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More Training Info > Fartlek

Fartlek and Other Interval Sessions
Courtenay Schurman

Below we discuss fartlek training, Indian runs, and other suggestions for interval workouts you can do during your cardiovascular training using aerobic equipment including rowers, elliptical cross trainers, treadmills, bikes, and stair steppers, using a 6-10� step, running, or even walking. It�s best to have at least a month of solid training under your belt before incorporating higher-intensity interval workouts such as these. If you are relatively new to exercise, once you�ve built a good endurance base, try including no more than 2 such high-intensity cardio workouts a week; if you are more advanced, you can safely include up to three, paying close attention to exertion levels in order to avoid overtraining. Interval training is just one of many components of a complete program; be sure to incorporate such training in your program if it is appropriate to do so. If your primary activity is distance running, cycling, or backpacking, the bulk of your training will likely be steady-state endurance. However, if you�d like to increase your speed (by working on leg turnover rate and improving tolerance for higher-intensity effort), alter your body composition, or shorten your workouts but still gain benefits that will help improve performance in your activity, intervals can help.

The how�s and why�s of interval training have been discussed elsewhere:

  1. www.bodyresults.com/e2intervals.asp for interval training for climbing at altitude
  2. Ask Body Results Question 197 for reader�s question about interval frequency, as well as Ask Body Results Question 86
  3. www.bodyresults.com/e2shortworkouts.asp on adding shorter workouts
  4. www.bodyresults.com/e2fatloss.asp for how intervals can help with fat loss

Below, we focus more closely on specifically what to do during different interval sessions. Try several and see which you enjoy the most.


It may sound like a dirty word, but fartlek training is actually a Swedish term referring to speed bursts continued for a total allotted time. The beauty of fartlek training is that the intervals are completely random, done according to how you�re feeling on any given day. This is one type of interval training that does not require use of a watch; simply allow yourself to play in the natural environment, sprinting to the next tree, stop sign, parked truck, dog crossing the street, or what have you. Dash to the top of the hill, lengthen or shorten your stride, or even alternate intervals with a training buddy who calls out what you�re going to do next. Make some intervals shorter and harder than others; then let your body recover as much as you�d like before you do another one. If you feel like taking one hill carioca style (side-stepping) for abductor and adductor emphasis, or even going backwards to hit the quadriceps, feel free to do so. Try high-stepping for psoas recruitment or �kicking your butt� to fully engage the hamstrings. Insert some pushups, pullups, crunches, or walking lunges into the workout to break it up. The key here is to HAVE FUN.

While fartlek training is perhaps more suitable for the outdoors (and hence is applicable for speed walking, cycling, inline skating, cross-country or skate skiing, as well as running) you can do something similar on aerobic equipment. While you won�t have the landmarks to race toward, you CAN vary the number, duration, and frequency of your speed bursts according to how you feel on a given day. Such technique can also be used when you�re on a long-distance backpacking or mountaineering trip when fatigue starts to set in but you still have a ways to go until you reach camp or the trailhead.


This interval technique is a modified version of fartlek training that works really well for groups of people (6 or more). Stay together as a group, but spread out single file as you hit the trail or street. When everyone feels warmed up, the person at the back of the line increases her/his speed in order to pass everyone en route to the front, and then returns to the pace of the rest of the group, while the next person at the back of the line dashes, skates, skis or cycles to the front. Try this on flat terrain initially, and work up to training on rolling hills. The toughest part of Indian Runs is sprinting to the front while going up steep hills. Such training might be useful and fun for college teams or intra-mural groups that need short anaerobic (mid-race) sprints mixed into longer, steady state endurance such as soccer, lacrosse, rugby, flag football, ultimate Frisbee, rowing, and field hockey; individuals who enjoy trail running, cyclocross, and mid to long-distance running might gather some friends together on occasion for a change in pace from solo training.


