The “S” word can strike fear into new runners. But while many shy away from speed work, it can bring immense benefits to your running. But where do you begin? Get into your starting blocks for a race through the basics…

Fartlek

What is it? 
Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play”. There are no prescriptive boundaries – it’s simply a continuous run interspersed with bursts of everything from fast walking to flat-out sprinting, and is usually performed on terrain that presents varying challenges, including hills, grass and pavements.

What are the benefits? 
A fartlek session should be fun and unpredictable, so that it tests you in different ways. By changing the intensity and duration of effort, you’ll be pushing out of your comfort zone far more than during an ordinary run.

How often should you do it?
One speed session a week is adequate for most runners, so swap and change fartlek with other speed work or hill running. If you do two speed sessions a week (which should be a maximum), make one of them fartlek.

How do you structure a session? 
Let’s take a 30-minute group run and transform it into a fartlek session. Assign each group member a number and after a ten-minute warm-up, ask runner one to give the first fartlek instruction. She may choose to sprint to a tree 60m away, followed by a jog recovery. Runner two might select a long hill at a medium pace followed by a fast walk recovery. Runner three could suggest running backwards for 10m. Variety is key!

Any downsides? 
According to UK Athletics qualified coach Chris Donald, of Purple Patch Running, you need to be very focused to do a good fartlek session on your own. “It’s easy to do more of the jogging bits than the fast bits,” he says. “In a group, you can take it in turns to select the next distance and speed, which means you’re less likely to take it easy.”

Top tips! 
Use your surroundings as fartlek markers. If you see a short hill, run up it fast. And don’t ignore downhill sections – running faster down a slope can increase leg speed. In woods, try running fast and slow between alternate trees (you can also do this with lamp posts)

SPEED WORK

What is it? 
Speed work is an umbrella term for sessions that involve bursts ?of speed over different distances, with periods of recovery in-between. It can be performed anywhere – road, park and even on a treadmill.

What are the benefits? 
Speed work is not just for serious runners. Everyone benefits from a regular injection of increased pace. Not only will it enhance your endurance, pace and fitness, but it will also give you a psychological boost when racing – knowing you can run faster provides self-confidence in bucket-loads.

How often should you do it? 
One speed session a week is usually enough. If you do two, make one a fartlek or hill session.

How do you structure a session? 
There are many different approaches to speed work, but all apart from fartlek boil down to running either intervals (in which the recovery time is the focus) or repetitions (in which the distance you run at speed is the focus). So, an interval session might comprise 12 x 200m with 30 seconds recovery, and a reps session might comprise 10 x 300m with a jog back to recover. Always begin with a thorough warm-up.

Any downsides? 
According to Donald, it can be tricky to pace yourself at first. “A lot of people think they need to sprint flat out whatever the distance, which means they can’t finish the session,” he says. “The key is to complete the speed session and learn to push yourself harder at a faster pace when necessary.”

Top tips! 
As you get fitter and increase the number of repetitions you do, you may need to break them down into sets. For example, two sets of 6 X 200m, with 100m recovery between each burst and 800m recovery between sets.