Fartlek: Improving outdoor training sessions

Fartlek, a unique form of interval training, unfolds amidst the beauty of nature. Deriving its name from the Swedish term for “speed play,” this method is ideal for those who shy away from the monotonous loops of an athletics track. This article delves into the origins of fartlek and offers guidance for improving outdoor training sessions.

Fartlek: A Swedish training innovation

Originating in the 1930s, Swedish coach Gösta Holmér crafted Fartlek as a dynamic training method emphasizing pace variability. The term combines “fart,” meaning speed, with “lek,” meaning play in Swedish, encapsulating the essence of this approach: speed play. Fartlek training harnesses the natural landscape, encouraging athletes to adapt to varying terrains while aiming for a consistent effort level throughout the session. Uphill stretches demand an increase in stride frequency, while downhills offer a chance to recuperate. The core of Fartlek is the joy and variety it brings to physical training.

The environment becomes a playground that fosters physical conditioning. Snow-laden paths enhance muscle strength, while fallen trees and rocks present natural hurdles. High branches serve as makeshift bars for pull-ups. The training culminates with about ten short sprints of fifty meters each, interspersed with recovery jogs, preferably across soft, mossy ground. This method prioritizes enjoyment and the physical sensations of outdoor exercise, making each session a playful interaction with nature.

Free Fartlek: the essence of playful running

Free Fartlek represents the most uninhibited and joyous form of running imaginable. It encourages you to accelerate whenever you feel inspired, whether that be sprinting to the next streetlamp, racing towards a distant tree, or pushing yourself up a hill. The environment and your own instincts dictate the pace, allowing accelerations and sprints to naturally arise from the contours of the landscape. In this mode of training, you should leave behind the constraints of watches and timers, focusing solely on your body’s sensations and the freedom of movement.

This approach harks back to the fundamental essence of running and play, reminiscent of the unstructured and spontaneous nature of children’s play. Over time, coaches have structured fartlek training to maximize its physiological benefits, incorporating specific phases of acceleration and recovery. This led to the development of the codified fartlek, a more structured variant that maintains the spirit of free running while enhancing its effectiveness for athletic development.

The codified Fartlek session

The structured, or codified, Fartlek represents a more organized approach to interval training, with the session’s specifics—such as the number of repetitions, their duration, and the pace—pre-determined based on individual goals and the current phase of training. This method adapts Fartlek training to target specific performance metrics, such as VO2 max pace (MAS), 5K pace, 10K pace, or the anaerobic threshold pace.

For example, a session designed to enhance high-intensity endurance might include repetitions of 30 seconds of fast running alternated with 30 seconds of recovery, effectively constituting a high-intensity, short-duration Fartlek session. For those preparing for a 10-kilometer race, a structured session could consist of eight 3-minute intervals at a pace specific to that distance. Alternatively, for endurance training near the anaerobic threshold, longer intervals—such as 7 or 8 minutes—may be employed.

You can also introduce variation within these sessions, either by maintaining a consistent interval pattern throughout (e.g., 8x3min) or by incorporating a pyramid structure (e.g., 3’-4’-5’-4’-3’) or a decremental pattern (e.g., 6’-5’-4’-3’-2’-1’). In pyramid sessions, you typically execute the descending phases at a faster pace than the ascending phases, with the total effort time potentially reaching up to 30 minutes.

When engaging in a codified Fartlek session outdoors, it is advantageous to focus on heart rate rather than speed. The variability of terrain can affect speed, making heart rate a more reliable indicator of effort and ensuring the session remains effective regardless of external conditions.

Training on hilly or uphill terrain

For athletes looking to enhance their strength, particularly in cross-country or trail running, hill workouts are invaluable. These sessions can be structured as a series of repetitions either on a varied hilly course or on a single hill selected beforehand. To optimize recovery between efforts, you can either jog back to the starting point or take a more gentle descent, if you prefer a quicker recovery period.

It’s crucial to start each session with an adequate warm-up to prepare your body for the intensity of hill training. Similarly, winding down with a cool-down jog of 5 to 10 minutes post-session aids in recovery and helps prevent injury.

The RunMotion Coach app provides Fartlek sessions adapted to your practice, ideal for progressing and achieving your goals. These training sessions are designed to complement MAS and fundamental endurance sessions, offering a well-rounded approach to your training plan! 

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Mailis Durif-VarambonMailis grew up in the mountains, where she went hiking and biking every weekend. She loves outdoor activities where she can relax at the end of the day. At RunMotion Coach, she is responsible for community management.