Are you tired of plodding through your cardio workouts? Breathe new life into your endurance training with Fartlek!
Cardio should be a part of most people’s workout – even if you are a bodybuilder or a powerlifter. Regular cardio workouts offer many benefits, including improved cardiovascular fitness and health, increased endurance, faster recovery between intense training sessions, and easier fat-burning and weight management.
However, unless you are a competitive endurance athlete, you may find cardio boring. After all, most cardio workouts involve exercising at the same average pace. And if you’re doing your cardio at the gym, it can feel like you’re not even going anywhere.
It’s no wonder that many of us would rather be lifting weights!
The good news is that there is a lesser-known method you can use to make your cardio workouts not only more interesting but more effective, too – we’re talking about Fartlek. While this is undoubtedly a peculiar word, Fartlek is actually a relatively straightforward training method that almost anyone can use.
In this guide, we reveal what Fartlek is, its myriad benefits, and how to use it for the best results. By the end of this article, we guarantee you’ll be a fan of Fartlek, and it’ll be part of all your future cardio workouts.
- What is Fartlek Training?
- Fartlek vs. Other Forms of Cardio
- The Benefits of Fartlek Training
- Fartlek Training Drawbacks
- How to Get Started with Fartlek Training
- Fartlek Training – FAQ
- Fartlek Training – Closing Thoughts
What is Fartlek Training?
While you may not have heard of Fartlek before, it’s actually been around for almost a century. The word Fartlek is actually Swedish for speed play, which should provide a hint as to its origins and methodology…
This unconventional training method was invented by Swedish running coach Gösta Holmér. He developed it to improve all aspects of running performance, from endurance to speed to recovery, all at the same time. His method proved so effective that it was adopted by several Swedish national sports teams, including distance runners and cross-country skiers.
It has since gained popularity all over the world, and endurance athletes in all sports use Fartlek to give them a competitive edge. However, Fartlek isn’t just for sportsmen and sportswomen; recreational exercisers can also benefit from this super-flexible training method.
So, what does a Fartlek workout entail?
As the English translation should suggest, Fartlek is a cardio-based workout during which you exercise at various speeds or levels of intensity. The use of the word “play” indicates that changes in speed are random and not structured like most types of interval training.
Example 40-minute Fartlek workout:
- 10-minute warm-up
- Run fast for 3 minutes
- Slow jog/walk for 60 seconds
- Comfortable run for 3 minutes
- Hill sprints for 5 minutes
- Very slow jog/walk for 2 minutes
- Run fast for 4 minutes
- Comfortable run for 2 minutes
- 10-minute jog cool down
As you can see, the intensity and duration of each section undulates, and after each hard section is a period of active recovery. This ensures that the entire workout is effective and that you aren’t so tired after a particular section that you cannot continue. All of these sections are (or should be) programmed randomly, and the actual duration and pace are determined by your fitness.
You can use Fartlek training in conjunction with other cardio methods or as the mainstay of your fitness and conditioning training. However and whenever you use it, you’ll be rewarded with an effective and time-efficient workout.
To understand the benefits of Fartlek training, it’s helpful to view this training method alongside more common cardio workouts.
Fartlek vs. Other Forms of Cardio
A lot of people just “do” cardio with little understanding that there are several different training methods available. Knowing a little more about these other forms of cardio will make it easier to choose the best one for your needs and goals.
The most common forms of cardio training are:
Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) Training
LISS is what most people do when they do cardio. They hop on an exercise bike or head out for a run and cover a set distance at a comfortable pace. This is typically around 60-70% of their maximum heart rate. LISS workouts are typically quite long, i.e., 30 minutes to several hours.
LISS is good for building a fitness base, and fat is the primary energy source. However, because of the fitness principle of specificity, doing a lot of long, slow cardio improves your ability to cover long distances slowly. As such, this training method may have limited benefits for athletes or those looking to develop their high-end fitness.
Anaerobic Threshold (AnT) Training
Where LISS is performed at the low end of your heart rate training range, AnT is performed at the upper end – typically 90% of your maximum heart rate. Go any faster, and a rapid rise in blood lactate will force you to slow down or stop. AnT represents the highest sustainable level of aerobic activity. If your heart were a car engine, it’d be redlining! While fat is still an energy source, carbs are also utilized in large amounts.
AnT is good for improving your maximal fitness and enhancing your high-intensity activity capacity. Because of the demands of such workouts, AnT is typically shorter than LISS training.
Both LISS and AnT involve maintaining a relatively constant speed. While fatigue may cause you to slow down, the goal is always to keep your pace the same from the start of your workout to the end.
