Fartlek Training For Runners: How To Use Fartleks To Get Faster

Fartleks are a fun and effective speedwork session to spice up your running regime.

Fartlek runs are the perfect alternative to high-intensity running workouts and have some of the very same benefits as other speed work sessions, such as classic track work like 400s, 800sm mile repeats, or threshold runs.

However, Fartleks are less formalized and more approachable for beginners or those who are new to following a structured training plan.

These “speedplay” workouts can be a great way to add some spice to your training plan and help you get faster.

So, what exactly is a fartlek workout? What are the benefits of fartlek training runs? What kind of running pace do you use for the speed intervals in fartlek training sessions?

In this guide, we will discuss what a fartlek run involves, the benefits of fartlek training for beginners and advanced runners, and how to perform fartlek workouts as part of your training plan.

Fartlek Training For Runners: How To Use Fartleks To Get Faster 1

What is a Fartlek Workout?

“Fartlek” is a Swedish word for “speed play.” 

A fartlek run, also known as fartlek training or a fartlek workout, is a type of running workout that involves running at a faster pace than your normal easy run steady-state pace.

For example, after a 10-minute warmup of easy running, you might throw in 10 x 90 seconds of fast running at a 5k pace interspersed with your normal steady-state running pace.

Fartlek workouts are essentially like speed workouts on the track, but they may also be less structured. Some runners, for instance, may choose to use landmarks such as stop lights or lampposts to denote when to switch running speeds. 

A person running on the road.

What’s the Difference Between Fartlek Workouts and Interval Training?

One of the main differences between a fartlek workout and a traditional track speed workout with high-intensity intervals is that a fartlek run is one continuous run.

The fartlek workout involves interspersing surges or bouts of faster running within a distance run done at your normal pace.

Instead of stopping after each fast run pickup, you dial back down to your normal running pace.

However, it should be noted that before you begin the hard effort pick-up intervals in a fartlek training session, you should always do a thorough warm-up at an easy pace.

In addition, once you finish your last pick-up, you can finish the run at your normal pace and then do a cool down at an easy pace to guide your heart rate back to resting levels. 

Essentially, you will bookend a distance run with a warm-up and cool-down, and within the “meat“ of the distance run sandwich, you will add the speed play intervals based on whatever fartlek run structure you are following.

In this way, you can liken fartlek running workouts’ structure to tempo runs

As with tempo runs, your entire workout can be done without stopping when you shift gears and change your running pace.

You move right from the warm-up directly into your normal running pace, and then you will begin your hard effort speed play intervals, slowing down to your normal running speed in between each bout, and then finish the run with a cool down or an easy jog.

People sprinting on the road.

Can Fartlek Training be Done on a Treadmill?

Yes, you can do a fartlek workout on a treadmill.

Unlike traditional interval training on the track, fartlek runs can occur on any terrain, including roads, cross-country courses and trails, treadmills, grassy fields, and running tracks.

The flexibility in the terrain makes these workouts applicable to runners of a variety of disciplines, including trail runners, marathon runners, cross-country runners, road runners, and even everyday individuals doing cardio on the treadmill to lose weight or improve cardiovascular fitness.

What Are the Benefits of Fartlek Workouts for Runners?

There are many benefits of fartlek training, both from a global perspective in terms of comparing this type of workout to traditional interval training, as well as more specifically in terms of using these sessions as one of your options for speed work in your training plan.

A person running on the road.

Here are some of the top benefits:

