Flexible fat burning speedwork for all abilities

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Generally speaking, runners like structure. They like knowing where they’re going and how fast they have to go. But occasionally throwing a rigid routine to the wind can be a boon not only for your fat burning and fitness, but for your mental state as well.

One of the most effective workouts for burning fat while having fun is the classic training method, fartlek (go ahead, snigger). From the Swedish word for ‘speed play’, it’s a flexible form of interval training that lets you pick up the pace whenever you feel like it, run as fast as you wish, and recover for as long as you want.

Interval training such as fartlek burns fat more quickly than constant moderate physical activity, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology. It found that after interval training the amount of fat burned in an hour of continuous moderate exercise increased by 36 per cent. It’s thought that interval training creates an oxygen debt, which signals to the body to burn fat after the workout. For optimum effects, the study recommended mixing interval training into your routine once or twice a week, combined with a healthy diet.

You don’t need to spend hours running at the same speed to shift the pounds and become a better runner. All you need is to be willing to get a bit breathless for a few minutes. Here’s how to work a little play into your schedule. 

Speedwork newcomers

When it comes to getting faster, “the main problem holding beginners back is the fear they have when their heart rates rise,” says Paul Greer, Associate Professor of Health and Exercise Science at San Diego City College, USA. Fartleks are a non-threatening way to introduce yourself to faster-paced running: you alone – not a clock, plan or coach – choose how far and how fast you want to run. Whether it’s as far as the next letterbox or as short as a five-second, all-out dash.

Fast fun: Beginners don’t need to worry about total distance or pace, since it’s more important to learn to run faster than normal. Just listen to your body and run accordingly. Over time, your fitness and running-specific strength will improve. Start by throwing in five or six efforts of varying lengths and intensities during a 30-minute run. Each week, add one or two more of such ‘pick-ups’ or extend each existing one. After three or four weeks, progress to running one minute hard and two minutes easy for a total of 21 minutes. Then add another one-minute hard/ two-minutes easy combo into the fartlek each week until you’re speed-playing for a total of 30 minutes per week. 

Weekend warriors

Once you’ve been running for at least six months, fartleks can be a valuable tool for intermediate runners as they transition into formal speedwork and start thinking about racing. “Speed-play sessions help you practise 5K to 10K race efforts to prepare for upcoming races,” says Greg McMillan, an online running coach who works with everyone from first-time runners to Olympians. They’re also a good way for runners to ease back into harder workouts after an injury.

Fast fun: Find a loop about 800m long. Alternate running one loop at 5K pace with one at about 1:20 per mile slower than 5K pace, suggests Tony Coffey, head coach of the Impala Racing Team in San Francisco. “The lack of complete recovery between faster bursts teaches the body to recover more quickly,” he says. “Psychologically, the variety within the workout keeps you mentally engaged in what you’re doing, which will give you more confidence in racing situations as you’re more in tune with your body.” You can alternate the previous workout with a session spent running two minutes hard and one minute easy, five to six times, suggests McMillan. 

Seasoned racers

“For advanced runners, speed-play sessions prepare the body and mind as they get closer to their goal race,” says McMillan. At the same time, they provide a psychological break from the relentless grind of the track and, during the off-season, they are a great way to incorporate speedwork into the training without overdoing it.

Fast fun: Run a descending ladder starting at five minutes hard followed by four minutes easy. Reduce each hard effort and recovery period by one minute. “Advanced runners should do this on the actual race course or on a course similar to the one they will be running on,” says Greer. “This will increase your confidence for race day.” Make it harder by running an up-and-down pyramid: one minute fast followed by one minute easy. Then, increase each effort by one minute each until you reach five minutes hard. Follow that with four minutes easy and go back down the pyramid by reducing each interval by one minute. “It’s best to run the last half of a race faster than the first half, and this workout simulates that plan,” says Greer. “As the pyramid progresses, the advanced runner should run the paces faster than race pace.”