Fartlek Training: Benefits & Examples

If you’re looking to add variety to your running, break a plateau or improve your overall pace and endurance, fartlek training may just be the answer. Fartlek is a Swedish word meaning “speed play” and it involves alternating periods of high intensity max efforts with lower intensity recovery periods. These periods can be measured in distance covered or also in time.

One of the main reasons that fartlek is so effective is the fact that it requires you to work in both an aerobic and anaerobic state across different heart zones. This significantly challenges the body and it’s energy pathways allowing you to burn more calories than you would during a steady run of the same duration. The high intensity nature of the workout leads to an effect called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). If you think about when your turn your car off after a journey, the engine still stays warm for a period of time afterwards. The exact same principle applies to our bodies after a workout which involves a high level of anaerobic work.

Because EPOC is influenced by intensity and not duration, workouts may be much shorter than a steady state run which obviously requires less time. A typical fartlek session could range from anywhere between 10 to 40 minutes but it’s important that the quality remains high at all times. While it’s a great way to improve your running as mentioned, the session can also be adapted to suit other activities, such as cycling, swimming and sports of an intermittent nature such as soccer, football and rugby.

There are many examples of fartlek and some will be more suitable then other depending on your goals but here are three of my favourites that I like to use. What’s important with all of them is that the high intensity periods are exactly that. You should be working at 85%+ of your maximum heart rate. Similarly the recovery periods need to allow you to adequately recover and should be approximately 60% of your max. The whole purpose of the recovery is to allow you to repeat the high intensity interval at your max again so be careful not to go too fast on this.

3:2:1 Fartlek:

The 3:2:1 fartlek session is a great way to get started and to introduce yourself gradually to this challenging type of workout. The protocol is as follows;

  • Jog 3 minutes easy, then 3 minutes hard
  • Jog 2 minutes easy, then 2 minutes hard
  • Jog 1 minute easy, then 1 minute hard

After the last 1 minute hard you’re back up to the 3 minute easy interval again if you wish to repeat. One cycle takes 12 minutes to complete which can be worked up to two or three depending on your goals and ability.

Gerschler Fartlek:

Gerschler fartlek involves a much higher anaerobic component and is a great workout to improve your “kick” in running but is also very suitable for sports that are intermittent in nature that require a high intensity effort with a short recovery before repeating again. In this example after each 30 second sprint your recovery drops by 15 seconds. The protocol is as follows;

  • Jog 5 minutes easy to warm-up
  • Sprint 30 seconds hard, jog 90 seconds recovery
  • Sprint 30 seconds hard, jog 75 seconds recovery
  • Sprint 30 seconds hard, jog 60 seconds recovery
  • Sprint 30 seconds hard, jog 45 seconds recovery
  • Sprint 30 seconds hard, jog 30 seconds recovery
  • Sprint 30 seconds hard, jog 15 seconds recovery
  • Sprint 30 seconds hard and jog 5 minutes easy to cool-down

After the last 30 second sprint, you may wish to jog 90 seconds recovery and repeat the cycle for a second or even a third time eventually as your fitness improves.

Mona Fartlek:

Mona fartlek really is a combination of the above with a mixture of long and short intensity intervals which is very demanding. You should leave this one until last after trying the other two. The total session time takes 30 minutes with the following protocol.

  • Jog 5 minutes easy to warm-up
  • Sprint 90 seconds hard, then 90 seconds easy x 2
  • Sprint 60 seconds hard, then 60 seconds easy x 4
  • Sprint 30 seconds hard, then 30 seconds easy x 4
  • Sprint 15 seconds hard, then 15 seconds easy x 4
  • Jog 5 minutes easy to cool-down

Give them a go and see how you get on!