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Fartlek Workouts: Running Exercises to Keep You Injury-free

Updated 
August 31, 2020
Written by 
May

Minimize your risk of injury by playing with your speed

man wearing white shirt on a running stance

Athletes of all sports have one dream in common: to enjoy a long, injury-free career. We’ve never heard of a triathlete who sprints to have a running injury or a basketball player who shows up on the court so he could damage his hamstring. Being free from any form of injury is a long shot, and honestly, you will need two major things to make it happen: a little bit of luck and a great amount of discipline.

You know the drill: choose the right sports gear, practice consistently, take time to rest, etc. And for athletes like marathoners and triathletes whose training involves a lot of speedwork, there is a kind of running exercise that can help minimize your risk of injury.

Its name: fartlek workouts.

Fartlek is a Swedish word that means “speed play.” It is a form of speed or interval training that aims to improve your endurance and speed without catching a running injury. Unlike most endurance runs that are done at a single pace within a long period, Fartlek lets you run continuously at different speeds. Changing the pace strengthens your muscles, and Fartlek’s high-intensity pushes both your body and willpower. It has been a staple workout for several marathon and Olympic athletes since it was established by Gustaf Holmer in 1930.

Since fartlek training can be done in various combinations, it boosts the motivation of athletes and makes every session more physically, emotionally, and mentally gratifying.

More Than Just Another Run

man running on the street

Fartlek workouts provide an efficient and effective form of speed and endurance conditioning to athletes of different sports. But more than that, fitness experts commend fartlek for one of its significant rewards: injury prevention.

According to The American Council on Exercise, interval training such as fartleks can be instrumental in avoiding injuries that are often caused by repeated, aerobic exercise. Fartlek allows your body to adapt gradually to faster running and progress from there. It lets you enjoy the rewards of anaerobic activities without straining your muscles.

Laura Norris, a Run-Fit and Road Runners Club of America certified running coach, also noted that shifting quickly from an easy pace to hard track workouts could increase the risk of injury for runners. You can avoid this practice by integrating fartlek exercises into your training program.

Just a pro tip: If you are new to fartlek workouts, start slowly. Make sure that your high-intensity intervals are short and infrequent until your body has adjusted to fartlek training.

Aside from that, fartlek also brings beneficial effects to your overall physical and mental wellness.

Let us count the ways:

  • It sharpens your mind over matter mentality. Fartlek exercises do not only have beneficial effects on your physical condition, but they also train your willpower. Generally, the more you incorporate speed variation into your training sessions, the more your mind resists to give up. A never-say-die mindset is what sets champions apart from other athletes. #neversaydie
  • It is ideal to get into the racing mindset. Fartlek lets you gauge how much you can push your body over shorter segments while reserving enough mental and physical energy so you can complete a race.
  • Burn, calories, burn. Changing the intensity of your workout burns more calories than keeping a steady pace. This makes your workout sessions more efficient because you get to burn more calories without spending more time exercising.
  • It is highly adaptable to common sports. Sports such as soccer, tennis, and soccer demand shifting intensity and effort throughout the game. The effort you spend on running during a fast break is different from the effort you exert while standing at the free-throw line. You can structure your fartlek workouts to mimic the alternating intensities demanded by your sport, so your body won’t get worn out easily during the actual game.
  • Your run, your way. Enjoy fartlek sessions the way you want to. You can play around with it as it is not limited by a set structure. The variety it offers is an effective way to fight your loss of interest. What’s more, you can choose to complete a Fartlek session on your own, with a running buddy, or even with a group. Is there anything more fun than that?

Variation Overload

Health technology expert Michael Rucker, Ph.D., MBA, describes fartlek as “running varying distances at varying speeds at varying intensity.” Basically, it’s all about variation. You can choose to do it however you want (hence, the term speed play). The combinations between time, distance, and pace are limitless!

Here are some types of fartlek exercises that you can include in your next workout:

Unstructured Fartlek.

Fartlek’s unstructured nature sets it apart from other workouts, and it's probably one of the main reasons why many athletes, especially runners, are drawn to it. It’s more about listening to your body and engaging with your surroundings. You can do this within your neighborhood or at a nearby park.

man running on a park wearing white rubber shoes

Here’s an example of how you do it:

  1. Choose a landmark along your favorite running route. It could be a lamppost, a tree, or a parked car that has been there for as long as you can remember.
  2. Do a 10 to 15-minute warm-up. It could be stretching, light running, or whatever. Your call.
  3. Once your muscles become loose, increase your speed to a comfortably hard pace (about 75% of your maximum heart rate). Take note that you should be breathing hard enough that it’s difficult to have a conversation, but not so much that you’re already gasping for air. Running towards your landmark should take between 10-90 seconds at this pace.
  4. Upon reaching your landmark, decrease your speed until you’re breathing normally again.
  5. Build up your speed at a steady running pace.
  6. Repeat until you’re able to run at a comfortably hard pace between four to six times.
  7. Do a cooldown run for 10 to 15 minutes.

Some runners prefer the “music version” of unstructured Fartlek workouts. They use music as a template by changing their speed based on the part of a song. For example, they speed up during the chorus and just run on a slow, steady pace during the rest of the song. In some areas where it’s possible, others use city blocks and street crossings as landmarks to increase and decrease their pace. The options are endless. Fartlek is fun and versatile like that!

Structured Fartlek.

For people who work better with structure, we have good news for you: Fartleks can also easily work in a timed environment. In most structured fartlek, repetition is based on time, rather than distance. You can alternate jogging and sprint in escalating intervals then descend at similar intervals.

Here’s a sample of structured fartlek:

  1. Do a 10 to 15-minute warm-up at an easy pace.
  2. Run for 1 minute at a fast pace.
  3. Run for 2 minutes at an easy pace.
  4. Rest for 1 minute.
  5. Repeat for three to four sets.
  6. Cooldown by jogging for 10 to minutes.

Pyramid fartleks are the usual types of structured fartleks. Most of the time, a pyramid fartlek follows a 1-2-3-2-1 format which goes this way:

  1. Warm-up.
  2. Run hard or sprint for 1 minute.
  3. Jog or run easy for 2 minutes.
  4. Run hard again for 3 minutes.
  5. Run easy for 2 minutes.
  6. Run hard for 1 minute.
  7. Do a 10- to 15-minute cooldown run at a steady pace.

If you’re after a more intense and advanced workout, you can follow the 2-3-4-4-3-2 structure.

  1. Warm-up.
  2. Run hard for 2 minutes.
  3. Jog for 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
  4. Run hard for 3 minutes.
  5. Jog for 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
  6. Run hard for 4 minutes.
  7. Run hard 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
  8. Run hard for 4 minutes.
  9. Run easy for 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
  10. Run hard for 3 minutes.
  11. Jog for 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
  12. Run hard for 2 minutes.
  13. Do a 10- to 15-minute cooldown run at a steady pace.

Inclined Fartleks.

This works for those who live in a hilly area. Running on the hills is an effective way to improve your leg strength, endurance, and speed. It’s also good for your heart. Climb up to the hill by running at your fastest pace. It enhances your aerobic capacity and toughens your leg muscles. Once you have already reached the summit, run downhill at a slow, relaxed pace. Doing so will aid in your recovery. You can choose to do hill repeats throughout your workout or move on to another variation.

man running on a hill

Indoor Fartleks.

Originally, indoor fartleks were established to address seasonal challenges and inconsistent weather patterns, but it has become increasingly popular during the lockdown. Modern treadmills can be programmed to match your fartlek workouts. All you have to do is show up—and not pass out.

woman wearing sports bra running on a treadmill

Since fartlek takes on a free form, you may run on the treadmill while watching TV and rely on the shows for variations. For example, you can run during TV shows and sprint during commercial gaps. You can also apply the music version indoors if you want some beat. Let your mood decide.

For a more structured indoor fartlek, you can also follow this hill-based fartlek workout popularized by Mike Simon, a National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified coach and personal trainer.

  1. Do a 5-minute warm-up. Your treadmill should be at a 7% incline and set at 3.5 miles an hour.
  2. Run for one mile at 1% incline and 6MPH.
  3. Decrease the settings to 5MPH for 3 minutes and at 1% incline.
  4. Increase your speed to 6.8MPH for thirty seconds and at 1% incline.
  5. Decrease your speed again to 5MPH for 3 minutes at a 1% incline.
  6. Keep alternating between 6.8MPH for thirty seconds and 5MPH for 3 minutes at a 1% incline for 25 minutes.
  7. Run for 1 mile at 6MPH at a 1% incline.
  8. Do a cooldown jog at 3.5MPH between 5% to 7% incline.

If you’re not into incline fartleks, you can adjust the setting to a structured 1-2-3-2-1 and 2-3-4-4-3-2 fartleks.

Want to explore other combinations aside from the mentioned above? Go ahead. Fartlek isn’t fartlek without a touch of variation.

Preventing Injury Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Yup. Fartlek teaches us just that. Marathoners, triathletes, athletes—rookie or professionals—and anyone who loves to run can gain a lot from incorporating fartlek exercises to their usual workouts without throwing out fun and excitement.

Just a piece of advice, though: For safety reasons, consult your doctor or certified fitness coach first before engaging in any kind of workouts, especially if you’re only starting. You don’t want to go running with injured knees or cardiorespiratory ailments just so you can do what everybody else is doing. Even if there are fast ways to recover from a sports injury, it is still best to take care of yourself early on.

Stay healthy. Steer clear from injuries. And run to a better you.

How do you keep yourself fit and injury-free? Share your workout tips in the comment section below.

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