Fartlek: My Favorite “F” Word

The first time I heard the term “fartlek” was when a college coach called me during the recruiting process my senior year of high school. To be honest, at that time I was a typical high school girl and that word made me giggle. I probably thought, Fartlek? What a stupid sounding workout. Why not just do some intervals on the track?

Now I know so much better. The workout with the stupid sounding name is a valuable one to have in the training arsenal for all runners, no matter your level.

There will come a day when you either get bored with being on the track or you are intimidated with intervals on the track. Don’t get me wrong, running in circles is lots of fun but sometimes you need a fun and new way of incorporating speed work into your weekly training session. The fartlek is a great way to get faster without getting caught up with splits and paces on the track; instead you run by feel.

What is a fartlek?

Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. It’s a continuous workout that alternates between intervals of fast running with intervals of slower running. These intervals can be defined in many different ways:

  • Set Time
  • Set Distance
  • Random Time (e.g. length of a song)
  • Random Distance (e.g. from one light pole to the next)

As you see, one of the best things about doing a fartlek is that it offers a lot of flexibility and it can make working on speed and endurance a little more fun or relaxed than trying to hit a set pace on the track. Plus, fartleks are a workout that can be done almost anywhere, on any terrain and under any weather conditions!

When should you do a fartlek?

The perfect time to incorporate fartleks into a training schedule is after a break from running or if you are coming back from an injury. As a coach, I have adopted a rule from Greg McMillan: “Fartlek first, track second.” This means that when returning to faster running, before hitting the track for speed workouts, it’s better to do fartleks first.

Why have I adopted this rule? Fartleks put less pressure on runners to hit a target, and allow for a more effort-based approach to speed work, rather than a pace-focused approach. This allows a runner to ease back into speed work at a rate that suits her needs. Going off of effort is a great way to bridge the gap between doing no speed work and doing hard track work.

Another reason to consider switching from track work to fartleks is if you’re not enjoying speed work. As a coach, I may also prescribe a fartlek to an athlete who is mentally struggling, since the workout makes it hard to compare yourself to others or even against your faster more in-shape self.

The third situation I am most likely to do a fartlek is when I don’t have access to a track or a measured course for a traditional interval workout. This is often the case when I’m traveling. 

Sample Fartlek Workouts

Typically I structure fartleks so that the athlete is running the faster portions for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of the entire run, depending on the training day. Here are some of my favorites.

One on/One off

10 to 15 x 1:00 hard/1:00 easy

This is a great one to use when returning to speed work after a break. When starting out, do 10 reps and work your way up to 15. Keep in mind this one tricks a lot of runners; on paper it doesn’t sound that hard, but many runners start too fast and pay for it towards the end.

Ladders

1-2-3-4-3-2-1 hard/half-time easy

This is a fun one to mix things up. Start at a minute hard and add a minute each interval, before bringing them back down. The rest should be a jog of half the time of the hard interval (e.g. 30 seconds jog after 1:00 hard). It feels easy on the way up the ladder, but as the rests decrease on the way back down, it starts to get pretty challenging!

Non-Mile Repeats 

3 to 6 x 6:00 hard/2:00 min easy

I enjoy this one when I have mile repeats prescribed but don’t have access to a track. It’s also a good tempo substitute. 

Unstructured

These types of fartleks aren’t time structured when determining intervals. Instead, after a warm-up, you run for 20 to 40 minutes and simply use different landmarks to dictate when you alternate between your fast and slow paces. You can use telephone polls, trees, streetlights, mailboxes, or even songs if listening to music as cues indicating when you will change between your “fast” and “slow” intervals. 

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Whether you’re bored with your normal speed work, looking to add faster running for the first time but are unsure how, or just need a way to liven up some miles on the treadmill or your regular running route, adding fartleks is an easy and low-pressure way to do so!

Do you do fartleks? What’s your favorite fartlek workout?

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4 comments

  1. I love fartleks! They allow me to get in some speed and strength running without the numbers that can trigger me falling back into destructive thinking. It’s so much more fun not worry about hitting a pace.

  2. We do a lot of these with my coach, including 4x 3-2-1 (tonight) and also a 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 with short rest that is basically death on the back half. I’m not a big fan of traditional track repeats so I love that fartleks are easy to take to the roads instead!

  3. I love Fartleks! When in training my coach has me do structured fartleks pretty regularly even though I do track work and tempos too….it’s just such a good way to mix in speed but like you said- you aren’t comparing to others or even your own past workouts.

    While I like the time based ones, I also really like random true fartleks. I’m a person who loves workouts and knowing their purpose and the plan- a great way for me to shake it off is truly to go out and just run and play around with speed once in a while. I am looking forward to working these in post-baby when I start running again!

  4. Another member of the fartlek fan club here. I like that 5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5 one that Chicory mentioned. In a sick kind of way, obvs.