Fartlek training (Swedish for ‘Speed Play), is a unique type of training that aims to develop your aerobic capacity through a more dynamic style than typical linear jogging or sprinting training.
The best part is, it can be done anywhere (as long as you have the space to do it!), and it certainly adds to the intensity if you can include a few hills or a bit of sand too!
What is fartlek training?
Fartlek training involves breaking an aerobic workout down into different components, where ultimately, different energy systems are challenged. This can help you to break through plateaus as a runner, and thus should be seen as a useful tool at your disposal.
You can do it as a structured session (e.g. breaking a 200m distance down into 50m segments where you walk, run and sprint different sections), or you can perform it as an unstructured session which you might find more fun (e.g. walk, then run, then sprint until you can’t, then jog and walk until you recover enough to sprint again, and repeat).
Make sure that you have a good warm-up prior to this style of training, as you may otherwise cause yourself an injury – so make sure that the warm-up targets the main working muscles for a good 5-15 minutes before you start training.
What is the difference between fartlek and interval training?
Typically, interval training will involve bouts of intense exercise with a set rest period before repeating the same exercise. E.g. run 100m at a fast-paced run that you would not otherwise be capable of sustaining for a long run, then incorporating a 60-second rest before repeating (it gets a lot more difficult as you complete each consecutive bout!).
Fartlek training differs from this, as different forms of training are combined into the session. For instance, you may have a 100m track available – Fartlek training involves breaking this down into segments where the training style is different throughout. You may break it down to 4x50m where you jog, sprint, walk, jog, thus varying the intensity greatly and incorporating active recovery in the form of walking.
Benefits of Fartlek Training
Besides giving you a sense of adventure and breaking up the regimen of more structured runs, a “free” fartlek run or cycle will adapt your body to rapidly changing paces, engage different muscle fibres within your body and give you a much more rounded workout than simply getting from A to B at a steady state.
By going slowly for certain periods, you work the slow-twitch muscle fibres – the ones suited for endurance sports – and mostly medium to fast-twitch muscle fibres when you up the speed – the ones that will help you overtake your competitors.
Added to that, you will notice your heart will start working a lot harder along with your lungs, improving your cardiovascular capacities thanks to the high intensity.
Disadvantages of Fartlek Training
1. It can be difficult to think of new ideas
Fartlek training requires a little bit of creativity as the workouts are switched up so much. The workouts often differ depending on what kind of space you have available, so getting creative with new circuits can be tricky.
2. Risk of injury
Due to the intensity of fartlek training, risk of injury, mainly for beginners, is higher than with your regular jog. If you’re just starting out running, avoid fartlek training until you’re a little more experienced. Get your technique and form down first, then you can experiment with more intense styles of training like this one.
3. It can be difficult to keep solid metrics
Running a linear jog on a regular basis allows you to measure your improvements pretty easily, e.g., you run that 5k a few minutes quicker than last week. However, due to the variation in fartlek workouts, measuring in this way becomes a little more difficult. Although you can measure things like heart rate and calories expended using something like a smart-watch.
1. The pyramid
Think of the numbers 1-1-2-2-3-3-2-2-1-1. They stand for 1-minute jogging, 1-minute fast pace, 2 minutes jogging, 2 minutes fast pace, 3 minutes jogging, 3 minutes fast pace and back down to 2, 1 and finally rest.
The “fast pace” should be a little faster than your 5K pace, but don’t be fooled by the apparent ease during the first minutes!
A variation of this would be to have a 2:30 minute easy or slow-paced jog between each set of sprints, so 1-minute fast pace, 2:30 easy, 2-minute fast pace, 2:30 easy, 3 minutes fast pace, 2:30 easy, 2 minutes fast pace, 2:30 easy, 1-minute fast pace, 2:30 rest.
If you’ve still got plenty left, you can cycle this to push you CV capacity and your muscle endurance. This would also certainly qualify as a fat-burning HIIT workout!
2. The break-up
Deviating slightly from the regular fartleks, you can work in movements other than running. Every 2 – 5 minutes, stop your run and do some press-ups, some squats or even some burpees to really challenge your all-round fitness.
The variety is always good for both your mind and your body, and explosive bodyweight exercises will really improve your power.
Maintain minimum structure by using streetlights. Sprint the distance between 2, then rest between 3, sprint between 3 and rest between 2, sprint between 2 and rest between 4 etc. Keep it random, but with some kind of structure, depending on how you feel.
This workout keeps the “play” of fartlek training, with enough structure to keep tabs on progress.
4. The Uber
This is ideal for those new to fartlek and uses a “surge” of pace (hence the name). Very basically, every 5-10 minutes you should increase your pace for 1 minute before settling back to your regular pace.
This will ease you into changing pace and help when it comes to racing on challenging terrain when your body will be forced to change rapidly according to what is beneath your feet.
Take Home Message
If you’re an avid runner, don’t be afraid of using this kind of training from time to time. Challenging different energy systems is a good way to increase your work capacity and improve your ability to adapt to the demands of a running race (e.g. sprint finish, hills etc.). Otherwise, it is just a fun way of spicing up your training and adding a bit of variety to keep things interesting whilst you work towards your next goal!