Before diving into any hiking talk, let’s just acknowledge that your inner 8-year-old is stuck on the word “fartlek.” And while you probably think I’m making this up, I promise you, it’s a real thing.
In fact, it’s a Swedish term whose literal translation is “speed play.” Because – and again I’m not making this up – “fart” is a Swedish word for “speed.”
I’ll just give you a moment with that one.
Okay, let’s move on.
How this silly-sounding term can help your hiking
No doubt it’s still giving you a chuckle, but fartleks are a real thing that can help you improve your endurance for longer & tougher hikes.
Often used in the running world, they’re a type of interval training where you increase your pace for a set time or distance, then slow down to your recovery pace. You can make them structured or unstructured, gauging in the moment how long or how far you can push the faster bursts.
Why they help
When you’re hiking at a slow, conversational pace, your body is burning fatty acids for fuel. They’re plentiful in most of us, and just as a seasoned log can burn for long periods at a campfire, fatty acids can keep you going for miles.
But when you pick up the pace – or hit a steep incline that requires your muscles to function at maximal effort – your body needs energy fast. Slow-burning fatty acids won’t cut it, so your body calls on the faster-burning glycogen stored in your liver & skeletal muscles to power you through.
Yet glycogen is in short supply, which means that you’ll burn through it quickly. As it’s broken down, lactic acid builds up in your blood – which requires your body to increase production of CO2 to buffer the increase in acid. And as CO2 increases, your respiratory rate increases to expel it.
As you continue to push, your body will reach a point where lactate is accumulating faster than it can be expelled – which will leave you breathless & begging the universe for mercy.
At that point, you are forced to stop & gasp for air while your body works to recover. After a few moments to a few minutes, your system is recharged & ready to continue.
Fartleks train your body to recover while it’s on the move, which makes it more efficient at a. burning fatty acids, and; b. restoring the glycogen it just burned on that steep elevation gain. This will keep you moving more, stopping less & improve your overall fitness for your favorite hikes.
To use them in practice, try the following strategy:
- Begin with a warm-up at your slower/recovery pace for 15 to 20 minutes
- Hike at a faster pace for 2 to 3 minutes to get your legs, lungs & heart working.
- Choose a distance or time to push for a faster burst – perhaps to that tree or that sign, or for the next 30 seconds – whatever makes sense given your location & how you feel at the time.
- Now – push as hard as you can reasonably push while still being able to move once you’re done (remember, this isn’t HIIT training, so you don’t have to go all out to the point where you have to stop when you’re done).
- Once you’ve finished your faster burst, slow to your recovery pace but never stop moving. Continue at this pace for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Push at your faster pace again, followed by your recovery pace for another 2 to 3 minutes.
- Continue for 5 to 10 rounds (or you can vary your pace throughout your hike rather than think about it in “rounds”).
- Finish with 10 to 20 minutes at a cooldown pace.
This is only one example – you can choose whatever strategy works for you in the moment given your location & energy level. And keep in mind that each interval can vary – they don’t all have to be exactly the same amount of time or distance. It’s completely up to you in each moment how hard and/or how fast you can push yourself. The primary goal is to push yourself hard, but that you spend the recovery time moving rather than having to stop.
(See what I did there?)
Though some folks are happy to hike slowly, most of us want to improve our fitness along the trails. And nothing beats the endorphin rush of a challenging hike.
We also have to find ways to enjoy the trails amidst other adult responsibilities – and in most cases, taking 8 hours to complete a 3 to 5-mile hike isn’t that feasible.
Despite its quirky name, fartleks will help you increase your stamina for one of your favorite activities – not to mention improve your cardiovascular fitness.
And as your fitness increases, you’ll be poised to enjoy a future filled with many more “speedy” adventures.