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What Is A Fartlek Run? How Fartlek Workouts Help Your Running

Fartlek. It sounds like a word that a five-year-old boy would come up with. But you’ll just have to trust me on this one: it’s not made up. In fact, it is a powerful and revered training tool for runners. The word (it’s Swedish, in case you want to know) means “speed play,” and it’s a great and fun way to mix speed training into your runs.

In this short article, we’ll discuss what exactly a fartlek run is, why it’s helpful, several examples, and how to incorporate them into your training. At the end of it, you’ll be a fartlek pro!

women on street doing fartlek workout

What is a fartlek workout?

In short, a fartlek workout is fast running alternated with slow running, or faster reps with slower recoveries. And depending on your fitness level, fast could mean a 5:00 pace or a 10:00 pace, and recovery could be at 9:00 pace or a 12:00 pace.

Fartlek workouts combine endurance training with speed training by challenging the body to adapt to different speeds. This in turn will allow you to become a faster runner over longer distances.

While fartlek workouts can vary greatly, they tend to target one or two paces in addition to a consistent steady long run pace. It’s important to note that fartlek workouts are NOT interval training, in which you walk or even rest completely for recovery. You’re running the entire time.

Fartleks also differ from intervals in that, in many cases, the distances are less structured, and can vary greatly. It’s a great way to keep the workout fresh and fun.

You might be able to go faster during intervals, but your overall average heart rate will be higher for fartlek workouts because your HR doesn’t drop as much during recovery.

No matter how fit (or unfit!) you are, you can start incorporating fartlek workouts into your running. It can be quite structured—run 6 minutes, then 3 minutes, then 1 minute at a faster pace, with 2 minutes jogging recovery—to quite unstructured—run hard up the hill, jog on the downhill, run to the next lamppost, etc.

And you can use fartlek workouts anywhere and any time. On the treadmill, at the beach, in the city, during the summer, when it’s raining outside, and so forth. Interval workouts tend to be designed for a track because it’s so structured, but fartleks are great for the road or the trail.

In fact, “Father of the Fartlek” Gosta Holmer, a Swedish coach, encouraged athletes to use fartlek training year-round. As he noted, athletes tended to do quicker work during transitional periods and close to peak competition, but he wanted to see fartleks as a more common addition to everyday training.

Benefits of fartlek runs

What isn’t there to love about a fartlek run? You’ll work on speed and endurance at the same time. Most workouts don’t allow for that. Plus, you’ll work on your mental game, essential for anyone training for a race.

Fartleks will improve your ability to add some surges into your races, allowing you to overtake a competitor or knock a couple seconds (or maybe even a couple minutes) off your finish time.

In addition, everyone has dealt with treadmill blues, and fartlek workouts are finally a way to squash those. Go a little bit faster for a while, and then recover at a jog, and then go back to your original pace. And just mix it up for as long as you need to.

Because they are so easily adaptable, you can do a low-intensity fartlek if you’re tapering for a race, or if you’re just getting back into running after an injury. Or if you want to push yourself, you can do a high-intensity fartlek to really get a good workout.

And it’s just a fun word to say! You can’t frown if you’re saying the word “fartlek.” It will help you channel your inner five-year-old boy.

man running in park fartlek workout

How to do a fartlek run

There is no right or wrong way to do a fartlek run. You can add as many speed plays as you want at any duration. But there are two distinct types of fartleks that will help you plan your next run.

Time-based fartlek

As the name implies, a time-based fartlek is an interval that occurs for a specific time duration. You have so many options for time-based fartleks, and you can’t go wrong with several time-based fartleks in particular.

Longtime coach Bill Squires encouraged the following fartlek especially if you’re building your base and if you’re new to fartleks. During your longest run of the week, run a minute surge every 6-7 minutes.

You don’t need to go crazy fast. Just 15-20 seconds per mile faster than your normal long-run pace. At the end of the minute surge, return to your long-run pace and repeat every 6-7 minutes for the duration of your run. This fartlek is great because it helps you to deal with challenging patches during a race.

Random fartleks

The name isn’t quite as obvious as time-based fartlek, but a random fartlek means switching gears and changing the pace whenever you feel like it. This kind of fartlek could be called the “by feel” fartlek.

It’s a great idea to include some shorter fartlek intervals and some longer ones, and you can even mix up how fast you decide to go during those intervals. Especially if you’re just getting started with running, this is a great way to enjoy some variation in your running.

How to incorporate fartlek workouts into your training

Just start doing them! Figure out where your fitness level is and start incorporating fartlek workouts into your training. If you’re not too confident running, start adding some random fartleks into your longer runs. The only real rule is to mix up fast and slow running during a single workout.
Fartleks are the easiest way to add speed work to your training, especially for beginners. Their versatility means you can start and stop at will – there’s no pressure to complete a set number of reps or run a certain distance.

If you’ve been running for a while or are up for a challenge, start looking up fartlek workouts that might push you harder. The possibilities are really endless.

At the end of the day, fartlek training can help you become a better runner because it gives your body something new every time. It will help with boredom, and it will help you improve.

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner