What the Hell Is a Fartlek Run?

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You probably heard of the long run, the tempo run and the interval training. But do you know what a Fartlek is and how it can help you improve? Keep on reading if you wanna know more about this exciting and varying training method for endurance runners.

The Origins of the Fartlek

Let’s first figure out what the word Fartlek stands for since it is not English. Fartlek is Swedish and means speed play (fart = speed, lek = play) and indicates that this training method has a playful approach and is not that strict regarding speed and intensity as other training methods. The Fartlek was found in 1937 by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér and has been widely used by other coaches and physiologists ever since. Holmér, an athlete himself before becoming a coach, searched for new training methods for the struggling Swedish cross-country team that was beaten by the arch rival Finns like Paavo Nurmi in the 20s. He tried to develop a workout that focuses on both faster-than-race speed training as well as endurance. The result was the Fartlek.

Gösta Holmér - the coach that developed the Fartlek

Gösta Holmér – the coach that developed the Fartlek

Basically a Fartlek is a type of interval training where you mix slow running with some intervals of faster running usually at a pace a bit higher than your anticipated race pace. The difference to the normal interval training is that the intervals are not fixed in length or time. And did the Swedish runners actually had some success with this newly designed training method? Well they did but obviously it’s hard to say how much of the success was due to the Fartlek. The most successful Swedish runner of that time was Gunder Hägg who not only exchanged the one mile world record with fellow Swedish runner Arne Andersson for over five years but also set ten world records within three months in 1942 in distances from 1,500m to 5,000m. After these achievements the word Fartlek spread around the athletics community and was established as a respected training method also outside of Sweden.

How to Perform a Fartlek Run

So how does a Fartlek run look like? Well since it is not a strict workout probably every Fartlek run that is done looks a bit different. Here I’ll outline the first Fartlek session that was described by coach Holmér but as you can read further below there are a lot of variations to it and you can also design your own style. Your fantasy is the limit with this type of workout.

Holmérs First Fartlek Session

– Slow running for 5 to 10 minutes to get you warmed up
– Steady, hard speed for 1.5–2.5 km (0.9–1.6 mi)
– Rapid walking for about 5 minutes to get recovered
– Speed work: easy running interspersed with sprints of about 50–60 metres (160–200 ft). Repeated until you get a bit tired.
– Easy running with three or four short fast pace sections now and then to simulate the race situation when you don’t want to get overtaken by another runner
– Full speed uphill for 175–200 metres (570–660 ft).
– Fast pace for 1 minute.

The whole routine is then repeated until the total time prescribed on the training schedule has elapsed.

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What About the Benefits

Ok now you know about the history of the Fartlek and how you do a basic Fartlek run. But what are the benefits of this training method and how is it different from other speed or interval work.

Improves Endurance and Speed

If you run slowly for a certain period of time your ability to run longer increases. Since easy running is the base of the Fartlek you train this endurance. But with speeding up regularly to a faster-than-race pace you also train your cardiovascular system which helps you to maintain a higher pace. So you get two birds with one stone when you do Fartleks.

Burns More Energy

When you change the pace during a run more energy gets burned compared to running at a steady pace. As with other speed work the Fartlek helps you to burn more calories in less time and is therefore more efficient if you try to lose weight.

Easily Adjustable

Since the only fix rule in Fartleks is to increase your pace several times on a run it is very easy to adjust to your personal needs. Athletes of every level can fit Fartleks into their training schedule and you can also change the workout while you are running depending on how you feel that day. I usually don’t plan Fartlek sessions at all before I do them, I just head out, warm up and see how much I can do that day.

Breaks Up Monotony

In my opinion this is the biggest advantage of Fartlek runs compared to other speed work trainings or steady pace runs. It is a very entertaining training method that can change every time you head out for it. This is especially the case if you try some of the variations of the Fartlek run.

Variations You Can Do

Now this is where the real fun of the Fartlek begins. As mentioned before the fantasy is the limit, you can do whatever you want during a Fartlek run as long as you increase your speed every once in a while. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Music Fartlek

Quite a lot of runners listen to music. If you do so as well you can use your songs to give you the time for an increased speed interval. For example you can run fast for a song and slow down again for two songs or you can speed up on every chorus, guitar solo, intro or whatever your type of music gives you. If you need some inspiration on running tunes check out the series I’ve got going. It started some weeks ago with this post.

Object Fartlek

This is the type of Fartlek I do the most. Just pick an object that is on your way and speed up until you reached it. This could be a turn, a certain house or tree, a building, a river crossing or whatever is along your route. This can make routes you ran many times interesting and kind of new again

Impress Someone Fartlek

Be honest, haven’t you run behind a good looking girl/guy and speeded up to impress that certain person? Well if yes this can be a variation of your Fartlek. If you run after work or on weekends when a lot of other runners are on their way you could speed up if you see another person in front of you. After you passed that runner and are out of sight you can again slow down 🙂

Get Away From Dog Fartlek

I’m not particularly scared of dogs but im definitely not a dog person. So if I’m running in a park and see a dog on my way I speed up in order to get away from it. Sometimes the dogs want to play (at least that’s what their masters tell me when a dog is chasing me) and then I automatically speed up. After all this can also be considered as a forced Fartlek 🙂

What variations come into your mind and what works best for your Fartlek runs? Let us know in the comments section!

Happy running

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One comment on “What the Hell Is a Fartlek Run?”

  • bee says:

    Interesting post!! I do the fartlek with my music but just never knew it. My dog is the dog that makes other people do a fartlek. In my neighbourhood I do fartlek to avoid dodgey neighbours..

    So many reasons and ways to fartlek 🙂

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