When a coach says to do "fartlek" with no further explanation, it's a sign that they're phoning it in; they have no idea what you should be doing, haven't put any thought into it and still want you to think they know something you don't by using a term the meaning of which you'll never know. Since you end up doing a variety of stuff, it's hoped you'll do something useful during that workout.
Complicated track workouts are the same, only more pretentious. These are often used by high school coaches, who have a lot of kids that get bored doing the same thing repeatedly; each kid has different strengths and different needs and, by having them run a variety of distances and paces, it's hoped that everyone gets something out of it, even if no one gets exactly what they need.
Some definitions: "Cut-downs" are repetitions of the same length, each run faster than the one before it. "Ladders" have one either increasing the length of each repetition or decreasing them. "Pyramids" are just a ladder up and a ladder down. It's common practice to do a pyramid with 200, 400, 600 and 800 meters at the same pace, then 600, 400, 200 with increasing pace - what this accomplishes, I don't know.
Quarters to failure
There is a time for everything, however, and I do have some workouts that fit this category, each with a specific purpose. As these don't fit the theme of workouts to do when bored, I'll just give one example. Sometimes you get a runner that you just can't figure out what to do with and you want to get a feel for what race they'd be best at and what pace they could run it in. That's when I might break out this workout.
The runner does repeat 400 meters on a track at a "comfortably hard" pace, with decreasing rest intervals (which should be spent moving around). Let them know they'll be doing "a lot" of them and plan to be at the track for 1.5-3 hours. After each of the first two repeats, they rest 5 minutes; then 4 minutes after the next two, 3 minutes after the next 4, 2 minutes after the next 6, 1.5 after the next 6, 1.25 after the next 8, then 1 minute after each. The runner continues to "failure," i.e. when he or she can't finish a quarter mile or slows to a walk.
You can find out a lot about a runner's mental make-up from this, as well as physical info. Sometimes it's a complete failure. (I had a kid, Mike M., who jogged every 400 at the same speed as his warm-up, despite my repeatedly encouraging him to speed up so we could "get it over with." When I finally got bored, I told him to do one more, as fast as he could. He ran a 48.5! He was a gifted sprinter - and a complete "head case." He gave up running for "religious reasons" a month later.)
If they do 10-15 repeats, they're probably a miler and the average pace they ran is their pace for the mile. 20 repeats and they're running 2 mile pace. 25 repeats for 5K, 30 for 10K, 35 for 1/2 marathon, 40 for 30K. If they're still going strong at 40, they're a marathoner or ultrarunner.
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