In contrast, interval training involves alternating periods of high-intensity work with active or passive rests. There are several ways to do interval training, and work-to-rest periods should reflect your fitness and training goal. However, as a general rule, the intervals remain constant for the duration of your workout. For example:
- Run for 3 minutes, walk for 2 minutes x 6
- Sprint for 30 seconds, walk for 90 seconds x 10
- Run 1 mile, jog ¼ mile x 4
Interval training is very versatile and can be adapted to suit almost any fitness level or goal.
Fartlek training can involve all three of these common training methods. In addition, it can also involve a mixture of inclines and terrains. As such, it can deliver a multitude of fitness benefits in one convenient workout.
Related: HIIT vs. LISS Cardio
What are these benefits? Keep reading to find out!
The Benefits of Fartlek Training
No one enjoys wasting time, and as exercising is usually a leisure activity, you’ll probably want to ensure that Fartlek warrants a place in your workout schedule. The main benefits of Fartlek training include the following:
Improved Cardiorespiratory Fitness
Like all forms of cardio, Fartlek training stresses your heart, lungs, circulatory system, and muscles. Working all these systems simultaneously improves their work capacity, leading to an increase in cardiorespiratory fitness. This is typically measured and expressed as your VO2 Max, which is the amount of oxygen you can take in, transport, and utilize.
Because Fartlek training involves low, medium, and high-intensity cardio, it will benefit all aspects of your cardiorespiratory fitness (1). In contrast, LISS tends to only improve low-end fitness, while anaerobic intervals only improve high-end fitness.
If you want to run/cycle/row/swim faster, you need to pick up the pace and work harder in your workouts. After all, your body adapts to your training, so if you go slow, you’ll stay slow.
Fartlek forces you to pick up the pace, so you should get faster as you get fitter. This is a valuable benefit for competitive endurance athletes.
Most cardiorespiratory fitness training programs include various workouts, including aerobic and anaerobic threshold training, long workouts, intervals, and so on. This means multiple weekly workouts to ensure all types of fitness are developed equally.
Or, with Fartlek, you can combine all these elements into one efficient workout.
If you are short of time or simply want to make the most of the time you have available, switching to Fartlek training could be a convenient solution.
Better Cardiovascular Health
Better cardiorespiratory fitness is invariably linked to better cardiovascular health. That’s why cardio is considered such an important type of exercise. The cardiovascular health benefits of Fartlek training include:
- Decreased Risk of Stroke
- Enhanced Blood Circulation
- Enhanced Oxygen Utilization
- Improved Cardiac Output
- Improved Cholesterol Levels
- Improved Lung Function
- Lower Blood Pressure
- Lower Resting Heart Rate
- Reduced Inflammation
- Reduced Risk of Heart Disease
- Reduced Risk of Heart Failure
Improved General Health
While the most significant benefits of regular cardio pertain to your heart, lungs, and circulatory system, there are several additional general health benefits that are worth noting. These include:
- Better Sleep Quality
- Enhanced Immune System
- Enhanced Weight Management
- Improved Cognitive Function
- Improved Mental Health
- Improved Mood and Emotional Well-being
- Increased Bone Density
- Lower Stress Levels
- Reduced Risk of Certain Cancers
- Reduced Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Versatility and Adaptability
Fartlek can be adapted for almost any level of fitness and training goal. For example, beginners can focus more on walking, jogging, and easy running, taking longer rests between challenging efforts. In contrast, more experienced exercisers can spend more time running fast and sprinting and take incomplete rests between intense efforts.
Whoever you are and whatever you are training for, you can probably use Fartlek training to help you achieve your fitness aspirations.
Workout Variety and Mental Engagement
No two Fartlek workouts are ever the same. Instead of just hitting start on your timer and running or cycling at your normal pace, Fartlek workouts are highly varied, and you create them as you go along. This provides variety, so your workouts should never be boring, and you’ll need to stay mentally engaged as you plan the next stage of your training.
Mindfulness is a health and fitness buzzword but can be hard to build into repetitive workouts like LISS cardio. Fartlek forces you to be more mindful, engaging your brain as you work your body.
Fat Loss and Caloric Burn
Like all forms of cardio (and physical movement, for that matter), Fartlek burns both calories and fat. However, because Fartlek workouts are more intense than LISS and involve fewer rests than interval training, it has the potential to be a better calorie and fat burner (2).
However, your total calorie expenditure per workout will always depend on how hard and long you exercise. Nonetheless, doing Fartlek instead of LISS or intervals could lead to greater calorie expenditure in the same timeframe.
Better Recovery Rates
Fartlek involves mixing intensity levels, alternating randomly between low, medium, and high. This means you’ll need to learn to recover on the go, as stopping is not usually part of most Fartlek workouts. Instead, your body will need to adapt to active recoveries, i.e., you’ll learn to get your breath back while you jog or walk. This is a valuable fitness adaptation for athletes, especially team sports players and martial artists.
