Fartlek may sound like a funny name, but not to the people of Sweden. That’s because Fartlek is a Swedish term meaning “speed play,” and it helped take the cross-country success to whole new levels decades ago. Now, athletes and everyday runners around the world are benefiting from the training technique that is considered an unique interval form of speed running.
It’s one of my favorite types of running workouts because it helps increase my running economy and it’s fun, not monotonous like some types of running workouts. Fartlek is definitely more of a freestyle speed workout, meaning it improves speed and endurance but you can do it almost anywhere. It’s way less structured than a typical track workout might be.
I hear so many people complain about being a slow runner, saying they struggle to run faster. Still, most of those people aren’t implementing speed work necessary to gain speed. Remember, Olympians are not born Olympians, they have to work at it.
What Is a Fartlek Workout?
Let’s take a closer look at the fartlek workout. This type of running involves fast and slower portions of the run. The slower segments allow for recovery. You may be familiar with track workouts involving intervals of 400 meters with a 200 meter jog, for example. That is typically a very structured workout at a very specific pace for a very specific distance; however, a fartlek workout is usually less structured. There is a specific intention with the workout: gain speed and running economy. And while you can do fartlek training on a track, it can actually be done anywhere — on the road, trails, hills and even on the beach. (1)
Fartlek improves your running through speed development, stamina, economy, the ability to perform endurance work and overall performance. The idea is to have freestyle, more spontaneous sprint bursts combined with the amount of active recovery you feel you need to go a bit faster on the next one, and the next one and so on. Active recovery is when you continue moving, but usually at a resting pace such as an easy jog. Studies indicate that interval cardio training can greatly help with VO2 max, which is the maximum oxygen uptake, helping you to become more efficient with practice. This has even been shown to be effective for anyone dealing with obesity. (2)
The intention of fartlek training is to help instill the ability, both mentally and physically, to surge during races — especially if you’re competing. I want to note that even though it is a bit less structured, I recommend determining the fartlek workout you want to do before you head out the door. You are more likely to do it if you plan it.
5 Benefits of Fartlek Training
1. Fartlek Breaks Up the Monotony of Day-to-Day Training
It’s not uncommon to get burned out with your workouts. The fartlek may be the perfect way to bring new energy and results back to your workouts when you’re feeling bored and uninspired. (3)
Sometimes you just need a little variety to make it more interesting and a little fun. Fartlek training is a great way to add variety to your workouts. You can even do this with a friend to make it even more fun. On your next run, after warming up, choose a starting point. At that point, such as the next red light, run for 1 minute at marathon pace, then run for 3 minutes at an easy pace. Continue this pattern, performing 4 or 5 intervals to start. You can work up 8 to 10 intervals as you gain strength. (4)
2. Fartlek Will Make You Stronger
If you do the same thing over and over, it may become comfortable but eventually your body will not respond as well. The body gets used to the activity and, over time, can plateau. What happens is the nervous system and muscles, for example, adapt to your routine. This happens pretty fast — maybe as soon as 6 to 8 weeks. At that point, you may not feel very challenged, mentally or physically.
To stay sharp, engaged and to enhance your performance, you may need to change things up. Fartlek workouts can offer the perfect challenge and you can change the fartlek routine, rotating through several options. One week, you may run sprints for a period of 30 seconds while the next, you may run them for 2 minutes. The options are nearly endless and can help the body gain strength and efficiency. (5)
3. Fartlek Helps You Burn More Calories
Speed work will definitely burn more calories in less time. According to a recent study, performing interval types of workout burns more calories because you are working more systems in the body which requires more effort. More effort will burn more calories than if exercising at a steady state.
This could make the fartlek a great workout for anyone who has less time for exercise but wants to be as effective as possible. (6) Think about it this way: walking leisurely burns calories and even breathing burns calories, but walking fast is going to burn more calories and fat in a shorter amount of time because you are using more energy.
