Weekly Workout: The “Form Fartlek”

Pronounced just as it is spelled, the term fartlek is Swedish for ‘speed play.’ Running athletes have used fartlek training sessions as a way to perform an unstructured and free-spirited workout blending bouts of faster running separated by recovery bouts. Often thought of in terms of physiological benefits of training, another purpose for the fartlek can be to improve running form (a.k.a. biomechanical factors). I use the term ‘Form Fartlek’ with clients/athletes to focus attention on improving biomechanical flaws while also getting the benefit of improving running economy.

Form fartlek workouts can be utilized by anyone at any level of running. Even elite athletes dedicate substantial time to improving/maintaining running form, especially under conditions of fatigue. The form fartlek is the workout to improve biomechanics. The paramount feature that separates it from other workouts is brief phases of intense focus on body awareness without experiencing form fatigue. It is a steppingstone to more intense training sessions that challenge biomechanics with accumulating fatigue.

The form fartlek can be structured however to adapt to any fitness level. For the average runner who participates in 5k’s through half-marathons, I like to use a somewhat structured approach (less like a true fartlek) by using a 1-minute stride phase at 10k-1/2 marathon pace/effort and 1-minute rest phase running at a recovery run pace/effort with the same cadence (steps/minute) in both phases. Keeping stride phases short allows for bursts of intense mental focus and body awareness. The rest phase needs to be long enough to allow full recovery for the form fartlek. For less fit individuals, doubling the recovery time or decreasing the stride phase time below 40 seconds may be necessary. Accumulating too much fatigue will force form failure, which is not the goal of this workout. If form failure occurs, the workout is terminated and the intensity was overdone.

When beginning form fartleking, pick one biomechanical feature to work on at a time. For example, if the goal is to improve trunk lean, focus on that only. If the goal is to improve cadence, focus on cadence only. As your performance and body awareness related to these improve, layers of complexity can be layered on. Finding the cue to do that may be different for each individual.

Knowing what aspects of one’s form to focus on is challenging making the process of finding the proper cues for each individual to gain body awareness essential. To gather a realistic impression of an individual’s biomechanical strengths and weaknesses, I use a combination of gait analysis on a treadmill using three planes of video (normal and slow motion), running outdoors with individuals to observe changes with speed, fatigue, and on inclines/declines, and utilize a series of movement tests to give me more information regarding strength, coordination, and mobility. Below is a list of generic running form cues / suggestions to consider. As with all things generic, what you’re starting from is relative, so not all suggestions are ideal or correct for each individual.

  • “fall forward from ankles” (effective acceleration phase)
  • “Elevate sternum. Chin down. Eyes up.” (spine alignment)
  • “Shoulders relaxed, down, and elbows in” (relaxed arm swing transferring rotational moment)
  • “Drive elbows back” (arm swing)
  • “Swing fingertips past hips” (arm carriage)
  • “Run from the hips” (core awareness)
  • “Lift from your knees” (hip flexion)
  • “Heels to butt” (increase swing speed by reducing lever arm)
  • “Toes to nose” (ankle dorsiflexion)
  • “Fairy-feet” (light, quick steps)

The reality is that concentration on your biomechanics should always be a part of effective training. Running a faster race is dependent upon one’s ability to maintain energy efficient biomechanics under conditions of fatigue. The good thing is that, it’s just like riding a bike! Coordination improves with practice. You only really lose it if you lose the ability to generate sufficient force.