What Is Fartlek Training?

Fartlek training is a kind of running training which involves random variations in speed and intensity, alternating between bursts of sprinting and slower ‘recovery’ jogging. Unlike interval training, which involves sprinting over specific distances, then recovering for specific amounts of time, fartlek training is much looser, leaving the runner to decide when and how long they will sprint or jog for.

For example, you could sprint for 85 metres, jog slowly for another 40, run at race pace for 100 metres, then surge to full sprint again for another 50 metres, before dropping to a walk.

So, what is fartlek training useful for, how should you perform it, and how does it fit in with your wider training plan?

What is fartlek training – an overview

Fartlek training was first developed in the 1930s, in Sweden, and translates roughly into English as ‘speed play’. It was initially developed at a time when there weren’t so many running tracks available for people to train on, and so this kind of running is especially useful for improving fitness on trails, parks and similar outdoor spaces. ‘Speed play’ is an accurate description of what the training involves, as you can vary intensity, speed and distance however you’re feeling at the time.

What is fartlek training good for?

Fartlek training offers runners of all levels multiple benefits. These include:

  • Improves fitness: Running at high intensity before dropping to a slower pace is widely accepted as providing multiple benefits to your body’s conditioning. Switching between low-intensity aerobic and high-intensity anaerobic exercise helps you to develop endurance and become stronger and more efficient at removing lactic acid from your bloodstream, meaning that, over time, you can run farther at a higher speed.
  • Fun and variation: If you find plodding the same running route a little dull, building some fartlek training into your sessions will add some excitement and new challenges to your workout and can help you fall back in love with running. It can also be especially fun when done in groups, with a leader choosing where the rest of the group goes, before switching over after a few minutes.
  • You can do it anywhere: Fartlek training allows you to do interval training pretty much anywhere – you don’t need to be a member of a running club, a track or a gym. You can simply put on a pair of shoes and head out into your neighbourhood, local park or the countryside.

While fartlek training offers many benefits, it also has some limitations. Specifically, its random nature means it is more or less impossible to measure progress in terms of distance, speed and recovery times. That said, the more you do of it, the more you’ll notice your general fitness improve.

When to use fartlek training in a running plan

If you’re simply looking to mix up your current running routine, fartlek exercises can be used whenever and however much you want. At the same time, they can also play a valuable part in training for specific distance runs. While some long-distance runners enjoy logging every distance and time in every aspect of their training, fartlek runs give you a method of building speed training into your programme without such an intensive focus on recording every distance – it really depends on your personal taste and motivation.

Fartlek training example

The beauty of fartlek training is the sheer creativity you can employ when doing this kind of running. There’s literally no set method for doing this kind of workout, so the best way to learn is to simply get out there and give it a go. To give you an idea of how to begin fartlek running, use the following guide to get started – but don’t treat these steps as rules – be playful with it!

  1. Visit a local park, woodland or recreation ground.
  2. Warm up for around 15–20 minutes with some fast walking, stretching and light running.
  3. Once you’re warmed up, choose a landmark in the near distance – perhaps a tree that’s about 100 metres away. Start running towards the tree, reaching a sprint.
  4. Once you reach the tree, slow down and shift to a light jog in any direction that suits you, waiting until your heart rate has dropped down.
  5. Now, choose another landmark 80 metres away and sprint towards it again.
  6. Continue repeating these variations for at least 15 minutes, changing distances and intensity of running between them over the course of your workout.
  7. Aim to build up the time you do fartlek training over a period of a few weeks.

It is also possible to imitate fartlek training on a treadmill – simply move the speed setting to ‘random’, which will force you to run at different speeds. You can of course, do the same on a track, although you won’t get quite the same fun as from doing it more ‘off-road’.

Appropriate equipment for fartlek training

Fartlek training definitely benefits from using the right equipment, especially if you’re running in the countryside and off-road. Consider getting a pair of trail running shoes to get maximum support and to reduce the risk of any painful slips on mud and grass.

Once you start using fartlek training as part of your routine, you’ll notice the benefits in no time – and might find you’re excited about where your next session will take you!