  • More approachable for beginners as they are less stressful, formal, and intimidating than traditional interval training on the track.
  • Can be used in conjunction with heart rate training to guide your hard efforts.
  • Flexibility in terms of the terrain.
  • Builds aerobic and anaerobic fitness because you are interspersing faster running with your normal running pace without stopping. This requires you to rely on both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism while building endurance and speed training.1Bacon, A. P., Carter, R. E., Ogle, E. A., & Joyner, M. J. (2013). VO2max Trainability and High Intensity Interval Training in Humans: A Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE8(9), e73182. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073182
  • Can improve VO2 max2Mazurek, K., Zmijewski, P., Krawczyk, K., Czajkowska, A., Kęska, A., Kapuscinski, P., & Mazurek, T. (2016). High intensity interval and moderate continuous cycle training in a physical education programme improves health-related fitness in young females. Biology of Sport33(2), 139–144. https://doi.org/10.5604/20831862.1198626 or aerobic capacity.3Scribbans, T. D., Vecsey, S., Hankinson, P. B., Foster, W. S., & Gurd, B. J. (2016). The Effect of Training Intensity on VO2max in Young Healthy Adults: A Meta-Regression and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Exercise Science9(2), 230–247. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4836566/
  • Entertaining workouts: The speed play intervals can break up the monotony of a long-distance run at a steady pace while improving aerobic endurance.4Kumar, P. (2015). Effect of fartlek training for developing endurance ability among athletes. ~ 291 ~ International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health2(2), 291–293. https://www.kheljournal.com/archives/2015/vol2issue2/PartE/3-3-75-957.pdf
  • Teaches your mind and body to throw in surges and to be comfortable shifting gears and running faster, which can be useful in race day situations.
  • Allows runners to become accustomed to a variety of running speeds.5Mazurek, K., Zmijewski, P., Krawczyk, K., Czajkowska, A., Kęska, A., Kapuscinski, P., & Mazurek, T. (2016). High intensity interval and moderate continuous cycle training in a physical education programme improves health-related fitness in young females. Biology of Sport33(2), 139–144. https://doi.org/10.5604/20831862.1198626For example, you can add surges at your 5K pace or even mile pace, goal running pace for a marathon or long-distance race.
  • Scalable to different distances and running paces.
  • Easily replicated when you are cross-training if you are injured by making a hard effort to pick up intervals on whatever cross-training modality you are doing. For example, you can do this workout in the pool while running in deep water or use a spin bike or elliptical trainer.

As mentioned, one of the best things about fartlek workouts is how they are completely customizable and scalable based on your fitness level, where you are in your training plan, and the running pace that you use for your fartlek run.

Here are some examples of fartlek running workouts for beginners through more advanced athletes:

A person running on the beach.

How do you Structure a Fartlek Training Session?

There isn’t one singular way to do a fartlek workout.

This is the beauty of fartlek training.

The versatility allows beginners, 5k- ultramarathon runners, cross-country runners, and everyday individuals looking to improve fitness and run faster to incorporate a fartlek session into training by designing a workout that meets their fitness level and training goals.

#1: 20 Minute Fartlek Run

For beginners, one of the first speed work sessions I incorporate into a training plan is a 20 minute fartlek run. 

So, what is a 20 minute fartlek?

A 20-minute fartlek run is only 20 minutes from start to finish, and it is great for beginners who have built up enough aerobic endurance to run 20 minutes without stopping and are ready to start incorporating some faster running.

Here is what you will do:

  1. Warm up with three minutes of easy jogging.
  2. Run two minutes at your normal running pace.
  3. Do 8 x 30 seconds at 5k pace (this would be your goal 5K pace given the fact that most beginners probably have not done an official 5K and may not know what their 5K pace actually is. Otherwise, you can think about going at an 8 out of 10 effort for your surges) with 60 seconds at your normal running pace as the recovery intervals in between each pick-up.
  4. This would be 12 minutes of the fartlek run portion of your run session.
  5. Because the warm-up took five minutes and you have 12 minutes of speed work, you will use the last three minutes as a cool down at an easy jog.
A person running fast on the road.

#2: Half Marathon Fartlek Workout

In my work as a running coach, it seems that the half marathon has become the most popular race distance for the majority of my athletes.

This half marathon workout is a great way to break up a longer distance run while still doing a faster speed workout than regular tempo runs.

Here is what you will do:

  1. Warm-up by running 2 miles at your normal steady state running pace.
  2. Then, run 5×1 minute at your goal half marathon race pace with 30 seconds of recovery at your normal running speed in between each of the half marathon pace surges.
  3. Then, run 5×1 minute at 10k running pace with 45 seconds of recovery in between each of the 10K running pace surges.
  4. Then, run 5×1 minute at 5k pace with 60 seconds of recovery at your normal steady state running speed.
  5. Finish with 5×30 seconds at VO2 max pace or faster, trying to hit a fast pace as if you are closing in on the finish line of a big race. Take 90 seconds of recovery.
  6. End the fartlek session with a few minutes of easy jogging to cool down.
People running down the middle of the street.

