Do a Telephone Pole Fartlek to Ignite Your Motor Units
Try this simple, fun, and effective structured fartlek to cultivate sprint speed and improve your 5k-marathon time.
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Years ago, when I was young and running PRs, I had a set of repeats I sometimes tacked on at the end of a longer workout. I called them “telephone poles” because they were based on a string of power poles at the end of my noon-hour fartleks.
Google Maps later told me the poles were 30 meters apart and that there were nine of them. At the time, all I knew was that they were close together and not super numerous, making the workout intense, but quick. In a minute or so it was over, and I was into my cool-down.
My protocol was to run them in yo-yo fashion. At the first pole, I’d steadily accelerate, timing my speed-up so I didn’t reach peak velocity until I hit the next pole. Then, equally steadily, I’d back off until I hit the next pole after that at a fairly moderate pace. Not a recovery jog, but not super-fast, either. Then I’d speed up again.
Accelerate, decelerate, accelerate, decelerate, until I ran out of poles.
I didn’t always do this: if the rest of my workout seemed to have been enough for the day, I gave it a pass, because even though this was only 240 meters, it was intense enough to notice. At a guess, I did it about half the time and simply jogged through, the other half.
That said, this drill was one of my staples. In the years I did it, I ran all of my lifetime PRs, from 3K to the marathon. Was this workout part of the key? I don’t know. What I do know is that controlled amounts of running at well faster than 5K or even 1500m pace is good for you.
Scientifically, the reason is that muscles don’t function as wholes. Instead, they are divided into “motor units,” some of which fire on one stride and some of which fire on the next one, or the one after that.
This means that left to its own devices, your body tends to keep a lot of power in reserve. Running faster than race pace forces it to call on more motor units than it normally uses, reminding it that it actually has this excess capacity.
That’s the theory, and a lot of coaches now use some variant on it. “Our philosophy is to ‘touch on speed’ all year and never be too far away from running something fast,” says Michael Caldwell, coach of the ASICS Greenville Track Club-Elite.
And interestingly, one of his mentors, Jim Beatty (the first person to break 4:00 for the indoor mile), also talked about running hard between telephone poles.
“[It] stuck with me,” Caldwell says. “I now consider it [a] ‘structured fartlek.’”
How to Structure the Workout
How you structure it depends on how far apart the telephone poles are. “Keep the effort at 95 percent,” Caldwell says, “so the athlete doesn’t tighten up.”
Not that you need a string of ideally spaced telephone poles to do this. You can also use the 400m hurdle marks on a track.
But tempting as it might be for your ego, don’t do this for a full lap. Instead, start at the first hurdle mark (identifiable from a pair of tiny dashes on the inside and outside edges of the lane, 45 meters from the start.) From there, the hurdle marks are 35 meters apart. Call it quits at the first hurdle mark on home stretch, 75 meters from the finish. Total distance: 280 meter — not vastly different from what I did with my telephone poles.
Alternatively, you can simply count strides: 15-20 on the acceleration; 15-20 on the deceleration.
There are, of course, other approaches. One of my trainees prefers something akin to 30-meter flies. These are 100m strides in which you start at a comfortable pace, accelerate strongly in the middle, then coast to the finish. They are a staple for 100m runners, but my runner uses them for 5K and longer. She doesn’t hit maximum pace until close to the end, and only holds it for 12-15 paces. But she does four reps of this on every warm-up… and has blown 13 seconds off her mile PR, 45 seconds off her 5K PR, and 90 seconds off her 10K PR.
How much these strides contributed to her success is impossible to determine, but workouts in which you briefly stretch your pace, either via telephone poles, hurdle marks, or 30-meter flies appear to be crucial to creating the type of neuromuscular efficiency that can allow you to achieve your best at longer distances.
Why It Works
“Runners MUST do some sort of speed workouts year-round,” says Paul Greer, coach of the San Diego Track Club.
French exercise physiologist Veronique Billat agrees. In her book, The Art and Science of Marathon Running, she argues that even marathoners need to cultivate sprint speed not just at 95% effort but all-out. Though, says her British coauthor, Jonathan Edwards, M.D., these sprints need to be very short. Fifteen or twenty fast steps is enough.
Which, Billat says, makes the telephone-pole workout very interesting. “It’s very ingenious,” she says. Not to mention fun. Because sometimes, even for distance runners, fast is fun.