Related: 8 Ways to Speed Up recovery
Races are seldom run at the same speed from start to finish. Instead, the pace varies as each competitor tries to out-maneuver the others. Fartlek training teaches how to “change gear,” which could make you a more competitive racer.
It will also help you develop your “kick,” where you pick up the speed toward the end of a race despite feeling tired. A powerful kick can be the difference between winning and losing.
Fartlek Training Drawbacks
There is no denying the benefits of Fartlek training. No wonder it’s the secret weapon in many athletes’ arsenals. However, there are a few drawbacks to consider before adding Fartlek to your cardio training plan. These include the following:
With Fartlek training, you determine your workload. You must decide when to speed up and when to slow down. If you feel lazy, you may make your work intervals too short or too easy, and you may not push yourself hard enough to benefit from this training method. A lack of discipline can turn a planned Fartlek session into a leisurely jog.
Lack of Structure Can Be Confusing
The concept of Fartlek can be confusing – at least initially. Because there is no real structure to a Fartlek workout, some exercisers may be left wondering what they should do.
Ultimately, the only way to understand Fartlek is to try it. You’ll learn from your mistakes, and after a few sessions, all the pieces will fall into place, and you’ll “get it.” However, before that happens, you’d be forgiven for thinking Fartlek was confusing or ineffective.
May Not Be Suitable for Beginners
Leading on from the previous point, beginners may struggle with Fartlek because they have no real concept of what easy, medium, and hard intensity levels feel like or how long they need to rest between efforts. As such, some beginners may need to develop these skills with LISS or interval training before graduating to Fartlek.
Difficult to Measure Progress
If your 5K run time is getting faster, it’s a fair indicator that you are getting fitter. Similarly, if you can cover more distance per interval, e.g., three minutes, you are also getting fitter. Keeping these measures the same (distance/time) means you can compare your current performance with your previous performances and measure the improvements.
In contrast, there are no such fixed measures with Fartlek, as each workout will probably be different from the last. This makes it much harder to measure fitness improvements. As such, you may want to combine Fartlek with a benchmark workout that you can use to assess your progress.
Don’t worry, though; done right, Fartlek should provide measurable improvements in your aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
Not Ideal for Specific Goal Training
If you want to run a faster 5K, you must base your training around running 5K fast. Similarly, if you are training for a marathon, you must include plenty of long, slow runs in your workout. This is specificity in action.
While Fartlek will undoubtedly improve your fitness, its effects can be pretty general. If you want to improve your speed or long-distance endurance, Fartlek may not be the best tool.
Now you know what Fartlek is and the benefits and drawbacks of this old but lesser-known workout, let’s move on to how to incorporate it into your training.
How to Get Started with Fartlek Training
Still with us? Good to hear! Want to try Fartlek for yourself? Even better! Here’s a step-by-step guide to your first Fartlek workout.
1. Determine Workout Duration
While you could just head out and “do” Fartlek, you’ll be able to structure your workout more easily and get better results if you know how long the session will last. So, determine your workout duration before you begin.
Don’t forget to include warm-up and cool-down time. Do not overestimate your abilities if you are new to Fartlek or endurance training. Shorter is better, and you can always do a longer workout next time. 30-40 minutes should be sufficient for most people.
2. Choose a Training Environment (e.g., park, track, trail, treadmill, etc.)
Your training environment can have a significant impact on the effectiveness and enjoyment of your Fartlek workout. While you can do Fartlek on a treadmill or flat tarmac road, it’ll probably be better in a more varied environment, such as a park, trail, or somewhere hilly.
These environments can help naturally guide your Fartlek session, e.g., running up and down hills, picking up your pace on smooth surfaces, and then slowing down when the going is rough.
So, if available, seek environments that will make your Fartlek workout even more effective and enjoyable.
Remember, too, that you can apply Fartlek to almost any type of cardio, not just running. Cycling, rowing, swimming, and even stair-stepping are all viable options. But, of course, indoor workouts won’t offer the same terrain variations as training outdoors.
3. Have a Rough Plan
Fartlek is supposed to be a flexible workout that you adjust on the fly. You speed up when you feel ready and slow down when needed. The pace is meant to be mixed and may reflect the terrain you encounter. However, it always pays to have a rough plan before starting your Fartlek workout so you don’t waste time trying to decide what to do.
You can control your Fartlek intervals in several ways – pick one and then use it until you’re ready to switch to another.
- Use physical landmarks, e.g., park benches or lampposts.
- Use time, e.g., changing pace every few minutes.
- Use music, e.g., speed up for choruses, slow down for verses.
- With a partner, e.g., take turns with your running buddy to lead the next part of your Fartlek workout.
Stick with the same method or change as your workout develops – it’s up to you!
