How Can I Have a Useful Session When Running with a Slower Companion?

By Karen Hancock

Runners can be very selfish and it's very difficult to go out for a satisfying run with someone who is slower than you are: if you're not careful, you can become intolerant and resentful! My partner Daniel has a marathon pb more than 30 minutes faster than my current best, and usually runs about 1 minute per mile faster than I do. But we have just completed a 7-mile run together, and still both of us had a hard, enjoyable session. How did we do it?


What we did was a 7-mile fartlek session, including 6 or 7 faster stretches. Fartlek sessions are unstructured variable-pace sessions with an element of surprise! They are a very useful way of building speed, focus, and of course togetherness, with runners who run at different speeds. So this is to remind you of their existence and how to do them.

How to do it

If you decide to try fartlek with a running companion or 2, then it's a good idea to pick a route that all the runners are familiar with, so landmarks are meaningful. It's even better if you can do it on an off-road, hilly course, so some of the efforts can be uphill: this makes great cross-country training! And pick a route of around 7-10 miles to get a useful workout. If the runners are evenly-matched, it can become very competitive as each tries to outwit the others by suddenly announcing a new fast stretch, but that's no bad thing.

What we did

What worked well for us today was setting out on a very familiar 7-mile route, and agreeing that on the first stretch (lasting about 12 minutes) we would run together at a warm-up sort of pace. As we ran, we discussed where the first effort would start and finish. At the appointed land-mark, Danny headed off like a gazelle, and I raised my pace (and heart-rate) by chasing after him and running at about my 5k race pace to the second land-mark, some 2 minutes later. Danny was waiting for me, and as he did so, he had stopped his watch, not re-starting it again until I caught up with him and resumed the recovery jog down the hill.

"Next effort is a sprint from here to the park gates", Danny said, catching me by surprise, but I raised a sprint and caught up with him again at the gates. The run continued in this manner, with faster stretches of different lengths (ranging from about 15 seconds to 4 minutes) at different paces. After the final effort, finishing about 1 mile from home, I consulted my watch, and realised if I continued home at a steady rather than easy pace, I would beat my current pb for the route when run at a constant pace. So that's what we did. And because Danny had stopped his watch each time he waited for me, he clocked a not bad time for the route too.

The pros and cons

The result was that we both had a good workout; neither of us compromised our training; we had companionship and chat on the recovery stretches; and we were both able to push the pace on the hard efforts more easily than had we run alone.

The disadvantage of fartlek (invented by the Swedes) is that one cannot record exact efforts and distances as one can for a track session, so one has to trust that it is benefitting you. So you need to be a little spontaneous in your outlook on life to enjoy it. But believe me, it is a hard session – your heart rate will go up and down throughout the run in much the same way as an interval session, so if the group has a determined leader, you'll get much the same benefits. So, don't forget about fartlek in your training repertoire, especially when you want to run with a friend!

Happy training

UK Athletics Level 2 Coach ("Endurance" and "Children in Athletics")

December 2004