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Fartlek, swedish for ‘speed play’, sounds like it should be the latest bowel-churning industrial house music from europe, but it’s really a great format that everyone should keep in their training toolkit. Although it was developed for runners, the same principles can be applied to cycling, swimming, field sports training, even gym sessions. While this style of training can definitely have physical value, it has great benefits psychologically for the stale athlete or one who has had a setback
Fartlek was developed in the 1930s and combines continuous and interval training, so that it it stresses both the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. It’s an unstructured type of training that alternates hard to moderate to easy efforts throughout. The stints at each pace vary and are random – to a tree or a street sign – followed by an easier effort.
Note that word ‘unstructured’. You can find some Fartlek programs that are highly structured and very specific – but to me, that kind of defeats the purpose of Fartlek. By all means check out such programs, but my advice is to use them just to get ideas on variations you can randomly chuck into your own Fartlek sessions.
Fartlek is also sometimes referred to as a ‘train as you feel’ format…it could be argued that some people always train as they feel and could actually benefit from a little structure to their training! Fair enough, but there are times when it is highly appropriate to ‘train as you feel’. These include times such as when you are:
There are two main benefits Fartlek brings to these scenarios:
In all these situations, you can expect that your performance may suffer, but it’s hard to know by how much. This can be very temporary – so by having a ‘free session’ you can save yourself taking a hit to your confidence. We consciously or subconsciously always compare one training session to another, so by taking away all standards for comparison, we can’t set ourselves up to be let down. Ironically, removing this pressure or inevitable failure to perform at a standard we are accustomed to can actually free us up to perform better, or at least push harder, just as you can often see in a match, race or competition. If you free the mind, then the body can often free itself up from whatever is restricting it, too.
For all that Fartlek may seem like ‘playing about’ with pace, it does actually help you get ready for the rigours of racing. When we train, we usually know or set the pace(s) we will do. In a race, the pace can change unexpectedly and with little regularity. In most races, this can happen because of other competitors (either single competitors or what the pack is doing), while in something like trail running, an ultra marathon or an Ironman event, conditions may also dictate pace – sometimes there will be the need to slow down, sometimes you’ll want to speed up to take advantage of good conditions or to beat cut-off times. If you have practiced varying your pace while still moving continuously, then you’ll be better at doing it in a race because you’ve worked on your self-awareness and pace judgement skills.
It’s not just about making those variations in pace, it’s about learning how your body will respond to those changes. If you speed up to 50% faster than your average running pace and hold on for 400m, how long will it take you to recover at a slow jog? What happened to your stride length as you increased speed?
If you make several variations to your pace while moving continuously, you can work on improving your efficiency. The trick is to consciously move through the variations in pace with as little variation in technique as possible in order to conserve energy.
Fartlek can be applied to almost any individual racing sport. It’s also great if you play a field sport, because Fartlek imitates what is typically involved – running continuously, but reacting to the game by varying your pace as necessary. I trash-talked structured Fartlek sessions earlier, but for field sport athletes I like to compromise and have a coach dictate the variations in pace so players have to react. Make it more applicable by doing this while controlling or holding whatever implement is involved with your sport (e.g. a hockey stick, a rugby or soccer ball, etc.)
I even loosely apply the principles of Fartlek to strength training as a way to ‘take the pressure off’ both when physical (i.e. coming back from illness or a break) or the mental (stress, distraction) dictates. This does not mean doing wildly different exercises to the usual training routine. Often it’s a case of: