Fartlek – Swedish for “asswhuppin”

Hey, what’s so funny about the word “fartlek”? You kids just quit laughing. I said quit it!! Stop laughing right now or I’ll turn this car right around then you’ll all be sorry!!!

Seriously (quit snickering, you in the back, or else), fartlek training is Swedish for “speed play” (“fart” = speed; “lek” = play, which makes one wonder… do Swedish cops give tickets for farting?). It was originally developed by and for runners, as a looser alternative to their highly structured timed interval training. I use it here more broadly to refer to any combination of high and low intensity work. I also use “interval training” as a synonym for fartlek, although the two are not precisely the same. But I fartlek in the general direction of anyone who complains about my inaccurate terminology, ha ha.

go fast. go slow. repeat until ripped.

The concept of interval training is relatively simple: Alternate brief periods of very high intensity work with recovery periods of lower intensity work. When I say high intensity, I mean something that is the equivalent of sprinting. Hauling ass. Running like a psycho with an axe is chasing you. Low intensity is equivalent to walking or slow jogging.

It doesn’t have to be running. It could be any activity that lets you alternate rapid, high-intensity, maximal “cardio”-type work with lower-intensity recovery periods: cycling, swimming, rowing, high-rep sets of ballistic weighted exercises such as kettlebell swings, etc.

why fartlek?

A few reasons come to mind.

First, interval training is extremely effective for fat loss and general conditioning tool. Interval training has been shown to be the most effective fat burning form of cardio. The exact mechanism of how this works is still unclear, but it is thought that interval training creates a significant oxygen debt, which signals to the body to preferentially burn fat after the workout. It also appears to create a hormonal environment that is favourable to mobilizing fat while preserving muscle tissue. Tremblay’s original 1994 study on interval training (Tremblay et al; Metabolism 43: 814-818 (1994)), found that small amounts of interval training were greatly superior in terms of fat loss to much longer periods of low-intensity cardio — up to nine times more effective at reducing subcutaneous body fat.

Since then, intervals have proven to be a fantastic tool for getting lean in a relatively short period of training time. You don’t need to spend hours on a boring-ass machine to see your abs. All you need is the willingness to endure a little bit (okay, a lot) of discomfort for a few minutes.

Intervals will also increase your work capacity and conditioning. If you’re training for a physical test, or even an endurance event, including some interval training will enable you to handle a heavy workload and high levels of intensity. This carries over into other areas of performance. If, for example, you need to run a few kilometres for a fitness test, and you can already manage 15 total minutes of sprints or longer, even tougher durations like fast-paced 200-400 metres, you’ll run those easy kilometres like you were still lying in bed. Your lovely brow won’t display a single bead of feminine dew.

The best reason to do fartlek is that it is fun! If you’re sick of bland monotony on the stairmaster, or endless boring rounds of the local track, then this is for you! Fartlek is both a great mental and physical challenge. Since it is very adaptable, you can make it as gentle or as arduous as you like, though I warn you: even at the “crybaby” level of difficulty, this is still a tough workout. But, if you’ve learned anything at all from reading this site, it’s that tough is good! Tough gets results!!

how to fartlek

Originally, as I said, fartlek was developed for runners. However, the principle of fartlek can be applied to a variety of chosen activities. Basically, alternate brief periods of very high intensity with periods of very low intensity. The high intensity should be a maximal or near-maximal effort, like sprinting or cycling as fast as possible up a hill. The low intensity should be quite moderate, such as walking. As long as you stick to the general principle of alternating high-low, you can fartlek any way you like.

One form of intervals that I am quite fond of is stair runs. I have a long staircase near my house, and I just run up and down it, so that high intensity (up) is alternated with lower intensity (down). Simple, but a very effective use of 15 minutes. If you live in an apartment building and don’t feel like going to the gym one day, just take on the stairs in your building.

