Fartlek Run Training: How To + 8 Fartlek Variations!

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Have your runs become routine and maybe a little boring?

Do you find yourself settling into the same pace for every run and zoning out as you cover the miles?

If so, maybe it’s time to add fartleks to your routine and consider experimenting with this type of run for a literal change of pace and to help keep you more engaged.

In this article, we will talk about:

  • What Is a Fartlek Run?
  • The Difference Between a Regular Interval Run and a Fartlek Run
  • The Benefits of Doing Fartleks
  • How Often To Do Fartleks
  • How To Do a Fartlek Run
  • Fun Variations on Fartleks

If fartlek runs sound intriguing, keep reading!

fartlek run training

What Is A Fartlek / Fartlek Run?

Fartlek is a Swedish word meaning “speed play,” and fartlek runs are a type of interval run.

They were created in the 1930s by Gustaf “Gösta” Holmér when he was coaching the Swedish cross country team.

He hoped that by incorporating faster intervals within longer training runs, he would help his team develop both speed and endurance.

These runs yielded positive results for the cross country team, and have been used by runners, in various forms, ever since.

Although there are many ways to run fartleks, these runs are typically unstructured and allow runners to alternate between faster and slower paces, often based on elements along the route.

Fartlek runs can be adapted to suit runners at every level and, in addition to improving endurance and speed, are likely to add variety and enjoyment to your usual running routine.

What is the Difference Between Regular Interval Training and a Fartlek Run?

A regular interval training session also involves short periods of fast running, but is more structured then a fartlek run and often requires complete rest during the recovery portions of the workout.

An interval workout, for example, may involve running 800 meters at a specific pace, for a pre-determined number of repetitions, and with timed rest periods.

This type of training is often done on a track, in fact, to aid in the precision of these workouts.

Fartlek runs, on the other hand, are typically much less structured and can be done anywhere, preferably not on a track.


Although they also involve periods of faster running, the distance, frequency, and pace of these segments will vary depending on the route, terrain, and the runner’s preference.

In other words, it’s running for fast bursts whenever you feel like it.

Runners, for example, may decide to pick up the pace when they pass a lamppost, then slow down when they reach the next lamppost, or they may sprint the hilly portions of a run and jog the downhill sections.

The variations are endless.

4 Benefits of Fartlek Runs

#1: Improve speed and endurance

As fartlek runs are typically longer runs with fast portions incorporated throughout, they force runners to adapt to different speeds over several miles and thus help improve both speed and endurance.

#2: Good preparation for races

Fartlek runs also help prepare runners for racing, as the randomness of the fast portions and the continuous nature of the overall run mimics race situations, where runners may need to pick up the pace intermittently in order to pass someone or meet a time goal.

#3: More enjoyable

While these runs are not necessarily easier than any other type of run, they may be less stressful and more enjoyable simply because the runner has more control of the intervals and pacing.

And, as most runners know, if we perceive a run as less stressful and more enjoyable, we are more likely to do them, which is always a positive.

#4: More engaged

Fartlek runs also keep runners more engaged and present.

Because these runs require frequent adjustments of pace based on elements and landmarks along the running route, they force the runner to stay focused and aware.

While it is sometimes pleasant to “zone out” during a run, being mindful of pace and surroundings can be helpful when trying to progress as a runner.

Related: Progression Runs Guide: Ramp Up Runs + 4 Progression Workouts To Try Out


How Often Should I Do a Fartlek Run?

Due to the flexible nature of a fartlek run, these workouts can be incorporated into a runnning schedule on a regular basis.

Depending on the length of the run and amount, distance, and pace of the faster portions, these runs can be a more casual replacement for a speed or tempo run, incorporated into a longer run for some variety, or simply added when the mood strikes.

If you are in the middle of a structured training plan which requires strict adherence to specific distances and paces, of course, fartlek runs may be more difficult to incorporate.

But once the training cycle has been completed and the race has been run (and after an appropriate rest period), fartlek runs can be a low-stress way to resume running and maintain fitness.


How Do I Do a Fartlek Run?

Due to the unstructured nature of fartlek runs, there aren’t many rules you need to follow to do one. You simply need to alter your pace throughout a run.

1. Choose Your Time Intervals

You can choose a timeframe for your faster portions if you want (deciding, for example, to alternate running faster for three minutes and then slower for five minutes), but by relying on time, you force yourself to focus on your watch rather than your surroundings and make the run less organic and spontaneous, thus losing some of the benefits of a more free-form fartlek run.

Therefore, you may find it more enjoyable to try the more typical fartlek run, which involves speeding up or slowing down based on actual elements along your route, such as landmarks or changes in terrain.

2. Figure Out The Length Of Your Workout

You can select the overall length of the run and the amount, distance, and pace of the faster and slower segments based on your current training and mileage.

If you are not running more than five or six miles at a time right now and are not doing any type of speed work, you may want to initially incorporate fartleks in small doses over just a few miles.

If you are running higher mileage and already doing some speed work, however, you will likely be comfortable adding fartleks throughout a medium distance run or in place of a speed workout or tempo run.


