What is a fartlek training ?

Fartlek, developed by a Swedish coach Gösta Holmér in 1937 7) and the word Fartlek comes from the Swedish for ‘Speed Play’ and combines continuous and interval training 8). This relatively unscientific blending of interval and continuous training has particular application to exercise outdoors over natural terrain. The system uses alternate at fast and slow speeds over level and hilly terrain 9), 10), 11). Fartlek is similar but unlike interval training. Interval training is more disciplined and precise in it’s training goal. Fartlek is not as demanding and can be incorporated to suit your needs. The intensity, duration and terrain is determined by “how the athlete or runner feels” at the time, similar to gauging exercise intensity based on your perceived level of exertion. Fartlek can be used on all terrains, even on a track surface. Fartlek allows athletes to run at varying intensity levels over distances of their choice. This type of training stresses both the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. It also adds freedom and variety to workouts. However, there is insufficient evidence that Fartlek workout to improving the aerobic capacity and physiologic variables 12). Fartlek workout is however an excellent supplement to the more traditional prescriptive methods 13).

All athletes venturing into high mountains and high altitude related activities will benefit from improved fitness. It is impossible to predict how severely altitude will affect an individual since the responses vary among individuals at all levels of conditioning. A solid foundation of fitness will certainly improve an individual’s chances for success and safety and minimize the negative effects of altitude should they arise. And the purpose for doing a Fartlek training is too improve your sport performance at high altitude 14).

Aerobic conditioning is of paramount importance since most individuals will be traveling from areas that are considered at sea level and adventuring into higher elevations with little or no time to acclimatize. These individuals will be faced with acute adaptations in a dynamic environment while working hard, sometimes up to eight hours or more per day. The goal of an aerobic endurance exercise prescription should include both maximizing the ability to succeed while minimizing the effects of oxidative stress. Aerobic endurance training increases VO2max which raises the anaerobic threshold and allows for higher levels of sustained activity and faster recovery. Other adaptations and their applications to physical activity at high altitude are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. The effect of Altitude on Aerobic Training

effect of altitude on aerobic training
[Source 15)]

Oxidative stress is a term referring to the production of free radicals which are molecular fragments that contain unpaired electrons in their outer orbits 16), 17). High intensity exercise at sea level as well as living and exercising at high altitude has been shown to increase oxidative stress. Oxidative stress may damage cellular membranes, increase cellular swelling, cause damage to the cell DNA, and induce muscle protein changes resulting in fatigue 18), 19). Individuals also may experience increased symptoms associated with delayed onset muscle soreness, prolonged recovery time and an increased rate of injury. The risk of accident and/or injury increases as physical and cognitive function decrease placing the individual at great risk in high altitude environments 20).

The potential for the development of oxidative stress increases as a product of increased workload and increased progression in elevation 21). Physical exertion at high altitude increases heart rate, ventilation rate and cardiac output, and causes a shift in the oxygen disassociation curve. These are the body’s compensatory mechanisms driven by the reduction of the partial pressure of oxygen at the alveolar level of the lungs and a subsequent reduction of the partial pressure of oxygen in arterial blood. Tissue hypoxia and concomitant oxidative stress may still rapidly develop in spite of these compensatory mechanisms 22).

As physical activity continues, the body will rely more upon anaerobic energy sources. Lactate and hydrogen ions will accumulate within the cells increasing the leakage of calcium and the acidity within the working muscles causing muscle cramping and eventually hampering physical performance. Resting at altitude will permit reoxygenation, but is limited by the reduced diffusion of oxygen across the alveolar membrane and the cycle will repeat itself once physical activity is resumed. This pattern of low oxygen levels and reoxygenation is common to high altitude mountainous styled activities and is known to give rise to a cascade of free radical production 23). Altitude induced free radical damage may have both long and short term consequences that can persist even after a return to sea level.

The exercise prescription for aerobic endurance training should adhere to the accepted program design variables of mode, frequency, intensity, duration and progression with an eye on maximizing lactate steady state 24), 25).

Lactate steady state is defined as the exercise intensity at which maximal lactate production is equal to maximal lactate clearance and is considered by some to be a better indicator of aerobic endurance performance than maximal VO2 values 26). This would certainly apply to the training for alpine activities at altitude and high altitude.

The alternation of running at fast and slow speeds over both level and hilly terrains may develop all of the energy systems associated with alpine styled activities. However. this method of training lacks the systematic and measurable approach of traditional exercise prescriptions and is in no way touted as a superior method of training for high altitude mountainous styled activities. Fartlek workout is however an excellent supplement to the more traditional prescriptive methods 27).

A systematic aerobic exercise prescription should incorporate aerobic activities at a target heart rate of 75% to 90% of maximal heart rate in order to achieve maximal lactate steady state 28). It is suggested a periodized approach over the course of sixteen weeks incorporating as much running or hiking over natural terrain as possible for an hour or more per session. Understanding that the duration of training is offset by the intensity of training, a periodized approach would accommodate the systematic manipulation of these two training variables allowing for improvement and minimizing at the same time the risks for injury and overtraining 29), 30).

Initial frequencies may begin as low as three days a week and progress up to five days a week which makes sense since alpine styled activities may challenge the individual to remain active for as many as five or more successive days 31).

