I should be doing what?!

Fartlek.  Every time I say the word, my kids laugh.  Okay, my husband does too. “Haha, fart, lick.” Yes, I live with 3 boys. I’m sure the first time I heard the word fartlek I did a double take and smirked too (at least in my head).

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Fartlek has “fart” in it because that is the Swedish word for speed. “Lek” means play, and so “speed-play” serves as a rough translation. It was developed by the national cross-country coach Gösta Holmér in response to the Sweden team’s poor performances against their Finnish rivals. Fartlek is not, however, a common word in Sweden either. But in running circles the world over, it is respected as a tried-and-tested training technique with proven benefits for speed endurance.

Unlike tempo and interval work, fartlek is unstructured and alternates moderate-to-hard efforts with easy throughout. After a warm-up, you play with speed by running at faster efforts for short periods of time (to that tree, to the sign) followed by easy-effort running to recover. The goal is to keep it free-flowing so you’re untethered to the watch or a plan, and to run at harder efforts but not a specific pace. The variable intensity and continuous nature of the exercise places stress on both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.

A simple example of what a runner would do during a fartlek run, after a one mile/8-10 min. warm-up, is to sprint all out from one stop sign to the next, jog to the corner, give a medium effort for a couple of blocks, jog the distance of four parked cars, and then sprint to a stop sign, and so on, for a set total time or distance and then do a cool down one mile/8-10 min. run. Runners can use mailboxes, trashcans or telephone poles as their “starting” and “stopping” points for their different speeds. Another way to make it fun is to use a song you’re listening to. For example – sprinting during the chorus.

There are many benefits to Fartleks:

  • First, they are easily adjustable. You can add an endless variety of intervals to keep you motivated. It’s possible to change the overall distance of the run, the length and speed of the bursts, the method you use to measure each component, and the recovery times. If you feel sluggish, limit the number of sprints you do, and take more time to recover. If you feel great, run the sprints hard, and sprint again maybe when you don’t feel totally recovered.
  • Fartleks, just like other speed workouts prepare any runner for a race. Alternating speeds works both the aerobic and anaerobic training systems while simulating the ebb and flow nature of competitive running.
  • Fartleks also keep muscles, tendons, and nerves at top capacity.
  • Fartleks can be done anywhere. They don’t have to be measured on a track. They can be on roads, trails, or even hills.
  • And, something we all like to hear… because of the alternating intensity of the workout, fartleks allow you to burn more calories than if you were keeping a steady pace.

Personally, I just started including Fartleks in my training plan. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I have actually enjoyed them so far. Maybe it’s because I do them on my shortest run of the week :)?! Regardless, they have definitely added variety and I feel like I am getting a much harder workout than the short steady run I otherwise would be doing that day. Here is an example of a recent 5 mile fartlek run. I did a slow first mile to warm up, did miles 2, 3, and 4 ‘fartlek style’ and then did a steady last mile. I thought my 5th mile was a slower cool-down-pace until I looked at my splits. Turns out, after doing 3 miles of fartleks, running at a faster than usual cool-down-pace for me, that last mile came more naturally and felt easy.

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Have you Fartlek’d lately?


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