Fartlek Training: Fun way to work on Speed

Fartlek training basics every runner needs to know
Fartlek Training: Fun way to work on Speed

Do you feel you are running with too much focus on pace, distance etc.?

Ever felt solo runs or running in small loops is boring?

Is the speed work too taxing with pace and distance targets?

Want to make group runs fun?

How about making training enjoyable, while working on your speed?

Enter Fartlek running -

Fartlek running originated in Sweden in the 1930s. The term “fartlek” translates to “speed play” in Swedish, and the concept was first developed by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér. Seeking to improve the endurance and speed of his cross-country runners, Holmér introduced a training approach that combined steady-state running with random bursts of faster, more intense efforts.

What makes it different?

Here are some key features of fartlek runs as suggested by mentioned by Owen Anderson in his book “Running Science” -

Duration of about 45 minutes: Fartlek workouts are usually structured to last around 45 minutes, although the actual duration can vary depending on an individual’s fitness level, training goals, and experience. This time frame allows for an effective workout that challenges both aerobic and anaerobic systems without being overly taxing or monotonous.

Quick running, alternates with recovery: During a Fartlek session, runners engage in intervals of faster, quicker running. These quicker segments are often unstructured, meaning they can vary in distance and intensity, making them feel more like a game or play (hence the term “speed play”). After each quicker segment, the runner transitions into a period of slower, more relaxed running or even jogging, which serves as recovery.

The quicker segments are often faster than race paces: One of the key aspects of Fartlek training is that the faster segments are usually performed at paces faster than typical race pace. This allows runners to challenge their speed, improve their anaerobic capacity, and build strength and endurance. By going faster than race pace in these intervals, athletes can develop the ability to maintain a strong pace during competitions and improve their overall performance.

Fartlek Training compared to Interval Training

Many interchangeably use Fartek training and interval training, but they differ in their structure, organization, and level of intensity. Here are the key differences between the two:

Structure of workouts:

The primary difference between fartlek and interval training lies in their continuity. Fartlek running involves a continuous workout with no breaks but incorporates changes in pace. On the contrary, interval training features distinct intervals of high intensity followed by specific periods of rest or gentle active recovery.

In Fartlek workouts, the runner can vary the intensity and duration of the faster segments as they choose, and the recovery periods can be taken as needed, but are optional. Fartlek sessions hence are more flexible and less regimented.

Interval workouts are more structured and follow a specific plan. They consist of predetermined intervals of high-intensity running followed by fixed periods of rest or recovery. Interval workouts are typically more precise and allow for targeted training at specific paces or intensities. Check out our article on Interval Training here.

Training purpose:

Fartlek running aims to improve both aerobic and anaerobic capacities and also is a good way to build mental toughness and adaptability during races, as the runner learns to handle changes in pace and terrain.

Interval training is targeted and focused on specific physiological adaptations. Different interval sessions can be used to target different energy systems, such as VO2 max intervals for aerobic capacity or short sprints for anaerobic power.

Suitability for Terrain:

Fartlek training is more suitable for road running due to its flexible and unstructured nature. Fartlek runs allow runners to adapt their pace to varying gradients, and real-world obstacles like traffic and pedestrians.

On the other hand, interval training is better suited for track or flat surfaces with no interruptions. The controlled environment of the track provides precise distances and intervals, making it ideal for targeted training aimed at specific physiological adaptations.

Summary of Differences:

Fartlek Training Interval Training
Structure Loosely structured with no set time or duration for the segments. Rigidly structured with a fixed number of intervals, duration, pace, and recovery.
Intensity Typically varies across the run targeting different energy systems. Typically focussed on a specific energy system, such as VO2Max or Threshold.
Terrain Best suited in uneven terrain or roads with possible interruptions such as traffic, where it is hard to maintain a specific pace. Best suited for flat terrains or track where maintaining a set pace is possible.

Example Fartlek Workouts

Speed Play:

The idea of this workout is to vary the paces constantly to make it like a play.

  • Start with Warm-up jog of about 10 minutes.
  • Then run for 3 mins, a minute each at moderate, moderate-hard, and hard paces. Follow that with 2 mins jog.
  • 7 mins at moderate-hard pace followed by 3 mins jog
  • 3 mins hard running.
  • 5 mins cool down

Surroundings/ Landmark Fartlek:

This workout can make running short loops more enjoyable.

  • Start with a warm-up of 10 mins.
  • Run faster to reach a landmark in the distance (e.g., a electricity pole, traffic signal, or a parked car on the street).
  • Slow down to normal pace after reaching the landmark without stopping.
  • Pick a new landmark after a few minutes and then speed up again as desired.

Fartlek in Long Runs:

On your longest run of the week, increase your pace for a minute every 6 to 8 minutes. The aim is not to go significantly faster, just around 10 seconds per km quicker than your usual long-run pace. After the surge comeback to your long run pace. You can do this through the run, or only for a section of the long run. If you find it difficult to return to your regular long-run rhythm, it’s a sign that you might be running the surges too fast.

Speed Up/Slow Down Fartlek:

The Speed Up/Slow Down workout is particularly effective for hilly or rolling courses. During this workout, you increase your pace while running uphill, making the incline more challenging. As you descend the hill, you then slow down your pace. The goal is to run for more than 30 minutes on the rolling hills with such speed play. This type of training helps improve both uphill running strength and downhill control, making it ideal for preparing for races with rolling terrain.

Follow the Leader:

This workout makes group running super fun and yet challenging. Make one of the runners in the group the leader who will lead the pack for 3-5 minutes. The leader sets the pace and can run it at any pace during this time. Other runners follow the leader’s pace. Each member from the group takes turns to become the leader after a few minutes of recovery each.

Pyramid Fartlek:

This is a good solo workout, especially if you want to make your run interesting. The idea is to run at a faster pace with reducing timing durations, and then reverse the pattern. For instance, you could run at a fast pace for 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute, then reverse the pattern by going back up to 2 minutes, 3 minutes, and 4 minutes. Between each of these intervals, consider including a 1-2 minute recovery jog. You can also vary the paces during the faster segments to make it even more challenging.


Running Science by Owen Anderson

Fartlek Run 101: Your Guide to Fartlek Workouts

Improve your fitness with the Fartlek training method

Prepared by Team GeeksOnFeet for the love of running!

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