In the 1930s, Gosta Holmer, the Swedish national coach, came up with a concept that’s become the butt of many inside jokes for runners. Holmer invented it in an attempt to turnaround the poor performance of Swedish cross-country running teams in competitive events. That innovative idea was Fartleks, and it did wonders for Swedish athletes, who made history by following this flexible speed and endurance drill.

Gunder Hagg, for example, went on to set 10 world records across 7 different races, all within the racing season of 1942, putting Swedish runners on the world map and changing the rules of distance running forever. So what are Fartleks and how has the routine impacted the world of running?

What makes it work?
To put it very simply, Fartlek translates to ‘Speed Play’ and involves varying your pace through the training, through alternate stages of fast sprints and slower jogs. Unlike intervals which follow specific time segments within which you can vary your speed, Fartlek is more unstructured and can be adjusted according to your stamina and endurance, making it a perfect strategy for beginners. By introducing short bursts of speed to your training as per your stamina level, your legs get a taste of the speed you are capable of, leading to faster times and a more economical running form.

The active recovery or slowing down aspect of Fartlek training is as important as the speed burst. For distance runners, it helps to enhance their general stamina and pace. More importantly, it gets their bodies adjusted to race day conditions, where you need to use a combination of long running intervals, active recovery and sudden sprints, depending on how you feel and where you stand in the race.

You too can Fartlek!
As a beginner, you may be tempted to go all out on speed as soon as you hit the track. But more often than not, it will hamper your training session as you struggle to catch up with the initial burst, and it is also a surefire way to attract common running injuries. Fartlek is an ideal combination of speed and stamina, based on one’s individual endurance at any point, and the best thing about it is that you can practice it anywhere – on roads, pavements, trails, tracks and even the treadmill. Here are some variations that you can start out with:

Follow the roadsigns: If you are a road runner, decide on some regular fixtures as your interval landmarks. These could be lamp posts, parked cars or even crossings. Pace yourself to run hard as you cross, say, 4 lamp posts, and then recover for the next 6. Do this for the entire duration of your training, and increase the number of posts for faster drills as your body gets more used to the workout.

Use Fartleks to prepare for marathon runs (Image: FartlekRun)
Use Fartleks to prepare for marathon runs (Image: FartlekRun)

Pace with music: If you listen to music during your runs, use them to define your Fartlek intervals. You could choose to divide it by song, i.e. run fast for one entire song and then slow down for the next. Alternatively, you could interval within a song, with high speeds during the chorus and a slower sprint during the rest of the song. And as we have recently discovered >music that’s in sync with your running tempo will actively encourage you to run more often.

Three-interval variation: Add more variety to your training by alternating between three tempos: the fastest you can go, a mid-range pace, and active jogging. For a 60-minute session, you can roughly divide it into 4-8-8 routine (4 mins of fast running followed by 8 mins each of mid-range and jogging) and repeat the routine thrice. Once you’ve gained enough speed and stamina, you can try out more complex routines such as these.

Like all training, it’s important to warm up adequately before you start running and Fartlek is no exception. Take at least 10 minutes for jogging, stretching and shorter drills before you step on the track. Depending on the goal or race ahead of you, divide your run into sessions of fast running, speed walking, medium-paced runs and jogging. As you keep following this for subsequent runs, you’ll find a noticeable difference in your speed burst segments, chiefly that they’ll get longer and you’ll find them easier to run.

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