Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fartleks: or, Sprinting for Non-Sprinters

fartlek |ˈfärtlik|
a system of training for distance runners in which the terrain and pace are continually varied to eliminate boredom and enhance psychological aspects of conditioning.
alternately: a system of training in which you will simultaneously curse and praise the day the Swedes introduced this brilliant torture to the rest of the world.
ORIGIN 1940s: from Swedish, from fart ‘speed’ + lek ‘play.’

Today I want to talk about my simultaneously most and least favorite exercise: the fartlek. Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play,” and it’s a more flexible version of interval training. It’s most often used in reference to running, but the principles can be adapted for essentially any cardio workout: running, walking, cycling, or swimming.

First of all, let’s talk about why interval training is important. There’s a lot of research out there about what contributes to peak fitness and performance, and interval training checks of many of the standard boxes. It increases cardiovascular fitness and athletic performance and trains the body to be more efficient in using stored energy. It challenges the body by forcing it to switch between the aerobic and anaerobic systems. And it burns more calories than a standard workout. This means you will be challenging your body on every level: burning fat, increasing your overall fitness, and improving your muscles’ ability to recover from a tough workout.

If you’re new to fartleks, here’s an easy way to start. First, pick your poison: run, bike, or swim. Start with an easy 10 minute warm up to get your muscles loose. It’s important to warm up – jumping right in to an intense workout can cause injury. Once you’re warmed up, get started with your intervals. Increase your speed until you are pushing yourself – fast enough that you can just barely maintain the speed for a full minute. When that minute is up, slow down to an easy pace for a two minute recovery. Repeat for 20-30 minutes, then cool down.

The first few times I attempted fartleks, it was more or less a disaster. I was a wheezing, shoulder-slumping mess of sweat and shaking muscles. I can’t promise your first attempt will be any less exhausting. But what I can promise is that if you keep trying – pushing yourself for a minute and recovering for two until you physically can’t speed up for one last “sprint” – you’ll be pleasantly surprised a few weeks or a few months in, when those sprints that used to knock you flat suddenly feel like you’re gliding on air. The first time I realized that I was maintaining a pace that was three minutes faster than my usual “slow” pace for an entire minute without physically collapsing onto the ground, I felt like I could accomplish anything.

Once you start to hit your fartlek stride, you’ll find your overall fitness improving. I’ve shaved a minute off my pace in the last six months, and I find that the sprinting part of the interval is invigorating me rather than decimating me. If you start to feel comfortable with the one-to-two interval ratio, start switching things up. Try two minutes hard, two minutes recovery, then three minutes hard, two minutes recovery. Incorporate short sprints into longer workouts. Got a weekly ten mile run or a forty mile bike ride that’s starting to feel humdrum? Add some 30-second sprints in at regular intervals, especially towards the end of the workout to challenge your body to push through the exhaustion at the end of a long workout. Be sure to focus on form when you’re sprinting in these longer workouts – don’t sacrifice form for speed, because that can lead to injury.

Take care of your body:
Fartleks are an excellent way to break through a training or weight loss plateau and push your body to train more efficiently. They will speed recovery time and increase your cardiovascular endurance, making for a healthier heart. If you’re looking for a way to pump up your calorie burn, break out of an athletic rut, or improve a race time, high intensity intervals like fartleks are the way to go. Just be sure to properly warm up beforehand and cool down and stretch afterwards.

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