Fartlek training is valued by elite runners and beginners alike. It touches both speed and endurance – and above all – it’s fun.
“The Swedish term fartlek means speed play.”
Before introducing 4 fartlek training examples, I will briefly define fartlek and how it compares to structured runs such as VO2max intervals and tempo runs.
The Benefits of Fartlek Training
Fartlek training is a concept developed by the Swedish coach Gösta Holmér, which roughly translates as “speed play”. Fartleks are predominantly aerobic, relatively unstructured, and use different paces in the same workout. This is particularly useful in the first weeks of a training program and towards the end of it. Let me explain:
During the base phase, fartlek runs introduce some faster running to otherwise easy runs in the form of short surges. For example, you could start with surges at 1500m pace at the final 200m of each easy mile. That prepares you for the more rigid VO2max sessions in the weeks to come.
On training days that eventually become tempo runs, you could alternate a mile at an easy pace with a mile at marathon pace. Then steadily increase the segment of marathon pace or increase the speed to HM pace – though not both at the same time.
During the final weeks of training, you could use a Fartlek occasionally that resembles the demands of race day. Here you can use a variety of intensities faster and slower than race pace. Practice responding to a sudden pace increase of a competitor or surging uphill on a hilly race profile. This will prepare you physically and mentally for race day.
Fartlek runs can also be useful when you feel under the weather. Rather than quitting a structured workout or making it solely an easy run, you can randomly perform a few surges at the assigned pace for that day. That way, you will preserve your fitness and still respect your body’s (or mind’s) need for recovery.
Fartlek vs. Interval and Tempo Training
First, fartlek runs are predominantly aerobic interspersed with surges, whereas interval and tempo training only use an easy pace for the warm-up, recovery, and cool-down. Think of fartleks as easy runs with frequent surges of different durations. As a rule of thumb, at least 50 percent of the fartlek should be run at an easy pace.
Second, fartlek runs are relatively unstructured. Whereas other workout formats are rigid in their format, the fartlek lets you decide by feel. But having no set structure to follow is certainly no valid excuse for taking it easy. Contemplate how your fartlek will fit into the overall structure of your training week.
Third, fartlek runs can use different paces in the same workout. Interval training and tempo runs typically have one pre-defined intensity for a set duration, such as 5x 800m at 5K pace or 4 miles at half-marathon pace. Fartleks are random in both intensity and duration of faster efforts. Ignore your running watch and speed up or slow down at will.
In the following paragraphs, you’ll find 4 fartlek training examples.
The “Base-Phase” Fartlek
The base phase is training to get ready for real training. Plenty of aerobic running sprinkled with short but very fast efforts to build the aerobic engine and neuromuscular power. In other words, the base phase is highly polarized with efforts at the extreme ends of the intensity spectrum. VO2max intervals and tempo runs are typically left out or are at least de-emphasized.
Yet, distance runners don’t need to hit the track for dedicated speed sessions. Faster efforts are simply included in easy runs. That’s where base-phase fartleks come in. The two intensities I recommend are 100 – 200m at 1500m pace on flat terrain and 50m at a relaxed but near-maximal effort uphill.
Note: There’s no point in running longer repetitions at that pace. The desired adaptation is not lactate tolerance; the goal is neuromuscular power to prepare for full-blown VO2max intervals at 5K to 3K race pace later in the training cycle.
Thus, a base phase fartlek could be as simple as a 6-mile easy run with 100m at 1500m pace (or 50m uphill sprints) at the end of 4 of the middle miles. Ideally, you have 2 of these fartleks in your base phase training weeks at least 48h apart.
The “Mona” Fartlek
The Mona Fartlek was created by the Australian distance runner Steve Moneghetti. A great workout for getting used to pace changes. Unlike other formats, the Mona Fartlek is structured with time-based intervals. The idea is to touch upon various paces getting faster with each set. It’s a good training session to employ in the middle of your training cycle.
Here’s the sequence: 2x 90 sec, 4x 60 sec, 4x 30 sec, 4x 15 sec. The recovery jogs are the same length as the efforts.
For 5K and 10K training, start with 10K pace and finish at 1500m/mile pace. For HM and marathon training start at 10mile/15K pace and finish at 3K pace. Sandwich this session with a solid warm-up and cool-down.
The “Surroundings” Fartlek
As the name implies, the “surroundings” fartlek takes advantage of your training course profile.
If you live in flat terrain, pick landmarks in the distance such as trees or buildings to speed up. After reaching the landmark, recover with easy running. Repeat. Since it’s not a predefined interval workout, you can change the intensity and duration randomly. If you are blessed with hills in your area, you can speed up on hilly sections and slow down on the descents.
But that doesn’t mean you should completely trash yourself in this workout. Bear in mind how the fartlek fits into your training week. It should be enough to stimulate a sufficient training response but not to the point where it jeopardizes upcoming training sessions.
The “Pyramid” Fartlek
A pyramid fartlek can be structured in many ways, but my favorite is the 1-2-3-2-1 pyramid. Each number represents minutes for the effort as well as the rest period. Shorter intervals are run at a faster pace than the longer interval(s). Since the workout is measured by time instead of distance, it’s designed to be run on the road.
1 min at 5K pace, 2 min at 10K pace, 3 min at HM pace, 2 min at 10K pace, 1 min at 5K pace — all with a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio.
You can run 2 or 3 sets of this workout as you get fitter with 5 min jogging recoveries between sets. Precede the pyramid fartlek with a substantial warm-up of 2 – 3 miles and a few accelerations toward mile pace. End it with a cool-down of 1 – 2 miles.
I hope at least one of the fartlek training examples finds its way into your training routine.
The advice given here should be part of a structured and progressive training plan. A mishmash of random workouts can lead to injury and sub-par performances despite best intentions. If you want to take the guesswork out of training, consider a training plan or the individualized 1-on-1 online coaching.