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Fartlek Training
Funny Name - Serious Running Program

Fartlek Training

Fartlek training is a serious workout with a funny name. Literally translated, fartlek means "speed play" in Swedish. It was developed in 1937 by a Swedish coach named Gösta Holmér. The idea was to eliminate the rigid structure of a typical interval training program where you run specifically timed or measured segments. Instead, you changed your intensity and pace based on how your body feels.

Alternating between fast and slow segments, runners were quick to adopt the program because they got to do some speed work, but they could slow down to catch their breath as needed.

Beginners especially liked the flexibility of being able to experiment and push harder on days they felt stronger without the unrelenting intensity demanded by interval training. It also helps seasoned athletes become more self-aware of their bodies, as they concentrate on different paces and intensities and how their bodies respond to them. A good fartlek workout builds both endurance and speed during the same session.

Another advantage of fartlek is that because it's user variable, you don't need a groomed track to train on. It works just as well on a hilly trail, a winding road or flat terrain. Originally fartlek was just a running program, but now it's grown to include any exercise where you alternate between fast and slow segments dictated more by the athlete's abilities at the moment than a stopwatch or yardstick.

A typical fartlek training session lasts at least 45 minutes and can be stretched out to however long you wish. This makes it a valuable training program for marathoners and ultra-marathoners. One important piece of equipment you might want to track your progress is a heart rate monitor. Ideally, you should be working continuously throughout the workout at 60-80% of your maximum heart rate.

(A quick way to measure your maximum heart rate is to take 220 and subtract your age. That number is your maximum heart rate. Then take that number and multiply it by 60% and 80% to get the lower and higher ranges of beats per minute your heart should be working at.)

Fartlek training requires a warm-up at the beginning, so when you put on the extra speed you don't injure yourself. Typical fartlek programs also include a cool-down at the end to, "improve performance, minimize post-workout muscle soreness, [and] to decrease the chances of injury." However, since new research now shows a cool-down doesn't really do any of those things, we'll leave that part in as "optional."

[To learn more about cooling down, click here for our story.]

Following is a sample fartlek running program. Remember, you don't have to enforce the time limits rigidly like you would for an interval program. If you want to sprint longer than the example or need to walk slower than we suggest, that's OK. It's all about what will keep your body continuously working while alternating between slower "resting" periods and sprinting.

  • Warm-up with easy running for 5 to 15 minutes. If your muscles are sore or particularly tight from previous workouts, you should choose the longer time.

  • Next, you run or sprint at a steady pace for 1-2 kilometers. When you start to feel stressed and/or winded, slow down to a hurried walking pace and let your body recover for another 3-5 minutes.

  • Here's the speed work. Sprint for 50-60 meters and then slow down to an easy run. Repeat this pattern until you start to get a little tired, perhaps 10 to 20 minutes.

  • Slow down and run at an easy pace while randomly interjecting a few "quick steps" every now and then for another 5 minutes.

  • Repeat the speed work. Sprint for 50-60 meters and then slow down to an easy run. Repeat this pattern until you start to get a little tired again, maybe 10 to 20 minutes.

  • Run at top speed for about one more minute. Then repeat the entire program until you've trained for your total allotted time.

Shake up your next run with a little fartlek training.

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