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What is Fartlek?

What is Fartlek?

by: Ian Kemp


Fartlek is a form of road running or cross country running in which the runner, usually solo, varies the pace significantly during the run. It is usually regarded as an advanced training technique, for the experienced runner who has been using interval training to develop speed and to raise the anaerobic threshold. However, the 'average' runner can also benefit from a simplified form of Fartlek training, to develop self-awareness and to introduce variety into the training program.

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For the advanced runner, the aim in Fartlek can be best decribed by relating it to interval training. The purpose of interval training is to develop speed by running for short distances at a speed significantly higher than the normal strong race pace, with these short runs separated by intervals of easy running or jogging. Intervals are normally run over predetermined distances, and usually on the track.

Fartlek is similar to interval training in that short fast runs alternate with slow running or jogging recovery intervals. However, in Fartlek the running is done on the road or on parkland or bush tracks. There is no predetermined schedule to follow, but instead the athlete will set her/his own interval lengths and pace in response to their own feeling of the workload. An advantage of Fartlek is that the athlete can concentrate on feeling the pace and their physical response to it, thereby developing self awareness and pace judgement skills. Also the athlete is free to experiment with pace and endurance, and to experience changes of pace.

It is primarily a technique for advanced runners because it requires 'honesty' to put in a demanding workload, and also 'maturity' to not overdo the pace or length of the intervals. With these qualities, Fartlek makes for an excellent component of a distance runners training programme.

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A 'mild' form of Fartlek can also be of benefit for the 'average runner'. Here I am thinking of the road runner who normally trains over a variety of distance, at a fairly constant pace, and who may have done no or little specific speed training.

The technique here is to introduce into your normal runs some short periods of slightly higher pace. Maintain these for a short period, say 200-400m (aim for a bend in the road, power pole or some other landmark up ahead). Then drop your pace back below your normal running pace, or slow to a jog, until you have fully recovered and your breathing has returned to normal. Then return to running at your normal pace, and put in another slightly fast interval later in the run. In this way you are putting a slight extra stress on your system which will, in time, lead to an improvement in your speed and in your anaerobic threshold.

You can use this approach to develop more self-awareness, by concentrating on what you are feeling while running at the different paces. How fast a pace can you attain before your regular, easy breathing begins to be laboured? After slowing down, how long before your breathing & other responses return to normal? What happens to your stride length as you increase speed?

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Give it a try next time you run, and if you enjoy it, then you have discovered the true meaning of Fartlek, without resorting to a dictionary..!

Ian Kemp, Cool Running Australia, 22.06.97


This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010


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