3. Find Your Playground: Identify Your Interval Markers

You can run fairly equal distances for the faster sections (between lampposts or by block, for example) or you can vary the distance and pace for each segment (interspersing very short near-sprints, for example, with longer sections just slightly above easy pace).

It may also be helpful to keep in mind that if you are training for a shorter race (such as a 5K), you may want to lean toward keeping the faster segments shorter and speedier, whereas if you are training for a longer race (such as a half marathon or marathon), you are likely to reap better results with fast segments that are a bit longer and closer to race pace than a sprint.

Additionally, while fartlek runs are traditionally continuous runs, with even the slower segments involving at least a slow jog, they can certainly be adapted for those runners who prefer a run/walk method, by simply running the faster segments and walking the slower segments.

8 Fun Ways to Do a Fartlek Run

If you look up fartlek runs online, or ask a running coach about them, you will likely get advice about speeding up or slowing down when you pass a lamppost, mailbox, tree, or building.

These types of landmarks are common and work well, but there are many other ways to structure a fartlek run to make them less predictable and more fun. These options may also keep you more engaged and less likely to zone out during your runs.


These ideas, of course, are just that — ideas — but hopefully, they will spark your imagination and inspire you to create your own unique version of a fartlek run.

1. Cars

If your running route involves cars passing by regularly, you can use those cars to guide your fartlek run.

You may decide, for example, that you will run faster when a convertible passes you and slow down when a delivery van passes you.

Or you may base your faster and slower segments on a specific color of car or a specific make and model. Perhaps you will speed up when a red car passes you and slow down when a Honda Civic goes by.

2. Bikes

If you’re sharing the path with a lot of bicycles, you can speed up when a group of bikers with matching racing jerseys breezes by and slow down when someone on a single-speed beach cruiser passes you.

Or if bicycles are a bit more random along your route, you may decide to just speed up or slow down every time a bicycle of any sort goes past in either direction.

3. People

If there are a lot of people along your route, you may decide to use them as your markers.

You may decide to speed up when you pass someone drinking a coffee and slow down when you pass someone pushing a stroller.

You could run faster when someone runs past you and then slow down when someone waves or says good morning to you as you go by.


4. Podcasts or Radio

If you are listening to a podcast or the radio while you’re out, you can speed up during the sponsor information or commercials, and return to an easier pace during the show.

5. Buildings

If you’re running through anything other than a trail or the countryside, you can use buildings as your interval triggers.

While running through a residential area, you could decide to speed up when you pass a house with a blue door and slow down when you pass a house with a white fence. You could speed up when you pass a house with a “For Sale” sign and slow down when you pass a house with an open garage door.

For more urban environments, you may, for example, decide to run faster segments after you pass a coffee shop and slow down when you pass a bus stop.

6. Dogs

If there are a lot of dogs on your running route, you can use them to create your intervals.

Perhaps you speed up when you pass a greyhound and slow down when you see a bulldog.

Of you may speed up when you see someone running with a dog and slow down when you pass someone walking two dogs.

7. Street signs

It seems almost too easy, but why not speed up when you pass a green light or speed limit sign and slow down when you see a red light, stop sign, or yield sign?

8. With a Friend

Finally, if you have a running friend who is game to try fartleks, try running together and take turns picking out landmarks along your route.

You may decide you’ll run fast to the next light, for example, and then you’ll run easier until your friend picks out the next element.


Create Your Own Fartlek Run

Hopefully these examples give you ideas for creating your own unique fartlek runs in your neighborhood.

As you plan one of these runs, and decide on the elements that will prompt you to run faster and then return to your slower pace, it may be helpful to keep these factors and options in mind:

  • Stationary or Moving: You can choose between objects that are permanent, such as street lights or traffic signs, or moving, such as cars or bicycles.
  • One or Many: You can base your intervals on one regularly occurring element, or pick a different element for every interval. Choosing one element requires less planning, but choosing different elements will keep you more engaged in the run.
  • Planned or Spontaneous: You can decide how you will run your intervals before you start, or make it up as you go. You can also decide what will signal a return to easy pace before you begin your faster segment, or you can wait until you are running your faster segment to make that decision.
  • Common or Uncommon: If you prefer intervals that are shorter and fairly regular, use common, frequently occurring elements to plan your run. If you’re in the mood for longer and less predictable intervals, simply choose more specific or unusual elements.

There really is no right or wrong way to do these runs, so feel free to embrace their unpredictability and play around with them to suit your abilities, preferences, and goals.

Hopefully, you’ll find these runs to be a great addition to your running routine, adding some variety and fun and keeping you more engaged as you cover the miles.

Now get out there and create your own unique fartlek run!

To learn more about fartleks, check out How To Run Faster with Fartleks + Fartlek Workouts

Photo of author
A lifelong runner and USATF Level 1 coach of high school cross country and track, Sarah enjoys racing all distances, from the mile to ultras. She is a recent transplant from California to Seattle and spends her free time exploring her new neighborhoods by foot.

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