Running faster does the same. A leisurely jog is great for good health, but doing a little speed play can increase your calorie burn in way less time than a leisurely jog while improving your muscle development. The more muscle we have, the more calories we burn at rest. By combining both rest intervals or an easy jog with some hard sprints, you can get a great workout and burn calories at the same time. (7)
4. Prevent Injuries with Fartleks
Fartleks may be a great way to prevent injuries in runners. Interval training can allow the body to safely recover between intervals so that you minimize your risk of injury. It is very common to see runners getting injured because of doing too much too soon. By doing intervals, you can start with a few and work your way up, while giving the body ample time to recover. The American Council on Exercise states that by doing short bouts of intervals using a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio, such as 1 minute fast with 2-3 minutes of easy recovery, you can get a great workout while putting less stress on the body. (8)
5. Use Fartlek for Increased Speed and Endurance
Finding a workout that can increase speed and endurance all at the same time is ideal for many. The fartlek may be your workout if this is what you are trying to achieve. According to Active.com, the result of a good fartlek workout is speed and endurance. This happens because you are working the cardiovascular system each time you kick up the pace. With practice, this helps your system improve its level of effort and overall threshold. (9)
Fartlek vs HIIT vs Tabata
A fartlek workout could be likened to a HIIT or Tabata workout given that you run, or perform exercise, for a period of time or distance; however, the main difference is that with fartlek, you run easy to moderate for an active recovery period to prepare your body for another interval. A study shows that active recovery increases VO2 max more than passive recovery, such as standing. (10)
Men’s Fitness reports that HIIT style workouts are a great way to help athletes gain more fitness through helping their bodies and minds adapt and learn how to work at a higher intensity. Because it is set for a very short period of time, it allows the body to hit it hard. But if you were to ask your body to perform that same level of effort for 10 to 15 minutes, it would likely not be possible for most people. The rest intervals give the muscles time to rest. This work provides amazing “physiological adaptations, fat burning, insulin sensitivity and skeletal muscle oxidation.” (11)
Tabata is similar in that it is filled with bursts of hard work, but it is typically structured in 4 minute segments with 20 seconds of hard exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. HIIT is usually designed in a more 1:1 or 1:2 ratio — a little more similar to the fartlek style.
Ultimately, the longer the work interval, the longer the rest interval though the workouts can vary to make them more challenging such as the one I have provided below. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise by Izumi Tabata shared a study stating that intense 4-minute workouts performed five days a week over a six week period of time improved VO2 max in subjects as well as their anaerobic system. If a workout is shorter, it should be more intense. However, it is common to find Tabata style class at the gym that lasts for 30 to 60 minutes which is considered a Tabata adaptation.
Work: 30 seconds to several minutes
Rest: 30 seconds to several minutes
Heart Rate: 70–85% of max heart rate
Total Workout Time: 30–60 minutes
Work: 20 seconds
Rest: 10 seconds
Heart Rate: About 100% of max heart rate
Total Workout Time: 4 minutes
Work: 1–2 minutes
Rest: 60 seconds to 2 minutes. 1:1 or 1:2 ratio, such as 1 minute of work with 1 minute of rest or 1 minute work and 2 minutes rest. You can add variety such as 2 minutes of work and 1 minute of rest.
Heart Rate: 80–95% of max heart rate, according to American Council on Exercise (ACE)
Total Workout Time: 20–40 minutes
History of Fartlek
The fartlek style workout was developed in 1937 by the Swedish cross-country coach named Gösta Holmér. The training strategy was the result of a long string of Finnish cross country defeats. Holmér developed a plan to focus on speed and endurance training using short bursts of “faster than race pace efforts during training runs.” (13)
Through a fartlek training plan, the record for the mile toggled between Gunder Hagg and Arne Anderson in the 1940s. Hagg eventually took the record with an impressive 4:01 in 1945 and held that record for nine years. (14, 15)
You can gain amazing benefits from doing a fartlek workout. You can perform this workout on the road, at the track, on hills and even on the treadmill at the gym.
Keep in mind, that as I mentioned before, too much too soon can result in injury. (That goes with just about any type of exercise.) Take it slow and it is best to have some base running under your belt first. If you are uncertain, check with your doctor or your coach. Speaking of coach, you may want to consider getting one (if you do not already have one) to help you with your goals and workout plans, as well as accountability.
Final Thoughts on Fartlek
Changing up your routine can add some spice to your workouts as well as provide strength, speed and endurance. While these goals are not for everyone, it could be worth a try, especially if you hit a plateau in your fitness routine or desired results. Consider inviting a friend and make it fun. Workouts should be a time to get away while improving your overall health.