What is Fartlek Training?

“… this relatively unscientific blending of interval and continuous training introduced to the United States in the early 1940s had particular application to exercise outdoors over natural terrain. The system used alternate running at fast and slow speeds over both level and hilly landscape.” (Katch, McArdle & Katch, 2011, p.436).

Katch, McArdle and Katch (2011, p.436) inform us that “Fartlek training, developed in 1937 by Gösta Holmér (1891–1983), means ‘speed play.’” Fartlek training is also known as alternative pace training, the Swedish natural method or just the Swedish method. Holmér, a Swedish coach and runner, based this new training method after the Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi.

Unlike traditional interval training that involves specific timed or measured segments, fartlek training sessions are less structured and do not require systematic manipulation of work-rest intervals. For example, varying the pace throughout the run by alternating between fast runs and slow jogs. In a manner similar to the rate of perceived exertion (or RPE), when conducting a fartlek session the runner determines their pace based on ‘how it feels’ at the time (Katch, McArdle & Katch, 2011), meaning the runner can experiment with their pace and endurance and is therefore a useful method for beginners. It provides an ideal means of general conditioning and off-season training, but it obviously lacks the systematic quantified approached of interval and continuous training.

However, when applied properly, the fartlek method “will overload one or all of the energy systems.” (Katch, McArdle & Katch, 2011, p.436). Porcari, Bryant & Comana (2015, p.391) state:

“This training format provides a sequence of different intensities that stress both the aerobic and anaerobic systems, something rarely achieved with exclusive steady-state training (aerobic), and different from traditional interval training (anaerobic with specific work-to-rest ratios). Consequently, this training format can be adapted to meet the needs of intermittent-sport athletes by essentially mimicking the changes of pace that occur during these events (e.g., rugby, soccer, football, hockey, and lacrosse).”

Fartlek can be conducted virtually anywhere but is great on a soft surface, ideally the pinewood needle surface of a forest path and on undulating ground so that there is plenty of uphill and downhill running. It can then be a combination of great quantities of easy running, interspersed with sprints and periods of resistance running up hills. The sprints and uphill work will force the body into periods of anaerobic work, resulting in oxygen debt. This debt must be repaid during the lower intensity parts of the run. Consequently, this method educates the body to improve its oxygen uptake and speed of recovery.

Variables in fartlek include (Thompson, 2010):

  • Distance: originally 12 km, with up to 5,000 metres at faster than race pace.
  • Speed (or pace or intensity): varying from gentle jog to faster than race pace.
  • Terrain: flat, soft, undulating and hilly.
  • Frequency: three to five times per week.

During the 1950s, Percy Cerutty, an Australian coach, adopted the fartlek method. “He combined beach running in heavy sand, sand dune training on dunes over 25 metres high with speed play over the undulating trails of the cliff tops, as well as on the flat beach and dirt roads.” (Thompson, 2010).

In summary, the fartlek method of training combines aspects of continuous and interval training and stresses both the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways.

References

Katch, V.L., McArdle, W.D. & Katch, F.I. (2011) Essentials of Exercise Physiology. 4th Ed. Batlimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

Porcari, J.P., Bryant, C.X. & Comana, F. (2015) Exercise Physiology. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company.

Thompson, P.J.L. (2010) Home Page. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.newintervaltraining.com/index.php. [Accessed: 06 July, 2017].

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