Runners are pretty simple creatures. We typically only want one thing: to run faster. If you’ve spent any time with a runner you’ll typically find that they’re stubborn- I mean determined- people. That trait serves them well in the sport.
However, being one of the most determined people on the planet, I can safely say that all the will in the world won’t make me faster. If any runner wants to be faster, they have to train to be faster. One of the best ways to do that is by doing fartleks. Yes, fartleks. Funny name, but powerful speed training.
Fartlek is the Swedish word for “speed play.” Fartleks are a type of interval training for runners. It was developed in 1937 by Swedish coach, Gosta Holmer. Holmer developed this training for his cross country teams who had a terrible record. The effective speed plays focus on running faster than race pace to train. Fartleks were so successful that they have been widely adopted and used since.
Fartleks actually put stress on the aerobic system because of the continuous nature of the exercises. During a fartlek routine, the runner goes through a series of high intensity and then recovery moves to train up the entire aerobic energy system. The movements in a fartlek session can range from walking to intense sprinting. Most of these training sessions last a minimum of 45 minutes. Most fartlek sessions should cause the runner to work at 60-80 percent of their maximum heart rate. While the intensity is high, this still means the runner shouldn’t experience too much discomfort. It’s also important to start sessions with a warm up and then to end the session with a cool down.
All this work helps the runner prepare for the ups and downs of a race. Race terrains and distances cause the runner to vary their pace. Fartleks help runners train for mid-race slumps and teach them to keep the pace up despite the fatigue.
Fartleks are so popular because they can be extremely flexible and informal. You can structure the fartleks to how you feel. If you’re having a rough day, you can reduce the number of sprints and add more time in the recovery portion. Or you can do the opposite: if you are feeling great, you can push the sprints with minimum recovery. Another great factor in fartleks is that you don’t have to be on a track. A runner can informally use landmarks, like light poles, to create the sprint or recovery distances.
For the runner who wants structure, fartleks provide that too. Here’s an example of a structured fartlek routine from The Runner’s Resource.
“A structured fartlek might be: 10-15 minute warm up, 2 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 3 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 4 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 4 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 3 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 2 minutes hard, 10-15 minutes cool down. This workout is stated easier by calling it a: 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, with 2:30 rest. A structured fartlek is great because, since it is run on trails or roads, it gives you the benefits of track work while also providing you the chance to run hills.”
As determined as I am, I ran for many years without doing any interval training. I found that I plateaued in my race performances. When I finally added in fartlek training, my race times improved almost immediately. No amount of stubbornness can do that. I no longer question the effectiveness of fartleks.
In my experience, those who are wearing the awarded medals at the end of a race tend to be the ones who can answer “I did” to the question, “Who fartleked?”