The 5-4-3-2-1 Workout Technique Makes Exercising a Breeze—Promise!

Photo: Getty Images/damircudic
When I first discovered treadmill interval training, I had a hallelujah moment. Breaking up my workout into bite-sized chunks felt so much more approachable than forcing myself to commit to one pace for 30 plus minutes. It made the whole business of going to the gym feel more like a game than a chore. And recently, I've found an even more effective way to make my sweat sessions whizz by: the 5-4-3-2-1 method. If you haven't heard of "fartlek," get ready to rethink the way you work out.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to structure a workout, more generally it involves applying the "eat the frog" mentality to your workout. You start out with longer intervals and work your way down time-wise (5 minutes, 5 minutes; 4 minutes, 4 minutes; 3 minutes, 3 minutes; 2 minutes, 2 minutes; 1 minute,1 minute), while increasing the speed of your threshold intervals. While you're exerting more effort by the end, the time feels like it's flying as fast as your feet.

According to Corinne Fitzgerald, head coach at New York's Mile High Run Club, applying this type of approach to a treadmill session is known as fartlek, the Swedish word for speed play. "The idea that you're going fast, then recovering, then going fast for a certain amount of time," she tells me. "When you have a block of recovery time that you're working toward, it kind of helps you mentally. You know that there's a recovery coming up and that if you push hard to get over the hump, you're going to have a nice jogging period or rest period coming up."

In addition, she adds that taking active recoveries (or working at about 65 percent of your max effort level) instead of walking recoveries helps improve your endurance and stamina overtime, too. "Staying in the zone where you're still working and not taking your heart rate completely back down keeps you in that fat burning zone. That's why going only to your threshold and not going to your 100 percent means you won't have to recover back down at your zero percent," she says.

Fartlek is a killer strategy for your treadmill workout, but it also translates to spin, the stairclimber, the elliptical, and beyond.

Allow me to explain how the 5-4-3-2-1 works—and how you can adapt it to any flavor of workout.

Fitzgerald recommends programming this variety of workout into your schedule about twice a week, leaving ample time for recovery in between. If you want, you can shorten the active recovery portions to make the workout a little more challenging. Or, if you have more time to dedicate to the gym, you can start at a higher number than five and work your way down. 

5 minutes: Active Recovery (at about 65 percent of your maximum effort level)
5 minutes: Threshold Pace (at 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart-rate)
4 minutes: Active Recovery
4 minutes: Threshold Pace (increase slightly from last threshold interval)
3 minutes: Active Recovery
3 minutes: Threshold Pace (increase slightly from last threshold interval)
2 minutes: Active Recovery
2 minutes: Threshold Pace (increase slightly from last threshold interval)
1 minutes: Active Recovery
1 minutes: Threshold Pace (increase slightly from last threshold interval)

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