Having completed the previous steps, it’s finally time to start your Fartlek workout! But, before the hard work begins, you should spend a few minutes warming up. You can build this into your Fartlek workout to create a seamless, flowing training session.
For example, walk for a couple of minutes and then jog easily for a few more. Stop periodically to stretch the muscles you are using, paying particular attention to your calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and hip flexors.
Then, when you’re ready, transition into the main part of your Fartlek session.
5. Begin Fartlek Phase
Warm and ready? Then let’s Fartlek! Vary your speed and terrain according to your plan. Feel free to modify your workout based on how you’re feeling. Got loads of energy? Then work harder and shorten your rests. Conversely, if your legs feel heavy, or your heart rate is higher than normal, keep the work intervals short and emphasize the rest periods.
Take care not to go too hard too early; the last thing you want to do is tire yourself out before the end of your workout. Instead, imagine your workout as a pyramid, and gradually increase the intensity until you reach a peak and achieve your goals for that session.
6. Cool-down and Stretch
After completing your main Fartlek session, you should cool down gradually to return your body to its pre-exercise state. Do this by jogging and then walking for several minutes so your heart and breathing rate return to normal. Alternatively, if you’ve been cycling or rowing, etc., slow your pace down so you gradually recover.
Finish your cool down with some developmental stretches for the muscles you’ve just been training.
Congratulations – you’ve completed your first Fartlek session! Consider how it went and what you can do differently to improve your next workout. Apply what you’ve learned to subsequent Fartlek training sessions.
Fartlek Training – FAQ
You’ve got all the information you need to make Fartlek part of your cardio training schedule. However, you may still have questions. No problem, because we’ve got the answers!
1. What is the ideal duration for a Fartlek session?
There is no single ideal duration for Fartlek. Instead, the length of your session should depend on your fitness level and training goal. However, because Fartlek involves some periods of high-intensity exercise, your sessions will probably be shorter than for LISS-type cardio workouts.
Finally, if you are new to Fartlek, start with relatively short sessions, as it’s more challenging than many people realize.
2. Can I do Fartlek training on a treadmill?
While Fartlek was developed for outdoor running training, you don’t have to use it this way. Instead, you can do Fartlek training on a treadmill and any other gym cardio machine. You can also use this method outdoors, e.g., running, cycling, or swimming. Use Fartlek anywhere you usually do your cardio.
3. Is Fartlek suitable for weight loss?
Fartlek, like all forms of cardio, burns calories and fat. A Fartlek workout should burn about 100 calories per mile/10 minutes. As such, it can contribute to weight loss. However, remember that your diet is equally important for fat loss, and no amount of Fartlek training will help you lose weight if you overeat or are otherwise so sedentary that your calorie intake exceeds your calorie expenditure.
Related: Weight Loss Calculator
4. Can beginners do Fartlek?
Fartlek can be modified for all levels of fitness, including beginners. However, less fit individuals should keep their workouts relatively short and avoid doing too much high-intensity work. For example, you could alternate between walking, jogging, and comfortable pace running. Leave fast running and sprinting for when you are fitter and more experienced.
5. Which is better – interval training or Fartlek?
Interval and Fartlek training are very similar. Both involve periods of high-intensity exercise alternated with periods of recovery. However, where interval training is very structured, Fartlek training is more freeform and variable.
Despite these differences, interval and Fartlek training should provide similar benefits, and studies suggest these two methods are equally effective (3).
Ultimately, the best workout is the one you enjoy and are prepared to do. Can’t choose between them? Then include both of them in your cardio training schedule.
Fartlek Training – Closing Thoughts
Fartlek, which is Swedish for speed play, is a mix of steady-state cardio and interval training. Exercise pace and work-to-rest intervals are variable, so this type of training can be modified to suit almost any fitness level and training goal.
Despite originating in the sport of running, Fartlek can be applied to almost any training modality, including cycling, rowing, elliptical trainers, and even swimming. It’s a very versatile form of cardio training, offering many health and fitness benefits and relatively few drawbacks.
Of course, to enjoy these benefits, you’ll need to put what you’ve learned in this article into action. Getting started with any new training method is usually the hardest step!
So, make your next cardio session a Fartlek workout. This training method might be nearly 100 years old, but it’s relatively unknown outside the world of running. However, the wide range of benefits offered means that Fartlek deserves a place in most exercisers’ workouts.
- Eleckuvan, R. M. (2014). Effectiveness of Fartlek Training on Maximum Oxygen Consumption and Resting Pulse Rate.
- Almy, M. A., & Sukadiyanto, S. (2014). Differences in the Effects of Circuit Training and Fartlek Training on VO2Max and Body Mass Index.
- Festiawan, R., Suharjana, S., Priyambada, G., & Febrianta, Y. (2020). High Intensity Interval Training and Fartlek Training: Effects on VO2 Max.