Fartleks: An Introduction
Fartlek is Swedish for ‘speed play’ and is a variation of interval training, swapping intensities from hard to low. it was developed before the war, in 1937, by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér. Hardy Matamala, a colleague who ran for Airedale Athletics for several years before returning home to start coaching in Chile, recommended this guidance to us.
Fartlek First, Race Second
The ideal time to insert fartlek runs is when you’re making the transition to faster, race-pace type training (e.g. after your winter base and before your spring race season begins). By doing a weekly fartlek run for a month before you hit the track, you’ll: i) avoid the tendency to train too hard, too early; ii) learn your effort levels and how to adjust the workout based on how you feel; iii) develop an optimal base of speed training prior to actual races.
Even after you complete a first month of fartlek runs and begin weekly hard interval sessions, it is still wise to insert a fartlek run every three to four weeks in place of your interval session. This will keep you from driving your body too hard to hit or better your previous workout times on the track (or towpath or bike-path). This break from your usual course is also a great way to avoid peaking too soon and risking injury by overdriving the musculo-skeletal system.
Best Fartlek Workouts
Like most hard workouts, there are an infinite variety of fartlek runs that can be created. Each workout below is designed to stimulate various systems in the body that sports science tells us will result in improved 5k/10k racing performance. Perform this set of workouts and you’ll be ready for great interval sessions.
Fartlek No. 1, Week 1:
● After a warm-up,
● perform 10 to 12 surges lasting 1 minute with a 1-minute jog rest in between.
Your effort should be slightly faster than 5k race pace effort. Most runners find this to be at about 90%-95% of full effort.
Research indicates that running at this intensity for a total of 10 to 12 minutes results in a higher VO2 max – your ability to consume and utilise oxygen.
Fartlek No. 2, Week 2:
● After a warm-up,
● perform four to five surges lasting 3 to 5 minutes each with a 1- to 2-minute jog in between.
Your effort should be slightly faster than 10k race pace effort but not as fast as in Fartlek No. 1. Most runners find this to be at about 80%-85% of full effort.
Research indicates that running at this intensity for a total of 15 to 20 minutes results in a higher lactate threshold – the balance point between the production of lactic acid and your ability to keep it from building up.
Fartlek No. 3, Week 3:
● After a warm-up,
● perform five to six surges lasting 2 minutes, with a 1-minute jog between each hard effort.
Your effort should be very similar to 5k race pace effort. This workout stimulates your VO2 max but also helps you become more comfortable at 5k race pace.
You’ll find this helpful in your first races where many runners start too fast and fade in the end.
Fartlek No. 4, Week 4: This workout is the grand-daddy of them all and will complete your month of fartlek running prior to racing. After a warm-up, perform the following surges, all followed by a 2-minute easy jog: 5 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes and 1 minute. Your effort should increase as the length of the surge decreases:
● the 5-minute surge is at 80% of full effort;
● the 4-minute surge is at 85% of full effort;
● the 3-minute surge is at 90% of full effort;
● the 2-minute surge is at roughly 95% of full effort; and
● the 1-minute surge is at nearly 100% of full effort.
This workout is designed to mimic the increase in effort that you must make in order to race at your highest level for the 5k and 10k distances. Don’t worry about pace or heart rate. Just focus on effort. It’s about teaching your body to prepare for race intensities.
To understand the technical terms and the pacing recommendations see our Training Science page.
“After our disappointment from 2004, my Olympic trials runner used fartlek running as her introduction to faster running heading into 2005. The result? She was faster than ever when we got to the track workouts. And these better track workouts led to faster racing, with PRs at every distance from the 5K to the marathon, culminating in her victory at the Houston Marathon.”
“For competitive runners, I have found no better workout for that critical period between your base phase and your racing season than the fartlek run. Recognize the traits that make you great and set up the training to not only stimulate the desired adaptations in the body, but also set you up for success in your peak season and avoid the most common pitfall of competitive runners–training too fast and, subsequently, racing too slow.”
Source: Greg McMillan, an exercise physiologist and USATF-certified coach, slightly adapted from an article in Running Times, March 2008.
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