What we refer to as �pyramid� training simply means starting with very short sprints, increasing the time of the intervals, and then shortening them again toward the end of the workout. For example, if you are working out on a rowing machine or ergometer, you might do a hard single stroke (power 1) and then an easy stroke; then you�d do 2 power strokes, 2 easy strokes; 3 power, 3 easy and so forth up to a power 10 with 10 recovery strokes, then decrease back to 1. It�s a short interval workout, but it keeps you concentrating on your effort the whole time. If you prefer doing a step workout, that might mean building a sequence so you do 8 counts hard, 8 easy; 16 (or two full bars of music) hard, 16 easy; 24 hard (3 bars), 24 easy, and so forth. On a bike or elliptical, you might try working really hard for 10 seconds, recovering for 10, increasing the intensity for 20 seconds, recovering for 20, on up to as much as a 1.5-2 minutes (obviously at lower intensity than the first 10 second sprint, as you�ll be approaching the anaerobic threshold after 30 seconds or so and will have difficulty sustaining an all-out sprint for longer than that) then decreasing back to 10 on/10 off. On a run, try 10 strides hard, 10 easy; 20 hard, 20 easy, and so forth up to a certain number then back down. If you dread the idea of counting steps, use a watch � see time intervals below.


Another good interval workout you can do on a rowing ergometer is to do 10-15 sets of 10 strokes on/ 10 off, really concentrating on powering through the work strokes with leg drive and arm pull, then taking it easy on the recovery strokes. If you find you don�t have the mental fortitude to do your timed 2500 meter piece all-out, you can probably gather up enough strength for this much shorter, higher-intensity (but ultimately less painful!) workout. Try using this sort of short duration sprinting on the elliptical cross-trainer, powering your stride rate up in the 175-225 strides per minute range for 10-15 seconds (in order to increase leg turnover rate for running, speedwalking, and faster hill climbing) and then recovering for 45 seconds before repeating. Gradually as your endurance increases and rate of recovery improves, you can lengthen the work intervals and shorten the recovery.


Anyone who gains a substantial amount of vertical during his or her activity (including hikers, climbers, trekkers, people competing in cyclocross, trail runners, cross-country skiers, mountain bikers, and back-country skiers) can benefit from hills or stairs interval training suggested at http://www.bodyresults.com/E2intervals.asp. This type of training can be done with a pack (slower, weighted) or without (faster, unweighted) outside on actual terrain, or on a treadmill, stair stepper, elliptical trainer, or step mill.


Another way to do interval training is to focus on completing the same distance each work interval. For example, if you plan to do an indoor rowing workout, you might choose to do several repeats of 200-1000 meters (up to about 3 minutes in duration for the work interval) and then recover for half the work time by slowly moving up and down the slide and working on technique. For running intervals on a treadmill or track, do .25-.5 mile pieces with recovery of half that distance (similar for in-line skating or cross-country skiing) or 1-2 miles for cycling intervals. If you are choosing pack hills or stadium stairs, or even using a stair master, you might decide to gain a certain amount of elevation, climb a specific number of flights or floors, or reach the top of the hill before turning around for recovery. Aim for making your last interval as close in time as the first interval, in order to develop a good sense of pacing. Repeat this distance interval workout every other week or so in order to measure progress, perhaps adding an interval each time as you get stronger and faster.


Finally, you can set predetermined work and recovery interval times. On most cardiovascular machines, this �interval� program looks like a bar graph with alternating long and short bars, to represent higher and lower levels of exertion. A nice feature of some of the elliptical cross-trainers (particularly the Precor EFX 544 model) is the interval feature that allows you to set two different levels of exertion, so once you set the first high and low cycle (on different ramp levels, intensities, or backwards and forwards) it will automatically shift between the two. If you are doing timed intervals on a run, you might increase speed for anywhere from 2-8 minutes and recover for 2-4 minutes in between, adding to the work time each week or increasing the number of repeats.

Remember to always include some lower-intensity warm-up before beginning your work intervals, and keep interval workouts shorter than your endurance workouts. If your longest workout during the week is 45 minutes, you might choose to do 1-2 20-25 minute interval workouts; if you go trail running for 2 hours on Saturdays, you may decide that a single 45-minute interval workout is the appropriate length, frequency, and intensity for you during the week.

For more suggestions for improving your endurance training see Rob Sleamaker and Ray Browning�s SERIOUS Training for Endurance Athletes, Human Kinetics, 1996.


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