For many of the 620 million people who regularly run as part of their training plan, the sport is an obsession unlike any other. Numbers, paces, distances, and goals are all chased with a healthy lust that feels intrinsic. And with milestones to reach comes a needling focus on fine-tuning. Diet, breathing, and footwear all come into question. But so should your training sessions. Are you running at the same pace every day for example? If you are and a plateau is starting to set in, maybe you should take a look at fartlek training.
The great Swedish coach Gosta Holmer is often referred to as the father of fartlek (Swedish for “speed play”). Holmer’s Scandinavian athletes used fartlek training year-round, but during base phase training in particular, as he felt athletes too often let go of gear-changing work in this build-up. “During transitional periods and close to peak competitions, we always do quicker work,” said Holmer. “Too often we forget about the need for shifting work and, most commonly, we do so as we begin to build the miles.”
In the following guide, Lillie Bleasdale, a running coach and founder of Train Passa, explains everything you need to know about the running buzzword, and how you too can use fartlek training and start shaving those times down.
Fartlek Vs Interval Training
Fartlek sessions are much less structured than other pace changing runs like interval training as the pace variations should be done spontaneously as you run. These runs are also based on moving from high intensity to lower intensity, rather than transitioning from work to rest as you would in interval training.
A typical fartlek session involves going for a continuous run while increasing and decreasing your speed or intensity throughout.
For example, on a five-mile run, after a 10-minute warm-up, you may then participate in 30 minutes of fartlek work eg. three minutes of slow and steady running, followed by 45 seconds of fast running, until the 30 minutes are completed. Then whatever is left of your five miles would be your cool down.
How Can Fartlek Improve Your Running Ability?
Fartlek and interval training have a lot of the same advantages when it comes to improving your running ability. Both types of training improve your VO2 max, the maximum rate of oxygen consumption by your body. The higher your VO2 max, the better your ability to use oxygen efficiently to power your muscles, and the better your performance.
Your lactate threshold (the point at which you start to feel those achy muscle cramps) and your ventilatory threshold (the point when your breathing starts to increase) are also improved by both forms of speed work.
One of the main reasons for including fartlek training over interval training in a plan is because it is more reflective of a real-life racing situation where you will need to consistently maintain ‘pace’. In using fartlek training, you may find that your body is more capable of finishing a race strongly as your legs are used to varying between your standard pace and a more challenging pace.
Are There Any Disadvantages?
You shouldn’t use fartlek for every run. Speed work takes a toll on the legs and therefore recovery and easier runs must be included within your weekly planning. Speed work sessions such as fartlek should only be integrated once you have a strong aerobic base and the fast sections should not be sprints as you need to keep moving throughout the whole session.
Speed work also requires more muscular power than your general aerobic capacity runs, and therefore it’s important to ensure that you have some strength work included within your weekly plan to protect the body from injury and improve your performance in these sessions.
Is It For Beginners?
It’s important to build a consistent aerobic base to start with when it comes to running. Once you can complete around 2 x 3-4k runs and 1 x 5k run per week, then you can start to look at developing your anaerobic base as well by integrating pace change runs or interval training.
For a new runner, structured interval sessions likely provide a little more guidance and will feel a little less out of the comfort zone. During interval runs, the rest periods can be a light jog or walk, whereas during fartlek training the pace lowers rather than coming to complete rest for a period of time.
Four Fartlek Tips To Get You Up And Running
- Have a good playlist to keep you going through the tough parts of the fartlek session.
- Confidence is key. If you go into the session with the mindset that you can, you’re much more likely to succeed. Start simple and progress as you go. Don’t go crazy with your first speed session and the number of variations you’re making. Keep it simple. Once your confident then play around a little more.
- Start the session easier than you may feel you need to. This will allow you to finish hard rather than tiring yourself out prior to the last few speedier repetitions.
- Ensure that your speed work is done on a flat route if you can, at least to begin with.