Fartlek is a term borrowed from the Swedish. The Swedish word Fart (speed) and lek (play) combine to form the word Fartlek (speedplay). Fartlek training incorporates bouts of fast and slow running over varying distances. The duration and intensity are relatively unstructured as opposed to the strict limits used in interval training.

History

Swedish cross-country coach Gösta Holmér developed fartlek in 1937. Holmér’s cross-country running teams had suffered defeat throughout the 1920s by the legendary harrier Paavo Nurmi his Finnish teammates. Holmér’s plan concentrated on both speed and endurance training in the form of short bursts of faster than race pace efforts during training runs.

fartlek training
Gösta Holmér

In the 1940s, using a training plan that incorporated regular fartlek training, Swedish milers Gunder Hagg and Arne Anderson took turns lowering the world record in the mile. Eventually, Hagg ran a 4:01.4 in 1945. Hagg’s world record stood for the next nine years. Fartlek became popular in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The success of the Swedes forever changed the rules of distance training.

fartlek training Hagg
Gunder Hagg

Why Fartlek Works

Fartlek improves running fitness in four ways: speed, stamina, economy, and endurance. Fartlek is speedwork without the pressures of split times and specific distances. Remember, speedplay is what we’re after. Spontaneous (or planned) pick-ups will give your legs a taste of speed and help you discover a fast and economical running form.

Fartlek incorporates active recovery after bouts of speed. (Active recovery is when you continue to run at a slower pace without stopping.) This is crucial to distance runners seeking to improve their overall stamina and endurance. Fartlek training will help an athlete condition themselves to better tolerate the surges used by their opponents on race day.

Adding Fartlek Workouts to Your Training Plan

In many ways, fartlek training is dependent upon your surroundings. For example, you might decide to run the span of four telephone poles, one city block, or 90 seconds at a time on the open road. You can (and should) vary your distance, speed, and recovery periods.

A basic fartlek workout might look like this:

15 minutes easy

10 x 1 minute at 5K pace, 1-2 minute recovery in between

15 minutes easy

OR

2 mile warm-up

alternate fast and slow between every other driveway (traffic light, convenience store, rock pile, scarecrow, etc.) for a few miles

2 mile cool-down

A more advanced fartlek workout might look like this:

20 minutes easy

1 min at 5K pace, 1-2 minute recovery

2 min at 5K pace, 1-2 minute recovery

3 min at 5K pace, 1-2 minute recovery

4 min at 5K pace, 1-2 minute recovery

3 min at 5K pace, 1-2 minute recovery

2 min at 5K pace, 1-2 minute recovery

1 min at 5K pace, 1-2 minute recovery

20 minutes easy

Fartlek is speedwork. You can run these workouts once or twice a week. If it’s early in the season, you might consider fartlek as a conditioning method to ready yourself for more structured speedwork on the track. I like to mix things up with fartlek, hills, and track workouts since they all target strength and speed.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts or questions in the Comments section.

4 thoughts on “What is Fartlek Training?

  1. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for the good description of fartlek training. I’m interested in trying it, and have a couple of questions:

    1. What are the pros and cons of fartlek vs intervals?

    2. Should you do fartlek training on flatter routes or would hills give some benefits?

    Cheers,

    Alasdair

    1. Alasdair,

      Great questions!

      1. Fartlek and interval training are very closely related. What makes them different is the “play” and flexibility that fartlek training allows. Some runners will stress out over numbers, or run beyond themselves in interval training to hit specific pace goals. Fartlek gives runners a chance to train hard, but with less measurable and stringent guidelines applied. Fartlek can be done anywhere, and keeps things fresh for those that want to get off the oval.

      2. Bring on the hills. Running over varied terrain is an excellent idea. Hills are strength training in disguise.

  2. Thanks Jason. With your encouragement I did my first Fartlek session on Friday and it was a really good work out, but also a lot of fun.

Thoughts?