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

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The word may make you do a double-take, but the trusty fartlek is a respected workout that can add a touch of fun to your runs while boosting your performance at the same time.

Never heard of a fartlek run? Or have you purposefully avoided trying fartleks because they sound like something weird and uncomfortable? We’ve got good news—they’re easy, fun, and worthwhile to make a faster and stronger runner.

So let’s get into it—what is a fartlek run, how do you add them to your training, and how do fartlek workouts help your running? We’ve got some answers, so keep reading to learn how to use them.

What Is a Fartlek Run?

Fartleks are, in their basic form, interval runs. They fall under the general umbrella of speedwork. ”Fartlek” means “speed play” in Swedish, but they’re usually a less structured, more easygoing form of intervals than you would do at a track.

Your intervals in a fartlek run are a bit less formal. You can structure them however you’d like, aiming for time, distance, or just the next corner along your route.

How Are Fartleks Different from Intervals?

The biggest difference is that fartleks involve continuous running with unstructured periods of speed and recovery, each with different speeds.

Intervals are done at a set distance (or time) with a set amount of recovery – think 5 x 800 meters with 200 meters of recovery.

Fartlek runs are intervals, but they’re just intervals of varying speeds. Faster intervals, slower intervals, moderately-paced intervals… There’s no set structure here. Fartleks are unpredictable, unlike interval training.

Most runners do intervals at a track, too, so they are done on a flat, controlled surface. Fartleks should be done anywhere along a running route – they could be uphill, downhill, or a mix of both.

Benefits of Fartlek Workouts

If you’re not running fartleks already, you should be! Here are plenty of great reasons for adding fartleks to your training—and it doesn’t matter what level of runner you are.

Excellent Intro to Intervals

Intervals can be difficult for beginners. But fartleks are way easier—they’re less rigid and less formal, allowing you to get used to the feeling of running faster in a more comfortable way.

Extremely Versatile

Fartlek alone, or fartlek with friends. Do it at a higher or lower intensity, whatever suits you and your goals at the time. Beginners, intermediates, and experienced runners can incorporate and benefit from fartlek runs.

May Boost Lactate Threshold

One of the ways in which fartleks edge out intervals is the fact that they keep you running throughout the workout. This continuous exercise trains your body to better handle the lactate building up in your body, ultimately increasing your lactate threshold and improving performance.

Increases Overall Fitness

Fartleks are a great test of endurance. Do them often, and your endurance will increase, raising your baseline fitness level and overall performance in running and other sports.

Great Way to Build Mental Toughness

Fartlek runs aren’t as easy as they sound. Pushing yourself to stay running requires serious mental work, even if it’s not at an elevated pace. So if you do this right, you’ll get both a physical and a mental workout!

Keeps Things Interesting

Most runners find fartleks a fun, interesting way of breaking up your regular training routine. They’re not as intense as regular intervals, but at the same time, not as monotonous as doing yet another easy run.

Fartlek Session Structure Examples

Looking to add fartleks to your training? Here are the many ways you can do them. Pick what works for you and give it a go!

Classic Fartlek

The original, alternating between faster running and slower jogging. You don’t have to use time or distance for your intervals here—the classic fartlek is based on landmarks.

Your first interval might be from a fire hydrant to the corner at a fast pace. From there, you would slow to a “recovery” jog until, let’s say, the street lamp halfway down the road.

Once you reach it, kick back into gear for another fast interval, maybe from the street lamp to the dumpster at the end of the road. You can eyeball your route online ahead of time and plan your intervals if you’d like. This may be preferable for newbies.

Once you’re used to it and can judge distance and time pretty well, you can do your intervals on the fly. This is when it gets fun and random!

Example

  • 5-minute warm-up jog and dynamic stretching
  • 20-minute run, continuously
  • Allow the landscape to inspire your intervals
  • Include at least 3 x 1- to 2-minute intervals at a faster pace
  • Follow each faster interval with a 1-minute recovery jog
  • 5-minute cool-down jog and static stretching

Distance-Based Fartlek

If you like having a number to work towards, you can do a distance-based fartlek run instead of a landmark-based one. It’s a bit more structured than the classic free-running fartlek, but might be easier for many.

Choose from short or long fartleks. Short fartlek runs have you running at a speed for 100 to 500 yards, with 50 to 400 yards of recovery jogging between. The track is the perfect place for it as you won’t have to keep checking your watch for distance.

Long fartleks are better suited to more experienced runners. They involve running for a “fast interval” of 500 yards minimum and a follow-up recovery jog of about half the distance of your fast interval.

Time-Based Fartlek

Prefer to run for time? Time-based fartleks work the same way as distance-based ones, except with a different goal metric.

Short-time fartleks have one to three minutes of fast running, followed by ½ to 2 minutes of light jogging for recovery. Long ones have a minimum fast-run period of 3 minutes, with a recovery period of half that.

Pyramid Fartlek

Pyramid fartleks start short and progressively increase the time or distance of your intervals. They keep increasing to a point, then decreasing back to the starting point—like the rise and fall of the point on a pyramid.

For example, start with a 30-second fast session and a 30-second recovery jog. In your next fast session, run for a minute, followed by a 1-minute slower jog. Next one, up it to 2 minutes, then to 3 minutes, then back down to 2 minutes, 1 minute, and 30 seconds.

