6 Fartlek Workouts

What is a fartlek workout? This method was developed by a Swedish track athlete named Gustaf Holmer in the 1930’s and is a combination of the Swedish word for “speed” (fart) and “play” (lek). The original fartlek training involves frequently increasing and decreasing the running speed and thereby the training load when running outdoors. The effort and interval duration are not planned; these are determined by the terrain or running surface and can be alternated according to how you feel during the workout. The effort then varies throughout the workout.

Unlike your long run, tempo runs or intervals, during the fartlek run your body is constantly adapting to different speeds and surfaces. There are many advantages to this type of workout, including:

  • The continuous change between effort and recovery increases endurance when your heart rate is in the upper range. The body is forced to push itself harder for longer periods, thus boosting your overall endurance level.
  • Changing pace and surface also works the tendons and muscles more, allowing your muscles to get stronger and helping to prevent injuries
  • If your fartlek workout is on a hilly course, you will also get the added benefit of greater balance, coordination, and flexibility.

One of the differences between a fartlek workout and intervals is you don’t have specified time periods of higher intensity speed running and recovery runs but rather let your body dictate your workout.

But, even with this idea of running your fartlek runs by feel, rather than time there are different types of fartlek workouts you’ll want to consider.

Base Fartlek

The base fartlek run is pretty simple, as you will add “surges” into your base run every 5 – 7 minutes, and these surges should last about 1 minute; however, you should base both the length of the surge and its speed based on how you recover. After your surge, if you find it difficult to return to your normal base run rhythm consider slowing down your surge speed. Remember, it’s all about feel and not driven by having to keep a specified pace during the surge.

Random Fartlek

Given the concept of “speedplay”, the random fartlek may be the workout that best represents what the originator of this type of run intended. In this case, you let your body determine when you surge; how long your surge lasts; and the speed of the surge. If you’re having a particularly good running day, you may shorten the time between surges, lengthen the time you surge or increase the speed at which your surge. And, if it’s a great day you may do a combination of all three.

Just remember, let your body dictate this workout.

Descending Fartlek

While this workout will show some specific times for both the surge and the recovery periods, please note you can adjust based on your fitness level and how you feel that day. The concept behind the Descending Fartlek is to start with longer surges, decreasing the length of the surge as you get further into your run; typically, as you decrease the length of your surge you’ll increase the speed of the surge but not to the point you can’t recover well enough before the next surge. Below is an example of a Descending Fartlek:

  • Run 6 minutes at half marathon pace (3-minute recovery jog/walk)
  • Run 5 minutes at slightly faster pace (2:30 minute recovery jog/walk)
  • Run 4 minutes at slightly faster pace (2:00 minute recovery jog/walk)
  • Run 3 minutes at slightly faster pace (1:30 minute recovery jog/walk)
  • Run 2 minutes at slightly faster pace (1:00 minute recover jog/walk)
  • Run 1 minute at roughly 5K pace

If this seems like too much for you, based on your fitness level you can adapt by starting lower on the ladder, regulating your speed based on how your body feels or increasing the recovery period or some combination of all three.

Progression Fartlek

In this particular workout, you’ll regulate your speed during the surge period starting out slower and then picking up the pace as you continue the surge; for example, you can run at a steady base pace then add in a 2 minute surge and, breaking this surge into 30 seconds increments. In the first increment, you’ll transition out of your base run pace; in the next three 30 second increments you’ll gradually increase your surge speed in each increment. How frequently you surge during your run, as well as the speed of the surges should all be driven by how your body feels.

Ladder Fartlek

The Ladder Fartlek is, in essence, a combination of Descending and Progression Fartleks; you’ll run a base run pace and add in roughly 2:30 seconds of surges whenever your body is telling you it feels good enough to surge.

During these surges, you’ll have five 30 second increments building up your surge speed and peaking during the third 30 second increment then taking your foot off the pedal gradually during the next 2 increments until you’re back down to your base run pace at the end of the surge.

As with the others, let your body dictate when you surge; the speed of the surge and the length of the recovery but always work the “ladder” into the surge.

Group Fartlek

This one sort of flies in the face of letting your body determine when and how to surge, but if you have a running group or even just a running partner this can be fun and can push your limits. In this workout, each person in the group can call for a surge, determine how long the surge is and at what pace; once that surge is done, you get back into a base run rhythm until the next person calls for a surge.

It’s helpful to run with similarly paced runners for the Group Fartlek, and let natural competition and fun drive you a bit.

Keep running and be safe!!

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Rich Flaherty is a middle of the pack runner and triathlete, whose only real claim to fame is his daughter Bekah Brooks qualified for the Boston Marathon in her first marathon.


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