High-intensity interval training (HIIT) might be all the rage in fitness circles nowadays, but Swedish runners have been practising a form of HIIT ever since the ’30s, when the Fartlek system of running was developed. Fartlek means “speed-play” in Swedish, and once you get over any amusement at the fact the Swedish word for speed is fart, you’ll discover a training style sure to elevate your outings from casual jogs into full-throttle runs.
It could even turn you into a champion. Legendary runner Emil Zátopek was one of the first to really embrace interval sessions, making them part of his notoriously tough training regime, and it helped him scoop golds in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon at the 1952 Olympics. He remains the only person to win all three events at a single Olympics.
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How To Fartlek
Fartlek is a blend of regular continuous running interspersed with higher-speed intervals. From there, what makes up a session is entirely up to you. You don’t have to go out all guns blazing on every sprint, or keep them all to a set distance, you just have to ensure you mix up your pace throughout the run. A good Fartlek run could involve you running at your target pace for all kinds of distances – from 400m or 800m sprints to marathon pace and slower recovery sections.
The lack of structure allows for plenty of variety. You can base fast sections around landmarks, terrain or other road users. If you do fancy something more defined then Fartlek allows for that too, with sprints and recovery sections clearly set out in minutes or metres before you start. Whichever way you choose to do it, building some Fartlek sessions into your running is always a good idea.
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Five Reasons To Try Fartlek
1. Improve your running
Adding in pacier intervals will improve your speed endurance, which will definitely tell next time you try and set a PB. Short sprint intervals are best for building your 5/10km race pace, while longer, medium-pace stretches will help when prepping for 10 miles plus.
2. Avoid boredom
Running can, whisper this quietly, sometimes be a tad monotonous. You’ll see that boredom disappear when you have to dash every time a dog appears on the horizon.
3. Good for sports training
Even the keenest runners might be left gasping by 20 minutes of six-a-side football, because the physical demands are different. Fartlek’s pacey intervals mirror the stop-start action of playing sport, so it’s the perfect way to train for the new season.
4. Fit for all
Endlessly variable, anyone can get the benefits of Fartlek. Just go a bit faster than your regular speed during the sprint sections.
5. Fast fat burning
Fartlek’s heart-pumping intervals will ensure you get your calorie-crushing fix in record time. A 25-minute run laden with sprints will torch calories more effectively than your regular steady speed jog.
Five Unstructured Fartlek Runs To Try
1. Pass The Pooch
Head out to any big park at the weekend and you’ll be sharing the space with hordes of dog-walkers, which can be incorporated into your Fartlek training. Every time you pass a dog run a little faster than your 5K pace for 30sec.
2. Strava Segments
If you’re a Strava obsessive and know all the segments near your house, trying to set a PB on each of them is a great way to change the pace on your runs.
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3. Hill Runner
A simple yet brutal way to mix up your runs. Every time you come across an uphill incline during your session, run faster.
4. Streetlights Sprints
Sprint the distance between two streetlights, then recover between the next two, then sprint again. Do this for the length of a street a couple of times during a run.
5. The Home Straight
If your favourite regular run involves completing several laps of a park, there are a couple of great ways to mix in some speed play. You can speed up and slow down for alternate laps, or mark out one section of the loop as your “home straight” where you open up and sprint for the line each time you come to it. You can even create a Strava segment for that section of your run, if you want to see how your sprint times are progressing.
Six Structured Fartlek Runs To Try
1. Long Run Fartlek
During your longer runs (anything over 10K), every 6min raise the pace for 2min. Don’t go for an all-out sprint, just increase your speed by 10sec per km.
2. Speedy Surges
To improve your 5K and 10K times, try going for a 25min run with surges. Run for 90sec at a pace 10sec per km faster than your desired 5K or 10K pace, then recover for a minute, then surge again.
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3. Ladder Workout
This is great way to work on your race pace for a number of different distances in one session. Start with 2min at 5K pace, then 2min recovery. Then 3min at 10K pace, 2min recovery. Then 4min at half marathon pace, 2min recovery. Then reverse it. So 4min half marathon pace, 2min recovery, 3min 10K pace, 2min recovery, 2min 5K pace (or above, if you can), followed by a steady jog to cool down.
4. Effort Level Countdown
If you’re not sure on the exact pace you want to run, you can structure your Fartlek session around effort levels with a simple countdown workout. Start with 5min at 80% intensity. Then 4min at 85%, 3min at 90%, 2min at 95% and finish with 1min all-out effort.
5. Pick Up The Pace
Another good workout for training at different race paces, this session involves tough bursts of progressively faster running, with only 90sec rest between them. After a good warm-up, run for 2min 30sec, with the first 30sec at around your marathon race pace, or around 5sec per km faster than your normal training pace if you haven’t run any marathons lately. Each 30sec block from then on should get a touch faster with the aim of running the final 30sec at your 5K race pace. Take 90sec to recover, then run another 2min 30sec set. Aim for four 2min 30sec sets in total.
6. Miles And Miles
This is no fun whatsoever, but will do wonders for your 5K and 10K times. After warming up, run six one-mile bursts, with 3min recovery in between. Try to maintain a fast pace while keeping your mile times within 10sec of each other across the six efforts, rather than completely destroying yourself with a bid to match Roger Bannister first time out. Try to find a flattish one-mile loop – a park is a good bet – to help keep your times consistent.