If you are looking to break out of your regular physical training regiment, to spice up your daily runs, or to deliver a shock to your system because it has grown too accustomed to your routine (with no improvement), then I have a workout for you. It’s the Fartlek, which is Swedish for “speed play” and it has the potential to make you a more powerful runner.
Fartlek isn’t new, revolutionary, or a passing fad. It has been around since the 1930s, when it was pioneered by Swedish national cross country team coach Gosta Holmer. Holmer was looking for a way to deliver a kick in the pants to his struggling team, and jolt them into better race form. His answer was a combination of speed work (sprints) and endurance work (distance running), all wrapped together in one long, mixed aerobic/anaerobic workout.
Not quite the interval training
Fartlek is similar to interval training, in which one might use a track to sprint a set distance, followed by a set recovery time (either walking, jogging, or just resting). However, in contrast to interval training, Fartlek is not only focused on the sprints (the speed work), but also on a slower but continuous run between the sprints. That is where endurance comes into play.
Nor does Fartlek adhere to set sprint times/distances, or set recovery periods. It is looser than that, which is where the “play” in “speed play” comes into… play.
As explained in Running Times magazine in 2002, “Swedish Fartlek isn’t carefree running.” It is, however, less structured than interval training, which relies on set intervals of rest vs exertion. What is the difference? Fartlek allows one to design the workout as one goes, “surprising” the body with bursts of sprints, which can vary anywhere from 15-30 seconds, or from “mailbox to mailbox,” if one is using landmarks to gauge sprint distance.
In other words, as you set out to do a five-mile Fartlek run, you might decide to get at least 10 sprints in, of roughly 20-30 seconds each, but you will mix them into the longer run at different times and with differing rest periods, depending on how you feel. You will thus get bursts of anaerobic speed work nestled within a longer aerobic endurance run. That is a win-win for a runner who also wants to build muscle and speed (power) into his or her endurance.
The word anaerobic means “without oxygen.” It entails a workout in which the body breaks down glucose without using oxygen. In other words, it is a shorter — but more intense — workout than an aerobic one. Examples of anaerobic workouts include sprints, heavy weight lifting, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Aerobic workouts are long runs, bike rides, or swims, at a steady pace with a relatively steady (and elevated) heart rate.
The benefits of Fartlek
So, why would you need anaerobic work mixed in with aerobic work? Aside from the benefit of breaking your routine, and thus giving your muscles something new and different to do (a benefit in and of itself), the Fartlek increases speed and endurance, and thus power within your runs. It can build muscle in the quads, if combined with a proper diet, and is like converting your body’s four-cylinder engine into a more powerfully performing V6. In practical terms, imagine you are racing a 5K and need to catch that guy 25 meters in front of you as you near the finish line. That is where the Fartlek work will pay off, as you sprint past him and cross the line in the lead.
Racing might not be your thing, and maybe you couldn’t give two figs about increasing your running power. I get that. However, if you’re like the rest of us, and just trying to stay motivated in your workouts, and to keep them productive in terms of weight loss and muscle building, then you cannot go wrong incorporating Fartlek workouts into your routine.
Simply set out for your usual four-mile run, and tell yourself you are going to sprint for 20-30 seconds at least six-eight times during the run. Then go at whatever speed you want between the sprints. You’ll find that the run goes by quicker, you experience intense bursts of elevated heart rate, and at the end, you are spent and even enjoyed the broken monotony of the standard distance run.
Now get out there and enjoy the spring-running weather.