Fartlek Training: What Is It & How To Add It To Your Routine

March 5, 2021

This article is by Andrew Cantor, a member of the Chaski Coaching Residency Program.

Fartlek, Swedish for speed-play, is a type of workout consisting of interwoven periods harder and easier running/active recovery. The ‘on’ or faster period of running should have an assigned effort while the ‘off’ or ‘recovery period’ should be held at a normal run pace. The most common mistake in fartlek running is that the ‘on’ portion is run too fast and the ‘recovery portion’ is run too slow.

Fartleks are a great way to introduce faster paced running to the training cycle as well as build general fitness, regardless of the individual athlete’s capability. They are also great to reintroduce harder running when returning from injury. They can even be utilized to train your body to adjust to different paces that may occur within a race.

I often implement fartlek runs the week after a race to incorporate a harder training run without feeling physically and/or mentally obligated to achieve certain splits, all while allowing my mind and body to recover from the race. Due to the versatility of fartlek training, they can be incorporated in most phases of a training block, even during race-specific training as a way to break up the routine of traditional interval workouts.

The first main difference between fartlek sessions and interval sessions is that a fartlek workout is best completed by feel or effort rather than trying to cover a distance within a certain time goal. Likewise, in a fartlek the recovery period between interval repetitions consists of running at a fairly comfortable pace whereas recovery between harder interval sessions will likely be stationary, walking or very light jogging.

Fartlek workouts provide mental benefits such as the reduced pressure to achieve certain time goals or splits that we often get caught up in. The athlete can simply run by feel and let their current fitness dictate the pace. This concept is aligned with the science of deliberate practice where progress is made more rapidly when we work just outside our comfort zone for short bursts of time. This stress encourages the brain to grow the neural networks required for the new skill - such as speed.

(If you'd like to read more on deliberate practice and the benefits, check out the book, "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle, or if you'd rather watch a summary of the book check out this great video.)

Additionally, fartlek workouts can be creative. Most commonly the athlete will run at a harder effort for a prescribed time followed by a recovery period and then repeating. However, the athlete can also do things such as pick an object, such as a light pole, and focus on alternating harder and easier running between the objects.

In my personal experience, I tend to incorporate fartleks earlier in training based on identified weaknesses. For example, if I feel like my aerobic fitness is sound but need to focus more on increasing my leg turnover, I will run seven to ten repetitions of one minute hard followed by one-minute of easy run pace.

If I need to improve my high-end aerobic capacity and am not feeling a tempo run or longer interval repeats, I will do a fartlek consisting of four to five repetitions consisting of five minutes of harder running with 45-60 seconds of easy pace running in between. If I want to do something more creative and touch on multiple paces/stimuli, I will do a ladder where my ‘on periods’ descend from five minutes to four minutes to three minutes and so forth, each broken up by an easy running period equal to 50% of the time of the ‘on period.’

Below are some of my favorite fartlek routines:

·         Ten reps of one minute ‘on’ (at perceived 5K race pace effort) and one minute easy;

·         Six reps of three minutes ‘on’ (at perceived 10K race pace effort) and one minute easy;

·         Four reps of five minutes ‘on’ (at half marathon race pace effort) with ninety seconds easy followed by six reps of 30 seconds hard (at perceived mile race effort) with 90 seconds easy;

·         Ladder repetitions with ‘on segments’ of one minute, two minutes, three minutes, two minutes, one minute with one minute of easy running in-between each reputation (my current fitness level will dictate how many times I cycle through this ladder).

·         Alternating between ‘on’ segments of two minutes (perceived 10k effort) and 45 seconds (perceived mile race effort) with one minute easy in-between each rep and repeat.

One will notice the prescribed paces are written as perceived effort. The athlete should not set out to cover a certain distance during the ‘on’ portion but rather run based on feel. This allows the athlete to keep the ‘off’ portions of the run honest as well, adapting to any hills on their route or other things that may impact a training day (life/circumstantial stress, time of day, weather, etc.)

So long as they are done correctly, fartlek runs add versatility into the training helping the athlete in a variety of ways ranging from but not limited to injury setback, improving general fitness, providing mental relief from interval training, or identifying and improving weaknesses!

— Andrew Cantor

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