Fartlek Training Makes Running Fun Again — And Way Harder
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Building fitness is always the goal. But when you’re a runner, the road to getting faster or going longer is paved with dreaded repeats — mostly of the 200- or 400-meter variety. The reason: Sprinting faster than your normal pace for a set distance, over and over and over again, trains your muscles and lungs to adapt, so that the next time you sign up for a 5K, your old “hard” pace will suddenly feel a lot easier.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever done a session of 200 meters x 20 and walked away saying, “Damn, that was fun.” You haven’t (unless you’re a sadistic bastard, in which case, you’re excused from reading this article), because it’s not. It’s hard. And tedious. And you likely find yourself starting to desperately count down the end to your pain around rep #9, realizing you have another 11 to go.
May we propose a better way? Meet fartlek the Swedish word for “speed play” that will change your perspective on getting fit and faster without the soul-crushing exercises.
“A fartlek is meant to be a playful injection of speed into a run — less structured than a traditional track workout,” explains Laura Norris, a running coach in Boulder, CO. “Fartleks never have set paces, but instead are paced based on how the runner feels.”
But even with a more chill structure, you’ll feel the proverbial burn with these workouts. “Fartleks are a form of cardiovascular training known as intervals,” says Jenny Liebl, an elite trainer in Scottsdale, AZ, and senior content developer for the International Sports Sciences Association. “Depending on the speed and effort someone uses, fartleks may be considered high-intensity intervals which, by definition, require near-maximum efforts during the working bouts.”
Although any kind of running — fast, slow, or steady — will stress your cardiovascular system and help grow your fitness, “these intervals challenge the body in a way that drives the positive adaptations faster than traditional steady training,” says Liebl.
How Fartlek Runs Work
A fitness-building workout that’s actually fun? How does that work? Like this: Next time you head out for a run, choose a loop that you’re familiar with, then scan your loop for items that you can use as targets. If you’re in a city park, maybe it’s the lampposts or utility poles spaced roughly a quarter-mile apart. If you’re in suburbia, maybe it’s your neighborhood mailboxes.
“Use these landmarks as cues to either increase or decrease running speed,” says Liebl. “For example, speed up at the next mailbox then slow down when you reach the next driveway.”
The beauty of this approach, says Norris, is that it can be done in any location and on any terrain, compared to traditional running workouts that are done on a track.
“While workouts such as 200-meter repeats often have goal paces — you want to cover the 200 meters in a set amount of time — fartleks don’t have a set pace or distance, so a runner bases how fast and far they go on how they feel,” she says.
The Benefits of Fartlek Training
There’s an old and somewhat annoying saying: To get better at running, you need to run. The beauty of fartleks is that you’re running, but you’re also playing a game of sprinting from one thing to the next. It turns out, that’s good for more than just building running fitness: Fartlek runs encourage runners to pay attention to how their bodies respond to exercise, Norris says.
“For many runners, the skill of assessing their effort and modifying their workout accordingly is valuable for racing. It teaches them how to make adjustments and not be a slave to the watch,” she says.
Liebl agrees. “In a race, you may have to speed up to pass someone before settling back or slow down as you approach a water station,” she points out. “Both the physical ability to handle acceleration and deceleration in real-time along with the cardiovascular efficiencies gained from training in this manner will prove incredibly helpful in a real-life racing situation.”
Other benefits: Research shows that high-intensity intervals like fartleks can improve your maximum oxygen uptake (known as VO2 max) and increase the efficiency of your cardiovascular system, so you’ll have a lower heart rate at rest and while exercising, Liebl says. Fartleks also train major muscle groups like your calves to work more efficiently, improving what’s called running economy, according to a study in the International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health.
And finally, when you mix up your pace with fartleks, you help your body avoid overuse injuries, since you’re recruiting slightly different muscles for your bouts of sprinting versus your rest (slower-paced) intervals.
How to Fartlek
Want to try this style of running workout? Start with these steps.
1. Warm Up
You want to make sure your muscles are loose and limber before picking up the pace. “A warm-up reduces injury risk from faster running,” says Norris. After a few shoulder shrugs and neck rolls, walk for a minute or two, then aim for 10 to 20 minutes of easy jogging.
2. Find Your Targets
After your warmup, pick up the pace to a moderate speed and start scanning for visual aids as you run that you will use as your sign that it’s time to sprint. (A loop route where landmarks repeat is easiest for fartlek runs.) “Look ahead on your path to a lamp post, a car parked on the street, or a large tree next to the sidewalk,” says Liebl. “That will be the point that you speed up.”
3. Hit the Gas
When you get to your first target, that’s your cue to sprint hard. Keep the pedal to the metal until you reach your second target, which should be about 30 to 60 seconds away. “After that, jog easy until you feel ready to run fast again,” says Norris. Or you can add structure by sprinting between your first two targets, then jogging between your next two.
4. Find Your Rhythm
Fartleks are like traditional interval training in that you repeat the sprint/jog pattern multiple times. “The exact number of repetitions will vary based on a runner’s experience and training load,” says Norris, who recommends starting with just 5 to 10 minutes of faster running broken up over the intervals if you’re a beginner. More experienced runners can aim for up to 20 minutes of faster running, broken into short spurts.
5. Don’t Force It
Yes, getting fit takes effort. But fartleks are about speed play, with an emphasis on play, so do your body a favor and quit trying to crush it every single time. “You want to finish feeling like you had a good workout, but also like you could do a couple more faster bursts,” says Norris.
More important than speed, she says, is form. “When doing a fartlek workout, runners will benefit from thinking about smoothness,” she adds. “You do not want sloppy form or to feel like you are straining. If it feels miserable, you are probably running too hard.”