Example

  • 5-minute jog and dynamic stretching
  • Faster interval for 1 minute, recovery jog for 1 minute
  • Faster interval for 2 minutes, recovery jog for 2 minutes
  • Faster interval for 3 minutes, recovery jog for 3 minutes
  • Faster interval for 2 minutes, recovery jog for 2 minutes
  • Faster interval for 1 minute, recovery jog for 1 minute
  • 5-minute cool-down jog and static stretching

Hill Fartlek

Mix fartleks and hills for a great cardiovascular workout! An easy way to do this is to run hard on the uphills and take it easy on the downhills. Recommended more for intermediate to advanced runners.

How to Do Fartlek Running Workouts

Ready to start fartlek runs? Here’s how to put them together and start doing them correctly.

1. Choose Your Running Route

We advise choosing a fairly familiar route, especially if using landmarks. If you’re using time, you can run pretty much anywhere if you have a watch or timer indicating when each interval starts and stops.

If you’re running for distance, the track is a great place to train, as there’s no need for measuring. Pick your ideal fartlek spot depending on what kind of run you want to do.

2. Decide On Your Run-to-Rest Ratio

Once you know what type of run and where you’re doing it, decide what kind of intervals you want to do. Are you planning on doing a short fartlek or a long fartlek? How short is short, or how long is long?

Nail down your times or distances. Now is also a good time to set up intervals on your smartwatch so you’re prepared for the run.

3. Start Slowly

Yes, a warm-up is necessary for fartleks, too. Do a 5- to 10-minute jog and some dynamic stretches to get the blood flowing, and then you’ll be ready to dive into your first interval.

Start with a faster interval. Don’t try to reach your fast pace immediately. Start slow and gradually build up as you move through your fast interval.

4. Speed Up

After starting your speed interval easy, speed up naturally until you’re running at a fast but doable pace. It should build up in speed, not go from zero to hero in a flash. Once you’re there, maintain that pace for the rest of the interval.

You don’t need to go all-out for these sessions—you should feel like you’re being challenged but not like you’re at your max. Maintain your pace, aim for the time or distance goal, and make sure to keep your form.

5. Monitor Time or Distance

As you’re running, you’ll need to keep track of your time or distance, unless you’re doing a landmark-based fartlek. You’ll also need to keep track of how many intervals you’ve done and how many are still to come. You can use a smartwatch or an app, or simply keep track in your head.

6. Recover by Running at Your Easy Pace

Once your first speed interval is over, slow down to a comfortable jog. During this period, your heart rate should drop before you kick into your next faster interval. Don’t stop or slow to a walk here—keep jogging!

7. Repeat Steps 3 to 6

Once your recovery time is over, flip back over into your speed interval. Start slowly speeding up until you’re at a comfortable, fast pace, then maintain it over your chosen time or distance until your next recovery period comes.

You can continue as many times as possible, although we recommend 15 to 20 minutes in total for beginners. More advanced runners can increase from there.

8. Cool Down

Don’t neglect the cool-down! Take a 5 to 10-minute slow jog to allow your heart rate to slow down naturally. This also gives you time to catch your breath, and helps prevent dizziness or lightheadedness after your workout.

How Often Should You Do Fartleks?

Once a week is enough for fartlek training, but you can do it more than once if you want to. If you struggle with interval training or find long runs monotonous, you can switch out an interval session or a long run here and there for a fartlek.

It will build up your base fitness level and help you get in your mileage with less chance of overtraining.

Tips to Incorporating Fartlek Runs Into Your Routine

Now you know the benefits of fartlek runs and the fun of adding them into your routine. When you add them into your routine, take note of these tips so you can get the most benefit out of them.

Warm Up Properly

Just because fartleks aren’t all-out speed workouts, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to warm up. A few minutes of light jogging and a couple of dynamic stretches are all you need to get your heart pumping and blood to the muscles.

Start Slowly

New to fartleks? Start with shorter, slower intervals. As your fitness improves, you can lengthen your intervals and increase your intensity. If you’re more experienced, you can choose longer sessions from the start but still start your fast sessions gradually and build up in speed.

Vary Your Sessions

You don’t have to stick to structured intervals every time. It’s perfectly okay to run for 1 minute, rest for 1 minute, and then run hard for 30 seconds and rest for 2 minutes. It’s up to you to structure it as you will, as long as you switch between fast and slow intervals.

Hydrate and Fuel For Your Workout

Fartleks can be intense. Unless you specifically want to train fasted, eat a light meal of carbs and protein about an hour before your fartlek run. Also, stay hydrated before and during your run. It may be wise to keep an electrolyte tablet nearby in case you feel you need it.

Incorporate Fartlek Wisely

While you can do fartleks multiple times a week, it’s not optimal for everyone. Figure out the best ratio for you based on your training program. As fun as you might find them, stick to once or twice a week to avoid overtraining.

Monitor Progress

It’s a good idea to keep a training log so you can monitor your progress and see how your fitness and performance is improving. Make a note of things like the type of fartlek you did, how you felt on the day, and your times or distances. Compare to previous runs to see your progress.

Stay Consistent

Consistency is always the key. You’ll need to stick to your fartlek runs for at least three months to start seeing real progress, but keep at it—you’ll reap the rewards if you stick to it.

Listen to Your Body

If you’re feeling overly tired or feel pain or niggles, it might be your body telling you to chill out a bit. Don’t be afraid to cut a run short or lower your intensity—it’s a victory if you manage to avoid an injury by listening to your body.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.