Fartlek training, or “speed play” in Swedish, is as fun to do as it is to say. It is an unstructured form of sprint, power and pace training, the principles of which can be mixed into running and cycling.
It is best done in the streets or the hills and is a great way to shake up your running and endurance training.
What is Fartlek training?
Fartlek training is a bit like deconstructing your running routine and running for the pleasure of it, almost like a child would!
Head onto the streets, the beach, the hills or forests and begin your usual run.
After a decent warm up of 5 – 10 minutes, mark something in your head, and sprint towards it. It can be anything: a street light, a tree, a telephone pole, a sun bather. Go all out, and then return to your regular pace or slower to get your breath back.
When you feel like it again (important: when you feel like it) lock your eyes onto another goal and sprint towards it. Do this for as long as you like.
✓ This type of training allows you to mix up your steady-state running with sprints for strength and muscle endurance and also to adapt your body to prepare for the sometimes rapid changes in pace which will be required of you come race time.
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.
Crave a bit of structure?
If you like, you can also structure the less-structured fartlek training with the following example workouts. These are especially good if you are training for an event.
#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 body weight 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
Rather than maintaining a steady-state CV workout, challenge your body by changing the pace of your runs or cycles rapidly and often. Consider your 3K, 5K and 10K pace along with an easy jog to be your set pace categories and vary your run within that framework.
If you vary your pace within the same run or cycle, your body will learn and adapt to rapid and often challenging changes of pace, terrain and difficulty that will be required of you in races, particularly trail runs and when there are large numbers of competitors (think of the tight squeeze at the start of your last marathon or half marathon).
Besides that, fartlek training is a fantastic way to remove too much structure from a rigid training regime. Apply the principle to your run, your swim, your cycle or your row!