thirty seconds. This will get you briefly into some anaerobic work, triggering lactate formation and training your muscles to recruit fast-twitch fibers. (That is medical speak for “you’re making yourself faster.”) Back off for a minute or two to recover, then do it again. Repeat five or six times, but don’t overdo it –– it’s more taxing than you think. Concentrate, as well, on your form when you are running quickly: take short, quick steps; don’t over stride; avoid swinging your arms side to side, keep your shoulders relaxed; and don’t clench your jaw muscles. Try to stay relaxed while running fast. It’s tough to do, but staying relaxed will have immediate results.


This                                                                   Not This

Incorporate fartlek into your training runs once or twice a week. Take the “play” part of speed play literally. One common workout, for example, is to sprint to a telephone pole or other landmark, run easy to the next, and then sprint to the next telephone pole. It is good if the sprinting distance or time is not the same every time. The body likes to get into a predicable groove –– don’t allow it to settle into a rut. Over time, try to work up to a full minute of fast running, followed by several minutes of recovery. As you work fartlek into your training, try to start the next quick effort without allowing yourself time to adequately recover from the last. This will allow your body to start learning how to clear lactate and run quickly while under duress.

The great thing about fartlek training is that it can be done anywhere and at any time. There is no need for a track and if you are running solely by perceived effort, there is little need for a stopwatch. Be sure to listen to your body and run accordingly. If you are feeling zapped, give yourself some additional recovery time. Do this once or twice a week, and you’ll start getting faster.

Incorporating fartlek training into your workouts is just one part of getting faster. Next time, I’m going to talk about hill work, or speedwork in disguise…

I’ve put some recommendations for self-coaching books in the comments; feel free to make your own suggestions as well. Sometimes it's best to seek the advice of a coach and the support of a training group to get faster. We've got you covered: the Fleet Feet Running Club

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