To many the term “fartlek” is unfamiliar, if not downright embarrassing. While it may sound like joke fodder for fifth graders, this type of workout can help runners, from beginners to seasoned vets, hit the ground running to better fitness or a faster PR. If you can get past the funny name, which is Swedish for “speed play,” by the way, then you’ll reap the benefits of this simple, effective, and adaptable training method.
Runners come in many forms: fast, slow, old, and young. From experienced to, “How many miles in a 5k?” The goals and personalities of runners can be as diverse as a pack of Crayons. Fortunately, the one-size-fits-all nature of the fartlek has something for everybody. A fartlek workout is simply defined as periods of fast running intermixed with periods of slower running. Using this basic principle it is possible to tailor fit a fartlek workout to a variety of training needs, personalities, and fitness levels.
A traditional fartlek is run on the road using available landmarks as guides. A person might sprint all out from one light pole to the next, jog to the corner, give a medium effort for a couple blocks, jog between four light poles and sprint to a stop sign, and so on, for a set total time or distance. True to its name, this style of run is something to play with. The idea is to help the body adapt to a higher workload through short bursts of speed and sustained hard effort in the midst of active rest and recovery.
For anyone familiar with long distance or road racing, this is how typical races are run. In training, long runs build aerobic endurance and speed work amps up anaerobic fitness but fartleks are the integral link in the chain that translates these abilities into race day performance. In one workout a fartlek works both the aerobic and anaerobic training systems while simulating the ebb and flow nature of competitive running.
In addition the combined training effect of a fartlek serves as an “insurance policy” to fill any training deficits between the two training systems. A telltale sign of this kind of gap is when you hear someone around the post-race banana table say, “I could breathe fine, but my legs just wouldn’t go any faster!” In this case, the runner had ample aerobic endurance, but lacked the anaerobic fitness to run to their full potential. This, or a vice-versa scenario, is a common problem for experienced runners. When going into a race with a few fartleks under your belt you can chase victory, or just a PR, with confidence.
Ok, enough with the old-timer mumbo jumbo, fartleks have plenty to offer those new to the “running scene,” too. Are you looking to get into racing at some point, but aren’t quite there yet? Maybe you’re just a “run for fun” type? If you’re like most novice runners you mostly do simple, steady pace runs. You lace up your shoes and tread out a solid two, three, four, or more miles. Great! Aerobic endurance is the absolute base to good cardiovascular health and the foundation to any future running pursuits.
But, let’s say you’re a beginner who regularly logs three miles, three times a week for fitness gains and health reasons. If you do this same routine week after week, you’ll eventually hit a plateau. You won’t get the same benefits for all your hard work – your body has adapted to this new “normal.” To keep getting the health and fitness gains you deserve you need to sweeten the deal a bit. With running this can be done in three ways: increase time/distance, increase frequency (runs per week), or increase intensity. You don’t need an article to tell you how to increase running frequency or distance, if you have that extra time by all means go for it! For the sake of the tight scheduled, let’s discuss how to get off that plateau with some fartlek training.
Fartleks can easily be added into your current running routine with doable intensity and without extra time commitment. In the middle of your next run just play around with your speed. Give it a surge to the next house, take as long as you need to recover, then kick it to the next intersection, slow it down for a minute…you get the idea. Adding five to eight faster running periods during your run is all it takes, plus you control the recovery time, so it won’t feel unmanageable. The change-up can even be fun!
In addition, if one of your goals with running is weight loss/management, fartleks can be a valuable tool to have in your pocket. The short anaerobic bursts are fueled by glycogen, which is carbohydrates stored in the body. Once these glycogen stores are depleted the body only has one other fuel source: fat. As the body works to replace glycogen stores, fat stores are burned in a metabolic effect that lasts long after your workout. All of this without a minute more of your precious time? It’s definitely better to workout smarter, not harder.
Fartleks are not only appropriate for a variety of fitness levels, they can also be customized according to personal preference and current situation. The spontaneous nature of a traditional fartlek is well suited for laid-back types. Analytical by nature? Take your fartlek to the track and use the set distances. Maybe use a watch to do timed intervals. If you live in an area with a harsh winter, bring your fartlek workout inside on a treadmill. Out of town? That’s fine. Fartleks can be done anywhere. Crunched for time? No problem. Just do a mini-version. As you can see the fartlek is a chameleon workout that packs a powerful punch of benefits.
Unlike most things today, fartleks are tried-and-true, easy to do, and cater to a wide variety of people. Whatever your goals, fitness level, personality or schedule give fartleks a try, and give the name a nice little snicker while you’re at it.