Fartlek training has played an integral role in the training of many of the world's best middle and long distance runners for generations. From the 800 meters to the marathon, men and women from around the world employ the simple concept of shifting gears to improve speed, power and endurance. If implemented properly, fartlek training can become a powerful weapon in your running arsenal.
Where Did Fartlek Workouts Originate?
Historically, most credit Gosta Holmer, the late great Swedish coach, with being the first man to utilize fartlek training with his athletes. Holmer, himself a Swedish Olympic decathlete (1912), turned his attention to reviving the country's national cross country program after his own athletic career had ended. Fartlek is derived from the Swedish word meaning "speed play," and Holmer's original intention was to teach athletes to throw injections of speed, which varied in duration and intensity, into otherwise controlled aerobic efforts. The results for the Swedes were overtly positive. While the global distance running scene was dominated at the time by the Finns, Sweden began to create cracks in this dominance; Holmer was credited with his introduction of fartlek training.
Structured Fartleks vs. "True" Fartleks
Holmer's sessions were, unlike most structured fartlek sessions of today, very much unstructured. Holmer would simply yell, "begin" and, "end" randomly as his athletes ran through the Swedish countryside. Some pick-ups would be a mere 15 to 30 seconds in length and others would last for 3 to 5 minutes. Rather than the watch, Holmer said he was fond of using landmarks such as trees, sign posts or homes as places to begin the surges. Rather than prescribed times, he would simply offer a number of pick-ups for the session and leave length as well as duration up to the athlete.
Structured fartleks based on set times for the surge or pick-up as well as for the recovery are more common among runners today. At ZAP Fitness, we use both the natural unstructured sessions as well as the structured. Early in the aerobic building process of base-phase training (generally three or four months or more removed from target races), we will commonly implement unstructured "as-you-feel" sessions where we dictate a total amount of pick-up time, and allow the athletes to determine the length and intensity of the fartlek engagements as well as the recovery time.