#3: Fartlek Fun

This is a fun fartlek workout where you don’t need your running watch. 

Instead of doing timed interval training, you will use landmarks on your run, such as mailboxes, lampposts, telephone poles, or street signs to determine when you will start your hard effort and when you will and each of your surges.

For beginners, I suggest using mailboxes if you live in a relatively dense neighborhood with lots of houses.

Basically, you will run at a fast pace from one mailbox to the next. Then, you will run at your normal running speed until you hit the subsequent mailbox.

What makes the mailboxes fartlek run fun is that different neighborhoods and streets on your running route will have varied spacing between mailboxes, so you might get lucky and get a nice recovery, or you might get challenged with a long stretch of harder running followed by a really short recovery.

If you want something a little more predictable with your pick-up distances, you can use lampposts or telephone poles.

Most cities and neighborhoods have fairly uniform distances between subsequent lamp posts or telephone poles, so you can alternate between faster running and normal running speeds as you hit each road marker.

To really challenge yourself, you can play around with the running speeds that you use in a cyclical manner.

For example, start with your half marathon pace, then do 5k pace for the next hard effort, and then do all out sprinting for the next one.

Learning how to shift gears and change your high intensity effort is a great way to increase your heart rate, build anaerobic strength, and really capitalize on the “speed play“ component of the Swedish fartlek training method.

After all, if this training method is called speed play, it should be fun, right?!

For a guide on how to do tempo runs, check out the next article:

References

  • 1
    Bacon, A. P., Carter, R. E., Ogle, E. A., & Joyner, M. J. (2013). VO2max Trainability and High Intensity Interval Training in Humans: A Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE8(9), e73182. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073182
  • 2
    Mazurek, K., Zmijewski, P., Krawczyk, K., Czajkowska, A., Kęska, A., Kapuscinski, P., & Mazurek, T. (2016). High intensity interval and moderate continuous cycle training in a physical education programme improves health-related fitness in young females. Biology of Sport33(2), 139–144. https://doi.org/10.5604/20831862.1198626
  • 3
    Scribbans, T. D., Vecsey, S., Hankinson, P. B., Foster, W. S., & Gurd, B. J. (2016). The Effect of Training Intensity on VO2max in Young Healthy Adults: A Meta-Regression and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Exercise Science9(2), 230–247. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4836566/
  • 4
    Kumar, P. (2015). Effect of fartlek training for developing endurance ability among athletes. ~ 291 ~ International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health2(2), 291–293. https://www.kheljournal.com/archives/2015/vol2issue2/PartE/3-3-75-957.pdf
  • 5
    Mazurek, K., Zmijewski, P., Krawczyk, K., Czajkowska, A., Kęska, A., Kapuscinski, P., & Mazurek, T. (2016). High intensity interval and moderate continuous cycle training in a physical education programme improves health-related fitness in young females. Biology of Sport33(2), 139–144. https://doi.org/10.5604/20831862.1198626
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

2 thoughts on “Fartlek Training For Runners: How To Use Fartleks To Get Faster”

  1. I have been a keen runner now for 20 years and love it! I have asthma and was a size 18, 11 stone and 9 foot 4 ish when I started. ( thankfully still the same height! No shrinking yet :+))I used to run to the 1st lamp post then home…or sometimes just down the stairs and back again. But since then, I’ve joined running groups, been on running holidays, raced a few 10ks, the great south twice and 3 half marathons. Now, at 43, I run 3 miles 3 times a week and a longer 6 mile run at the weekend. I walk 4 miles for the school run most days and run around with my kids too.
    I have been a size 10, around 9 stone, for the last 18 years and have generally been able to maintain this, but I’ve found this harder recently. I love my food and I suspect often eat more than I’ve burned…but what should I be eating? I’d happily eat the same thing every day if it meant I could maintain my weight and not be constantly seeing the scales creep up to 9 stone 7, again, and having to pull myself back, again! Any thoughts would be welcomed. Thank you
    Katie

    Reply

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