The original Fartlek sessions

This is the first session that was designed by Gösta Holmér for a cross country (multi-terrain) runner 32). This is also an example of what a fartlek session might look like, but fartlek sessions should be designed for an athlete’s own event or sport, as well as catering to their individual needs. Sessions should be at an intensity that causes the athlete to work at 60% to 80% of his or her maximum heart rate. This should mean that the body will not experience too much discomfort while exercising. An athlete should also include a good warm up at the beginning of the session, and a cool down at the end of the session, to improve performance, minimize post-workout muscle soreness, to decrease the chances of injury and for other reasons.

  • Warm up: easy running for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Steady, hard speed for 1.5–2.5 kilometres (0.9–1.6 mi); like a long repetition.
  • Recovery: rapid walking for about 5 minutes.
  • Start of speed work: easy running interspersed with sprints of about 50–60 metres (160–200 ft), repeated until a little tired.
  • Easy running with three or four “quick steps” now and then (simulating suddenly speeding up to avoid being overtaken by another runner).
  • Full speed uphill for 175–200 metres (570–660 ft).
  • Fast pace for 1 minute.
  • The whole routine is then repeated until the total time prescribed on the training schedule has elapsed.

Fartlek Workout for Runners

A fartlek workout prepares a runner to handle the uneven paces of a race. In a race, a runner usually runs fast, then slower, then fast again. This variation in pace is due to the race course’s terrain and surges used by competitors. The best runners are the ones who can physically and mentally respond to variations of pace. Here are some pointers about how to use a fartlek workout to prepare you for great racing.

  • A Fartlek workouts involves sprinting and jogging off and on during a run. For example, a normal fartlek workout be a 40-60 minute training run. However, instead of keeping the same pace through the whole workout you sprint, then jog, then sprint again whenever you feel like it. You can customize fartleks to how you feel. If you feel sluggish, limit the number of sprints you do, and take more time to recover. If you feel great, run the sprints hard, and sprint again maybe when you don’t feel totally recovered.

One good way to run this workout is to pick out objects ahead of you, like a telephone pole and sprint from that pole to the next and then jog. One reason that fartleks are so popular is that it is so flexible.

Before starting a fartlek, make sure that you warm up at least 10-15 minutes to ensure that your muscles are loose enough to handle the accelerations. Also, cool down 10-15 minutes after the workout. The fartlek can be a difficult workout, and if you don’t warm up and cool down, you could have some very sore muscles the next day. Starting to run fartleks can be tough on your body if it isn’t ready for the faster pace, and can lead to injuries such as achilles tendonitis, IT-Band soreness, and runner’s knee To help cut down on the risk of injuries, make sure that you are running in good running shoes and don’t have any signs of over-training. After the fartlek workout, it is also very important to refuel your body by drinking water and eating protein-rich foods to get the most benefit from fartleks and help your muscle recovery.

Structured Fartlek

Although the fartlek’s popularity is partly due to its flexibility, many runners like to make the workout more structured and give it more of a track interval feel. For example, a structured fartlek might be: 10-15 minute warm up, 2 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 3 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 4 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 4 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 3 minutes hard, 2:30 easy, 2 minutes hard, 10-15 minutes cool down. This workout is stated easier by calling it a: 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, with 2:30 rest. A structured fartlek is great because, since it is run on trails or roads, it gives you the benefits of a track workout while also providing you the chance to run hills.


Watson Fartlek 33)

Beneficial training for 10k, 5k, 3k and cross country.

  • 10 minutes warm up jog.
  • Stride hard for 4 minutes with 1 minute jog recovery – repeat x 8
  • 10 minute warm down jog

Saltin Fartlek 34)

Considered good training for 1500m, 5k and 3k runners.

  • 10 minutes warm up jog.
  • Stride hard for 3 minutes with 1 minute jog run recovery. Repeat x 6
  • 10 minute warm down jog

Astrand Fartlek 35)

Considered to be beneficial towards 800m training.

  • 10 minutes warm up jog.
  • Max effort for 75 seconds, 150 secs jog run, max effort for 60 seconds, 120 seconds jog run. Repeat x 3
  • 10 minute warm down jog

Gerschler Fartlek 36)

This is good training for further developing fitness rapidly when combined with steady running.

  • 10 minutes warm up jog.
  • Stride hard for 30 seconds, jog 90 seconds. repeat with 15 second decreases in recovery jog e.g. 30-90, 30-75, 30-60, 30-45, 30-30, 30-15 and 30-15-30. Repeat x 3
  • 10 minute warm down jog

Hill Fartlek 37)

  • 10 minutes warm up jog.
  • Select a 2 mile hilly course. Run hard up all hills twice before moving to the next hill, jog run between hills. Repeat x 3
  • 10 minute warm down jog

Do not select hills which are too long in duration or too steep

Whistle Fartlek 38)

With the use of a whistle the coach controls the session. Best applied over a 1200m circumference grass area.

  • 10 minutes warm up jog.
  • When the whistle is blown the athletes run hard until the whistle is blown again. Pyramid session of 4 min, 3 min, 2 min, 1 min, 2 min, 3 min, 4 min with a 60 second jog run recovery between each run.
  • 10 minute warm down jog


Fartlek sessions are best applied to an athlete who has a base of fitness and is not aimed at those developing their initial fitness. Also worthy of mention is that the very nature of fartlek is to provide an environment that breaks from the monotony of interval training on a track. Whereas, the session is meant to achieve a purpose, the secret is to avoid the mental tension that is often associated with track intervals.

References   [ + ]

Health Jade