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Wednesday Workout: 4/4 Fartlek

As a coach I am constantly trying to come up with innovative workouts that somehow manage to provide outstanding training benefits while also incorporating some “fun” to keep things interesting. I think my high school cross country coach, Bob Perrier, who introduced me to “fartlek” training, was aiming for exactly the same thing when he started incorporating “speed play” workouts (fartlek, translated from its original Swedish, means speed play) into my regular routine. He was a big fan of 400 m intervals on the grass track at my school – each hard 400 was followed by a 400 m “recovery” lap at an easy pace. Those workouts ceased to be much “fun” once I got to the point where I was doing 18 of them (a total of 36 x 400 on the track – 9 miles for anyone who might be counting).

While I don’t think I ever repeated that set after high school, as I headed off to university I was introduced to another fartlek workout that has since become a mainstay in my training programs. I call it the 4/4 Fartlek. After a warm up of 10 to 15 minutes you run 4 minutes at your goal race pace, followed by 4 minutes at your regular training pace. The idea is that you never completely recover after each interval – your heart rate remains elevated through pretty much the entire set. I typically started with three intervals and tried to work my way up to five by the end of the month – if I could get through that set I knew that I was ready for a great cross country season.

This workout is an excellent way to prepare for a triathlon run, too, regardless of the distance you’re training for. I typically incorporate this cycle of workouts during a strength-building phase of an athlete’s program. Once we get into race season we typically incorporate more specific pacing sets with shorter recoveries.

  • If you are getting ready for a half, you could look at a similar progression as the one I went through getting ready for my cross country season – starting with three repeats and seeing if you can work your way to a total of five. With a 15 minute warm up and warm down that turns into a 70 minute workout.
  • Those gearing up for an Olympic distance race would aim for about three or four sets, which would provide 24 to 32 minutes worth of intense running and 50 to 60 minutes of total running.
  • If you’re getting yourself ready for a full distance event this can also be an excellent strength set, but don’t look at this type of effort to replace your long runs. I usually have my Ironman athletes work their way up to five of these intervals as one of their speed sessions. I always try to emphasize that the long run be done at a consistent pace in order to prepare properly for race day.


I started doing this set to prepare myself for the jump from the 6 km distance I ran as a high school athlete to the 10 km races I had to do in university. It turned into one of my favourite sets when I was training for half-distance races. By keeping track of your heart rate and pace as you increase the number of intervals you can really gauge your fitness improvements.