Posted January 16, 2013 by Gareth Evans in Running

Fartlek Training: Why we owe the Swedish thanks for much more than just Ikea

Fartlek Training with strensa
Fartlek Training with strensa

While the Swedish may be known for giving the world access to low-cost, flat pack furniture, they are also credited with giving us one of the most effective interval training techniques in sport, Fartlek training. Swedish for “Speed Play”, Fartlek training blends steady state training with high intensity interval training. While the “play” part of the literal English translation may be somewhat of an oxymoron, anyone who has tried it will vouch for its effectiveness.

What is Fartlek training?

First developed in 1937 by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér, Fartlek training was initially designed to help further improve the Swedish cross country runners that he coached. His theory involved training his athletes at a faster-than-race pace, with a focus on both speed and endurance training.

Rather than setting a specific running time or distance, those adopting the Fartlek approach to running set their training sessions based on their own sport-specific requirements, as well as what their body is able to cope with.

What might a typical Fartlek session look like?

The beauty of Fartlek training lies in its simplicity and its adaptability; it’s suitable for any level of athlete, from beginner to advanced, and can be adapted to suit almost any sport.

As a rule of thumb, each session should last for no more than 40 minutes, which includes a 5 minute warm up and a 5 minute warm down. This leaves you 30 minutes to “play” with, during which time you can shape the session to your requirements.

Probably the easiest means of shaping a session, and the technique that I personally use, would be to add intervals based on landmarks along your running route. Starting with a steady state jog for a couple of minutes, pick an object in the distance, a lamppost or a car for example, and sprint to it. When you pass the object, pick another and either slowly jog or walk to it. When you reach that point, begin your next interval until you reach another identified landmark. Then repeat.

As a rugby player, a typical game is based around short bursts of high intensity sprints, with long durations of cruising and the occasional long sprint. I, therefore, try to make my Fartlek sessions reflect this and I tend to focus on sprints from a standing start, as well as the transition from cruising to top speed, with the occasional long distance run (faster than a jog, but not as quick as a sprint). A similar session would be useful for football or basketball, perhaps with more of a focus on longer sprints. That’s the beauty of Fartlek training; you can replicate your own sport and so train in a far more effective and game-specific manner.

The physical and psychological benefits of Fartlek training

We have already briefly touched on the psychological benefits of the Fartlek approach in so much as it allows for sport specific training. In addition, the variety can be a great way of staving off boredom during your sessions, as well as its direct applicability providing a motivational boost. Knowing why you are doing something always gives you an extra edge.

There are, however, a number of physical effects that make Fartlek training highly effective. You will, firstly, burn more calories than during a steady state session undertaken for the same period, making your training time far more efficient, while interval training, furthermore, helps to avoid some of the injuries that are associated with repetitive, aerobic exercise. Secondly, it has been proven that interval training of this nature results in an increase in the body’s resting metabolic rate for the 24 hours immediately after exercise, and thus may improve maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) more effectively than completing traditional, long aerobic sessions.

Get out and “play”

If, a few weeks into your New Year routine, you’re getting a bit bored of the same old training sessions, give Fartlek training a try. It’s not easy, but it will spice up your training and push you onto that next level, helping you to reach your New Year fitness goals faster. Get out there and have fun with it.

Gareth Evans

Gareth Evans
A former professional rugby player in his youth, Gareth is now a bit of an all-round amateur when it comes to sport. He continues to play rugby for his local club, has studied Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Argentina, played Basketball in Peru, trekked in the Andes and the Himalayas, is a reluctant adventure racer, and is now studying KFM (Keysi Fighting Method). He has a passion for a whole host of sports, as well as travel, but feels truly at home on the rugby pitch or in the mountains.