So, how to develop your own fartlek program? The basis of fartlek, remember, is to alternate periods of high intensity work with periods of low intensity work. These periods can be of set duration, or you can just do them randomly. They can be as short as 10-20 seconds or as long as 5 minutes. To add intensity, you can increase speed or difficulty of the exercise. For example, you could run up and walk down a hill. You can alternate sprinting on a track, street, or field with slow jogging or walking. Or, you can simply adjust the difficulty level on your cardio machine. As you get better at it, figure out ways to add more resistance. Try a weighted knapsack as you run up hills, for example.

Here are some ideas for basic fartlek programs, and please adapt them to your needs as you see fit. I’ve tried to arrange them loosely by ability levels, but when I indicate “beginner” I mean someone who is new to interval training but has a good base of cardio fitness. This is considered cardio, so do it either after weights or on the days you don’t do weights. Even if you can only manage a few minutes per session, you will see benefits from this kind of training. In fact, beginners should start by doing only 5 minutes at a time for their first few sessions. Aim to work up to around 15 minutes per session. Before each session, warm up with some light cardio for at least 5 minutes, and maybe even do some gentle active stretching.

sprint – walk

You can’t get any more basic than this fartlek series which simply involves a combination of running/jogging and walking. I like to do these in “sets” of 10, where I run 50 metres, walk back, run 50 metres, walk back, etc. Each run-walk sequence is one rep. After 5 “reps”, I take a longer rest where I might walk slowly or even just stand around keeping the joints moving a little. Then I’ll do another “set” of 5.

Beginner: sprint or fast jog for 50 metres
Intermediate: sprint for 50 to 100 metres
Experienced: hey, I don’t need to tell you what to do by this point, do I? You’re a machine!

warmup 5 minutes brisk walk on level ground, light active stretching if desired
intervals sprint or fast jog, 10-30 seconds (the higher your intensity, the shorter you should make your time)
walk, 30 seconds (you can sprint 50 metres or so, then walk back to your starting point)
repeat sequence for desired length of time
cooldown 5 minutes moderate walk on level ground, more substantial stretching if desired

hill or stair run

More of a challenge than running on flat ground, all you need for this is a friendly local hill; begin on a gentle hill and work up to steeper stuff in subsequent workouts. If you prefer, substitute a long set of stairs instead.

Beginner: walk briskly up hill
Intermediate: run up hill or stairs
Experienced: run up hill wearing a weighted pack, or increase the number of flights of stairs

warmup 5-10 minutes moderate to brisk walk on level ground, light stretching
hill/stair run up hill/stairs and walk down hill/stairs, 5-15 minutes
cooldown 5 minutes moderate walk on level ground, more substantial stretching

combo workouts

With a combo workout you are truly only limited by your imagination; these are only a few ideas; pick any high-intensity interval in column A and pair it with any low-intensity interval in column B; or do all of them, as long as you alternate high intensity with low intensity. Don’t forget to warm up and cool down.

column A

column B

  • sprint or fast jog, 30 seconds
  • vertical jump from crouch position, 15-20 times
  • jumping rope, 60 seconds (to increase intensity, hop on one foot at a time, bringing knees up, as if you are jogging in place)
  • run, jog, walk up hill
  • object carry: grab a heavy, bulky object, such as a sandbag or weighted duffel bag, in a bear hug and walk as fast as possible around with it for 30-60 seconds
  • take your heavy object for a walk up a couple of flights of stairs
  • good ol’ fashioned jumping jacks, 10-20
  • hitting a heavy bag rapidly, with combination punches if possible
  • burpees: squat down, place hands on floor, kick legs back so that you are in the top of a pushup position, do a pushup, kick legs forward again, and jump up as high as you can (that’s one rep), 10-15 reps
  • walk or slow jog, 30-60 seconds
  • walk or slow jog down stairs or down hill
  • jumping rope, half-time, 30-60 seconds
If’n you come up with any more bright ideas, or you want to share your own fartlek program with me, drop me a line.