Running faster with the Fartlek method
This Swedish training method works on speed and helps you improve your breathing capacity
Pune-based Rahul Sangoi has been running for a few years now. But towards the end of every run, he would still feel tired. “I knew my body was giving up. I could not maintain my pace and would end up slower than what I started at. But in the last few months, after using Fartlek, I have actually seen a difference,” he says.
Fartlek, a training method designed by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér in the 1930s, consists of an alternating interplay of fast and easy runs. Originally, Fartlek, meaning “speed play” in Swedish, was designed in such a way that a person could run fast till he got tired, then slow down for some time to catch his breath before returning to the faster pace. This was repeated for the workout, in largely unstructured fashion.
“Modern-day training, however, uses it in a more structured format,” says Bengaluru-based running coach Ashok Nath. You run fast for a few minutes, followed by a slow run, for a predetermined time, and continue with this pattern. “They can also set targets like, run fast to the next tree/pillar, followed by slow to the next tree/pillar, etc., for a specific duration,” says Nath.
Using the Fartlek method means you are not just letting your body get used to the aerobic and anaerobic types of metabolisms that your system is exposed to during marathons, but also working to lose weight. “There is enough evidence to show that walking (or running) at a uniform pace does little to make you shift all that fat that you’re trying to get rid of,” says Niraj L. Vora, joint replacement and trauma surgeon at the Sunridges Specialty Hospital in Mumbai.
In June, Sangoi ran a 10km race, bettering his time by approximately 4 minutes owing to Fartlek training. He also feels that he finishes stronger now, and is able to achieve a negative split (running faster towards the end of the race than at the beginning, like the best runners) for most of his runs.
Dipanjan Sengupta, a headhunter based in Gurugram, near Delhi, travels extensively. He finds that Fartlek training once a week works for him. “In the hot summers, your mind often tells you to stop because of humidity and salt loss, etc., even though your body is not as tired. Fartlek training helps to overcome this. It teaches you to go on—slow down but not stop—and recover during your run,” he says.
Rashmi Mohanty, a Gurugram-based finance professional, prefers Fartlek runs because they work for race days too. Mohanty’s training had shown her that while she could do long runs comfortably, Intervals (where you run a certain distance, for example 400m, at a faster pace and then rest, and then do another fast sprint) were a problem—she could not restart after taking a break. “However, Fartlek let me continue running, even if slow, and catch my breath.
“If you think about it, during a half or full marathon, you will never run your heart out for a few metres, then stop, and then start again. That will not be sustainable,” explains Mohanty. Fartlek, she says, lets her get used to variation in race pace, so that she can go faster for a few hundred metres, but doesn’t have to stop thereafter. “Essentially, it has trained me to take deeper breaths, and work on my oxygen-taking capacity.”
Fartlek can be used by anyone who is training, whether for a marathon or otherwise, for it helps boost fitness levels. For new runners, it’s a great way to learn different running paces and connect the paces to effort. The runner learns to understand how much effort is required for a particular kind of pace—fast or slow.
“For new runners, I like to prescribe Fartlek runs where they run slightly faster than their normal pace till their breathing gets fast, then slow down to a jog or even walk till the breath recovers, then repeat. The workout is usually something like 30 seconds ‘on’ or faster with 60 seconds ‘off’ or slower to regain the breath,” explains exercise physiologist and USA track and field (USATF) certified coach Greg McMillan, whose online coaching on Mcmillanrunning.com is popular with runners around the world.
For advanced runners, he suggests extending the “on” segments, even varying them in length, and adjusting the “off” segments as well as speed. “For example, the workout could be 10 repeats of 1 minute on and 1 minute off or could be a ladder of 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, back to 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute—all with a 2-minute recovery jog in between,” says McMillan.
As with every running training schedule, the trick to avoid injuries is to warm up properly. Delhi-based running coach Ravinder Singh suggests doing Fartlek runs only on softer ground, or tracks. “While the final race in most cases would be on the hard tar surface of Indian roads, try to do any fast-run practice on a softer surface. This puts less pressure on your knees and ankles and, therefore, you are less prone to injury,” explains Singh.
It goes without saying that trying to do too much, too soon, can lead to injuries. But if you can follow a schedule in a disciplined manner, then Fartlek can make the runner more injury-resistant. “Of course, any time a runner begins to run faster, he/she must be careful. But with a little common sense, Fartlek running can provide a huge boost to fitness and add lots of fun to the workout schedule,” says McMillan.
Fartlek, however, is not an alternative to Interval running. For example, Sengupta uses Fartlek once a week, and a week later, on the same day, tries Interval Training. It is especially suitable for weekday runs, since it takes less time. Mohanty suggests trying Fartlek out for at least four-five weeks to begin seeing a difference in performance.
The health risks are minimal, for there is no hard and fast rule about intensity levels or the frequency of change in intensity during any one session. Dr Vora adds, “As the person gets trained further, they are able to get the most out of this technique. Of course, overreaching your ability can result in cramping, muscular pulls/injuries, and in extreme situations, falls, with their resultant consequences.”
The risks, however, can be controlled by warming up properly and not going too fast, too soon. Get it right and you will gain both stamina and speed—and have a better shot at improving your timing in the next race.
Step by step
While any runner can use this methodology, it’s better to work towards a basic level of fitness first to avoid injuries, says running coach Ashok Nath.
Initially, then, stress on “basic conditioning” (yoga, body-weight training, Pilates, etc), where the focus is on strength-flexibility-stability (SFS) development, with easy jogging to help build an aerobic base. Do this for three days, along with easy jogs on three other days. Rest on one day.
Then, add some gym work with weights to the SFS workouts, jog for two days and use the third day for a speed workout.
Warm up 20 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of Fartlek (three sets of 5 minutes each where you alternate running faster/slower for 30 seconds, with a 1-minute recovery walk while sipping on water, before getting into the next set. Cool down for 5 minutes.
A few weeks down the line, increase the fast/slow duration to 60 seconds. Eventually, Fartlek can be done in two stages—15 minutes, as described above, followed by a 5-minute recovery break, and then another 15 minutes