Fartlek workouts are one of the simplest aerobic workouts and can be used at the start of a block of training, with both young athletes and older athletes.
Fartlek is a Swedish term that means “speed-play.” You simply oscillate between two or more paces in your run. The simplest fartleks should be done in 5-minute blocks. So you can do 2 minutes “on” – a pace that is challenging, but one you could do for 15-20 minutes. Then do 3 minutes “steady” – a pace that is slower than the “on” pace, but faster than your easy run pace. That is a solid 5 minutes of running. Do 4 sets and you have 20 minutes of running; do 8 sets and you have 40 minutes of running. So you can complete a 10-minute warm-up and a 10-minute cool-down, then do 4-8 sets in the middle, giving you 40-60 minutes of running. Simple.
The common mistake with fartlek workouts is to go too fast during the on and too slow on the steady. So, run VERY easy during the first on segment, but keep the steady at an honest pace. Again, the on portions should be at a pace you can do for 15-20 minutes, so running just 2 minutes at this pace is not that challenging.
This workout is the antithesis of 10 x 400m with 60 seconds of walk/jog. In that workout you go super hard, then walk/jog; in this workout you run a challenging, but not hard pace during the on portion, then make the steady portion fast enough that the 5-minute block is challenging, but highly doable.
You can progress from 2 minutes on, 3 minutes steady, to 3 minutes on, 2 minutes steady, then on to a killer fartlek of 4 minutes on, 1 minute steady. These are assigned as 2/3, 3/2 and 4/1 on a training document. All three variations have you running 5-minutes per set, and you can do up to 10 or 12 sets (though just 6 sets will be challenging for a high school athlete coming off their first cross country season or an adult athlete just getting back into training).
Here’s the good news when it comes to your first couple of fartlek workouts. If you go too hard early on and end up running slower paces by the end of the workout, no worries – you’re learning how to run by feel. So bombing this workout the first time – and even the second time – you run it is fine, so long as you learn how to run by feel and make the last couple of sets your fastest. Eventually, you should get to the point where the difference between the on portions and the steady portions is 60 seconds or less. But again, run by feel and don’t look at paces when you’re doing this work, Looking at the splits when the workout is done is a good idea and will tell if you need to slow down the on portions and speed up the steady portions, which is what ninety percent of athletes need to do when they first perform this workout.
This is a simple workout, but as jazz pianist Thelonious Monk said, “Simple ain’t easy.” #simpleainteasy