Improve Your Fitness With the Fartlek Training Method

Fartlek training

Fartlek Training Definition:

The Swedish term fartlek means speed play. The fartlek method was developed by Swedish track and field athlete Gustaf Holmér in 1930. Fartlek running typically involves a low-moderate intensity distance run interspersed with periods of fast-paced running.

Fartlek running is free and creative, allowing you to run fast or slow according to your mood and surroundings. The timing, duration, and intensity of the run are unplanned. 

Traditional fartlek running is continuous and unstructured, using landmarks and terrain as inspiration. A fartlek run might include fast-paced running up a hill or short sprints between lampposts.

Playing with speed using the fartlek training method is a fun way to develop both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems as well as improve performance. 

What Are the Benefits of Fartlek Training?

Running with the fartlek training method requires constant adaptation to terrain and pace. This brings multiple physiological and psychological benefits beyond simple endurance running.    

Fartlek Training Benefits:

  1. Have Fun: Fartlek is literally “playing” with speed. The freedom and creativity of choosing your own pace bring satisfaction and motivation.[1]
  2. Climb Every Mountain: Taking on natural inclines and declines as part of a fartlek run is a great way to add intensity to your workout. Running uphill and downhill recruits more muscle fibers and utilizes different muscles, respectively.[2,3,4,5]
  3. Get Faster: Speedwork develops the metabolic pathways and musculature required for running faster. Include sprints in your speed play for maximum effect.[6]
  4. Power and Performance: Fartlek running elicits a training effect similar to sprint intervals. The stimulus of high-intensity, fast-paced running enhances aerobic capacity and muscular endurance.[7,8]
  5. Ninja Skills: Learning to negotiate changes in pace, terrain, and gradient helps develop coordination and balance, which, combined with strengthened muscle and connective tissue, helps prevent injury.[9,10,11] 
  6. Race Tactics: Adapting to mood and surroundings with fartlek training is a great way to develop a race day strategy. Learn when to push harder and when to slow down. As with racing, there are no breaks in fartlek running!

Fartlek vs. Interval Training – What’s the Difference?

The main difference between fartlek and interval training is that fartlek is continuous. There are no breaks, only a change of pace. With interval training, there are clearly defined periods of high intensity followed by a set period of rest or very light active recovery.

Fartlek running, therefore, pushes the body to adapt to frequent bursts of speed without a subsequent rest period. Running continues but at a slower pace. This is a more realistic simulation of race conditions.

Interval training alternates between two intensities – high and low. With fartlek training, the intensity constantly varies according to preference and terrain. Although both training methods emphasize speedwork, the effects on physiology and psychology are not the same. 

As fartlek running is by definition a workout of undefined duration and intensity, it is difficult to study under scientific conditions. Anecdotally, however, it is considered an effective way to prepare for the mental and physical challenges of middle to long-distance events. 

Looking For Fartlek Training Examples? Try These Workouts.

Classic Fartlek Workout:

This straightforward workout is all about playing with speed. There is no formula except to include three sixty-second speed intervals. Everything else is up to you. 

Try to feel the intensity. You can use the 10-point perception of exertion scale as a rough guide. Moderate pace should feel like a 4-6 out of 10 (heart rate training zone 3); fast or hard pace should feel like a 7-8 out of 10 (heart rate training zone 4) with occasional all-out efforts at 9-10 out of 10 (heart rate training zone 5).

  • Raise heart rate and body temperature with a 10-minute warm-up at low intensity
  • Run continuously for at least 20 minutes
  • Allow your mood and the landscape to inspire your pace
  • Include at least 3 x 1-minute speed intervals at a fast pace 
  • Follow each speed interval with 1 minute at low intensity – jog or walk if necessary
  • Cool down with a 5-minute walk at low intensity
  • TOTAL workout time = 35 minutes

Mona Fartlek Workout:

The Mona Fartlek workout was developed by elite long-distance runner Steve Moneghetti. The workout is a variation on traditional fartlek running, alternating between periods of “on” and “off” running. 

“On” means hard or fast-paced. “Off” means you ease off the gas; a low-moderate pace, which is sometimes referred to as “float pace” or “recovery”. The actual intensity is still self-selected in the traditional fartlek style.

  • Raise heart rate and body temperature with a 10-minute warm-up at low intensity
  • Run for 90 seconds on, followed by 90 seconds off; repeat x 2
  • Run for 60 seconds on, followed by 60 seconds off; repeat x 4
  • Run for 30 seconds on, followed by 30 seconds off; repeat x 4
  • Run for 15 seconds on, followed by 15 seconds off; repeat x 4
  • Cool down with a 5-minute walk at low intensity
  • TOTAL workout time = 35 minutes

Fartlek running is a versatile training method for every fitness level. If you are just beginning your journey to fitness, a self-paced 20-minute jog or walk with periods of quicker jogging or walking is a good place to start. Gradually increase the pace of “on” and “off’ running over several weeks to build fitness and stay motivated. Time for some speedplay! 

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Abe Ankers Abe’s background in sports science and exercise physiology comes in handy when he’s running and cycling. He likes to share his insights with others. View all posts by Abe Ankers »