Fartlek: It Sounds Dirty But It Isn't

A strange thing happened last week. My fellow Sports Editor, Jamil Khan, checked the Harbus website. That’s not strange in itself, because every week he goes back to see his handiwork from previous editions.

However, this time he also discovered that we are actually the Sports and Health Editors. So, this week, I’ve decided to venture a little way away from sport, and move towards fitness issues. At some stage we may make the transition all the way to health issues. Stay tuned.

Anyway, this week Harbus looks at an interesting fitness technique called Fartlek. I think the word is Danish, and know that it stands for ‘Fast Leg’.

The premise of the Fartlek technique is that normal running regimes do not allow you to build dynamic speed. The theory is that if you are sprint training, at a certain level of intensity, you will never be able to run long distances without tiring quickly. Conversely, if you are endurance training (the fabled ‘LSD’ or ‘long slow distance’), you will never be able to beat anyone for pace over a shorter distance. Dynamic speed implies that the one athlete can be a top quartile sprinter, and a top quartile distance runner. All good in theory, but how do you build dynamic speed in practice?

The classic answer is Fartlek. This technique involves running a moderate distance (for example 5 miles), but interspersing 10 sprints of anywhere between 20 and 60 seconds. Physiologically, this allows your body to build cardiovascular endurance, and also fast twitch muscles. The key is unpredictability, so the ‘basic’ version of Fartlek is to train by yourself, and push yourself using the technique above.

More effective, though, is the advanced Fartlek technique, which involves training in pairs (or larger groups). In this scenario, each runner gets to ‘surprise’ the other with 5 sprints. This is the ultimate in unpredictability, as you may get stung with a 60 second sprint before you have recovered from the 45 second sprint that you just laid on your training partner.

Several top athletes claim to have seen dramatic improvements using this technique. Dedicated amateurs (myself included) have probably seen even greater rewards as they begin off a lower base. It is an excellent mode of training for any of the fast-slow team sports (eg soccer, rugby, Gaelic football etc) or just to get in shape.

March 8, 2004
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