A Beginner's Guide to Fartlek Running

Last updated on February 19th, 2024

Fartlek run on mountain road

Fartlek, which means 'speed play' in Swedish, is a frequently employed training technique for the athletes. The origins of fartlek training can be traced back more than 80 years, to a time when coaches and scientists sought to enhance fitness and introduce diversity to training regimens. Swedish coach Gösta Holmér devised fartlek training as a means of integrating both speed and endurance into a single session.

In this article, we will explore what fartlek workouts entail, how they distinguish themselves from other speed workouts, why they are a valuable addition to your training routine, and the specific guidelines for executing them.

Fartlek, quite literally, entails experimenting with different running speeds. Essentially, it is a type of unstructured speed training. It entails a continuous run where faster running segments are interspersed with periods of relaxed or moderate-paced running (as opposed to complete rest, as seen in interval training).

One way to gauge your performance is by using time as a metric. For instance, you can alternate between running at a high intensity for a minute and then switching to a slower pace for three minutes. Another option is to base it on distance, such as running at a faster pace for half a mile and then transitioning to an easier pace for the same distance.

The runner is granted ample autonomy with fartlek training. They have the freedom to incorporate various speeds and distances for their faster bursts, or they can simply rely on their intuition and set off without a specific plan.

Fartlek running girl

Tempo runs should be approached with a sense of ease and challenge, maintaining a steady pace that is usually 20 to 45 seconds slower per mile compared to your 5K race speed, or at a level of exertion that you believe you can sustain for an hour.

Intervals consist of brief bursts of high intensity followed by an equal or slightly longer period of rest, which may entail a leisurely jog or a complete stop. An example of an interval training session could be completing 8 rounds of 400m sprints at a 5K pace, with recovery periods matching the duration of each sprint.

Fartlek sessions are an excellent method to incorporate speed or intensity into your running schedule. These organized sessions can be especially beneficial during the initial stages of a training plan, gradually preparing runners for the more challenging workouts they will face as they approach their target race.

Interval training is beneficial, but it doesn't simulate the actual conditions of a race where you can't take breaks and have to keep going. Races usually involve changes in pace, unlike interval sessions. Fartlek training, on the other hand, mimics the challenges of races by not allowing complete rest and preparing your body for the varying speeds you encounter.

Fartlek road running

Being guided and having a sense of purpose can propel you forward, but incorporating fartlek sessions into your routine can offer a sense of control. These sessions allow you to adjust your intensity based on your current feelings. On the day of a race, you won't have a coach directing your every move. Fartlek training can help you learn to gauge when to push yourself and when to take it easy.

Fartlek offers a more pleasurable method of training as well. Instead of rigidly following a set plan, opt for a more flexible approach by running on varied terrains and routes with inclines. Instead of constantly relying on your GPS watch, rely on your own judgment and run based on your perceived effort.

Most likely, a lot of you will be participating in races that are 5 kilometers or longer. These races require you to mainly rely on your aerobic energy system. Fartlek sessions, which involve running continuously during your recovery, place more emphasis on your aerobic system. This can assist in training your body to effectively use lactate as a source of fuel.

When it comes to running fartleks, there isn't a definitive method (that's the wonderful thing about them!). However, there are a couple of suggestions that can assist you.

Fartlek mountain running

A notable distinction between fartlek training and interval training lies in the approach to continuous running. If you find it necessary to pause or walk during fartlek sessions, chances are you're exerting too much effort. Take it easy and prioritize maintaining your ability to run during your recovery periods.

When doing fartleks, it's important to trust your instincts instead of relying on technology like GPS or heart rate monitors. Think of a scale from 0 to 10. Push yourself at a level of 7 to 9 out of 10 during your "on" efforts, and then ease up to a 4 to 6 out of 10 during your "off" efforts.

We all have a preference for organization and predictability. It can be unsettling to deviate from that and when you initially begin incorporating fartlek sessions into your routine, you may make mistakes. You might exert too much effort and require rest, or include too few or too many intervals. Fartlek training is an opportunity for growth, so persist in your efforts. Maintain a training journal and document your successes and failures, creating a visual representation and refining your approach over time.

Incorporate your surroundings into your workout. For instance, push yourself vigorously up the hill, exert strength until the next lamppost, and let yourself glide smoothly to the gate. Utilize your environment to organize your training sessions. Additionally, opting for uneven terrains and off-road paths can assist in diverting your attention from your GPS and instead concentrate on your exertion.

There are numerous methods to approach fartlek training. You can combine shorter, quicker bursts lasting 30 or 60 seconds with longer intervals of relaxed, steady, or threshold running. Alternatively, you can opt for lengthier intervals lasting five, 10, or even 20 minutes, interspersed with shorter recovery periods. Consider the requirements of your upcoming race. For marathon runnings, it may be beneficial to incorporate longer and faster intervals that align with your target race pace. However, if you are in the early stages of your training or preparing for shorter races, a well-rounded mix of intervals ranging from 30 seconds to four minutes could prove advantageous.

Give equal importance to the recovery parts as you do to the more challenging efforts. To intensify your fartlek sessions, experiment with "float" recoveries. Instead of taking a leisurely jog, maintain a moderate or steady pace during the recovery periods. By making the recovery more difficult, you will introduce a unique form of stress.

Although fartlek sessions may have a more relaxed structure, they should still be considered as a challenging part of your training routine. It is important to give yourself at least one day of rest between these intense sessions. In fact, most runners find that incorporating two or even three easy days between such sessions yields better results.

Fartlek hillside running

Free fartlek: To incorporate fartlek into your running routine, opt for a scenic path that encompasses various types of terrain. Engage in 10-25 challenging bursts of energy lasting between 15 seconds and four minutes. Alternatively, you can utilize landmarks such as lampposts or hills as your goals. Remember to maintain an easy or steady pace during recovery periods.

Bridging sessions: Ideal for the initial stages of a training regimen as a transition to more targeted interval workouts: perform 10-15 sets of exerting yourself for 30 seconds followed by maintaining a steady pace for 90 seconds. Gradually progress to pushing yourself for one minute and maintaining a steady pace for one minute, all while ensuring a thorough warm-up and cool-down.

‘Mona’ fartlek: This versatile 42-minute session, employed by Australian long-distance runner Steve Moneghetti, can be adapted to suit your training needs. If you are training for shorter distances, simply decrease the intensity of the slower intervals and increase the speed during the faster intervals. Conversely, if your goal is to improve your performance in longer races, maintain a steady pace during the slower intervals.

  • 10-min warm-up
  • 90 secs ‘on’, 90 secs ‘off’ x 2
  • 60 secs ‘on’, 60 secs ‘off’ x 4
  • 30 secs ‘on’, 60 secs ‘off’ x 4
  • 15 secs ‘on’, 15 secs ‘off’ x 4
  • 10-min cool-down

Mixed paces: These training sessions are highly beneficial for 5-10K or cross-country races. The workouts consist of timed efforts that decrease in duration as you progress, starting with 6 minutes and ending with 1 minute. You should aim to increase your speed with each effort. In between each effort, take 90 seconds to run at an easy or steady pace. Alternatively, you can do four sets of 3, 2, and 1-minute efforts, with 60-90 seconds of rest between each effort and set.

Marathon-focused: While it may not be a traditional fartlek, this training method can be valuable for the last 10km of a marathon. Complete 4-5 rounds of 4km at your marathon pace, with 1km of steady running in between each round. Alternatively, you can try a 75-90 minute session where you alternate between running 3 minutes slightly slower than your marathon pace and 3 minutes a bit faster than your marathon pace.

Fartlek running on steps