The Marathon: Part VIII - Fartlek Training

One of the most useful training methods for a runner is called fartlek training.

I was exposed to fartlek training for the first time when I was in the seventh grade. My track coach, Ms. Maldonado (sorry, Ms. Maldonado, I forget your first name :( ) announced one afternoon that we would be engaging in fartlek training. You can imagine how a thirteen-year-old boy might react to a word like fartlek. In fact, forget thirteen-year-olds; you are probably thinking much the same thing right now. And so it goes for any English-speaking person who first hears about fartlek training; every introduction to these workouts requires a hand-waving explanation about the world itself. So, here it is:

For the record, ladies and gentlemen, fartlek is a Swedish word that means "speed play." 

Now that we've all grown up a little, we can get down to it.

What You Stand to Gain from Fartlek Training
Physiologically speaking, fartlek training offers all of the same benefits as interval training, namely increased speed, muscle strength endurance, and VO2-max. In fact, fartlek training is just a variety of interval training.

Another major benefit of fartlek training is that it subject the runner to a variety of running speeds over the course of a single outing. As beginners, runners are accustomed to thinking of running from the perspective that it is a singular act. What I mean is that beginners often only have one speed: jog. (I have already warned you of the dangers of jogging. See here for an important discussion of why runners must always attempt to go "beyond jogging," so to speak.) By engaging in interval training in general, and fartlek training in particular, runners acquaint themselves with not simply a "jogging speed" and a "sprinting speed," but with the full spectrum of additional speeds in between those two poles (tempo speed, race pace, goal pace, easy pace, etc., etc.).

For a runner, having a spectrum of speeds from which to draw is like a painter's having more than two colors on the palette, or a carpenter's having more than just a saw and a hammer. In my opinion, fartlek workouts are the single best way to develop a ready source of various running speeds and learn how to apply them in different contexts.

Forget about the abstract explanations; let's get practical. You have heard that you should always increase your running speed when running uphill or downhill during a race. You may have heard that doing so gives you an important edge against your competitors. Yet, if you were to actually sprint every uphill or downhill, you would run out of energy before the finish line. For this kind of approach to running and racing, you need something faster than race pace, but slower than a sprint. What is that pace? Fartlek training can help you learn what it is.

Not a racer? No problem. There will be days when your energy level is such that you cannot commit to a full-on workout, but you neither want to take a day off nor an easy day. You'll need a pace that is slower than usual, but faster than easy. Enter: fartlek training.

Differences Between Fartlek Training and Traditional Interval Training
The key difference between a fartlek and traditional interval training is also its major benefit for non-competitors, aging athletes, and novices: subjectivity.

During the course of a traditional interval workout, you may be tasked to run a given distance (say, 400 meters) at a given speed (say, 1:30, or six-minutes-per-mile pace), a given number of times (say, four times), with a given amount of rest between each repetition (say, ninety seconds). There is little-to-no room in such a workout for runners who find the pace, the amount of rest, or the total workout length inappropriate for their own needs. To make matters worse, most runners aren't even aware of what is appropriate for them, and find themselves continually frustrated as they attempt to engage in solid training that is confounded by the fact that their individual bodies need a more lax approach.

In contrast, fartlek training applies subjective speeds, distances, and durations to achieve the same basic physiological result. No one runner is forced to adhere to the broad, on-average standards of a typical workout regimen. Here we may benefit from some specific examples.

Examples of Fartlek Workouts
Tomorrow, we're scheduled for a fartlek workout. In the spirit of the occasion, I'd like you to choose your own fartlek workout. Here are some examples of fartlek training; I'm certain you'll find something that works for you.

Example 1: Team/Group Fartlek in a Single-File Line
You'll need no less than three other friends or teammates for this workout. Here's how it works. Plot a running course as you normally would. Begin running as a group, in a single-file line, with the leader setting the pace for the entire group. The leader must set an appropriate basis pace, somewhere from easy to moderate (perhaps 6 to 7 on our subjective intensity scale). As the line begins running, the person at the back of the line runs hard to the front of the line, then resumes the original pace (or sets a new one, again from easy to moderate). As soon as that person has reached the front of the line, the new "last person in line" runs hard to the front of the line. The process repeats in that way until the workout is over.

Example 2a: Simple Timed Fartlek Intervals
The easiest way to do this is to simply divide your workout into even segments and alternate pace accordingly. For example, during a 40-minute run, you may divide your time as follows:
  1. 5-minute warm-up at easy pace
  2. 6 minutes at tempo pace
  3. 6 minutes recovery at easy-to-moderate pace
  4. 6 minutes at tempo pace
  5. 6 minutes at recovery pace
  6. 5-minute cool-down at easy pace
You may divide the time segments into shorter or longer segments as desired.

Example 2b: Getting Elaborate
If you have a good watch (see here for details) and some prior experience with fartlek training, you can consider more elaborate workouts, such as this:
  1. 5-minute warm-up at easy pace
  2. 7 minutes tempo pace
  3. 3.5 minutes recovery
  4. 6 minutes tempo pace
  5. 3 minutes recovery
  6. 5 minutes tempo pace
  7. 2.5 minutes recovery
  8. 4 minutes tempo pace
  9. 2 minutes recovery
  10. 3 minutes tempo pace
  11. 1.5 minutes recovery
  12. 2 minutes tempo pace
  13. 1 minute recovery
  14. 1 minute tempo pace
  15. 5-minute cool-down at easy pace
This is a long workout, but very rewarding if done once every two weeks or so.

Example 3: The No-Brains Fartlek Workout
If this is all getting a bit too complex for you, you still have options. Here's a dead-simple way to engage in fartlek training without a running group, a watch, or the memory of an elephant. Run on a street or a path lined by streetlamps or power poles. Alternate tempo pace and recovery pace by a chosen number of power poles that you pass (say, tempo until you reach the 2nd power pole, recovery until you reach the next one, repeat). You can even do this with nearby bushes, visible cracks in the sidewalk, fire hydrants, or anything you please.

Oh and Uh, One More Thing...
My training schedule does not specify the length of time for this workout. Again, consider it a choice. Try to make sure it is longer than an easy run and shorter than a long run. Other than that, the choice is yours.

Happy running!


  1. I can wait to fartlek tomorrow!

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