Fartlek: Train Smart, Run Fast

Fartlek training is commonly used to improve endurance and speed for runners. It was designed to mix up a running routine to keep it fun. However, there are other benefits. So, if you are looking for a change of pace, let's explore everything you need to know about fartlek training, its many benefits, and whether it can help improve your speed.

Key takeaways:
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    Fartlek training is a type of speed work that involves varying your pace and intensity during a run.
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    Fartlek training is more easygoing and relaxed than other types of interval training.
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    Fartlek training is highly adaptable and can benefit runners of any fitness level.
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    Fartlek offers benefits like increasing aerobic and anaerobic capacity, boosting cardiovascular fitness, and increasing speed.
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    Fartlek can help improve your overall race performance.

What is fartlek training?

Fartlek training is a type of flexible interval training used as speed work in running. In fact, fartlek is a Swedish term for “speed play.” Trainer Gosta Holmer developed the concept in the mid-1930s to help give runners more variety and freedom in their workouts. Fartlek training involves varying your pace and intensity during a run.

This helps increase your VO2 max, which is commonly used to measure cardiorespiratory fitness. A higher VO2 max can help:

  • Decrease lactic acid in the muscles
  • Increase fat burn
  • Improve endurance
  • Increase exercise capacity

How fartlek training compares to other interval training

Although fartlek training is considered a type of interval training, it is much more easygoing than other types of interval work. Fartlek training allows you to vary your pace throughout a run based on how your body feels. There is no set time limit on running or resting intervals. However, the focus is continual running, with your speed being varied for resting intervals.

Fartlek running can be tailored to fit your needs rather than a specific interval schedule. Now let's see how fartlek compares to tempo workouts and interval running.

Fartlek training vs. tempo workout

Tempo running, also known as threshold running, involves maintaining a steady pace slightly below your maximum effort. It is typically done at a challenging but sustainable pace for an extended period, usually around 20 minutes to an hour.

Tempo running uses your lactate threshold, or maximum intensity before lactate accumulates, to guide your pace. This threshold is usually below your 5k race pace. As your threshold improves, so do speed and endurance.

Fartlek training vs. Interval running

Interval running focuses on a high-intensity or fast pace run for a specific time, followed by an equal amount of slow jogging, walking, or rest to recover. Then you continue this pattern for a set number of cycles. While fartlek training and interval running are similar, conventional intervals are more structured with fixed time or distance work/rest intervals.

This makes interval training a common choice for many new runners to develop their skills. In fact, several beginner programs use interval training to get someone from the couch to their first race.

Benefits of fartlek training

Since fartlek training is more relaxed, you may wonder if it offers many of the same benefits as other speed training. Its versatility and loose interval structure help to create an engaging workout. Here are some of the many benefits of fartlek training:

  • Mixes up your running routine. With fartlek training, you can mix up your running speeds and intervals. Running can often be monotonous, making it mentally and physically challenging. Variety in running helps make your workouts mentally stimulating, which makes them more exciting and enjoyable. After all, this is one of the reasons fartlek training was created.
  • Improves cardiovascular fitness. Fartlek training challenges your heart and lungs by alternating between different intensities. This challenges the cardiovascular system and increases its efficiency. Enhancing overall cardiovascular endurance helps improve performance in running and other physical activities.
  • Increases fat burn. The varied intensities of fartlek training utilize both aerobic and anaerobic reactions. This helps the body burn more calories, boosts metabolism, and helps with weight management goals.
  • Improves mental toughness and well-being. The unpredictable nature of fartlek training helps you to adapt to different running conditions, improving mental strength for racing competitions. And while exercise generally affects mental well-being, a study focused on women showed a significant increase in enjoyment after self-paced training sessions like fartlek running.
  • Increases endurance and speed. The varied pace and intensity of fartlek training helps improve your speed, agility, and power, making you faster. Gradually increasing your stamina and endurance levels allows you to have a higher workload for more extended periods.
  • Take your workouts anywhere. Fartlek training can be done anywhere, whether on a trail, the pavement, or a treadmill. With no time restraints, you only need yourself and your running shoes for this workout.

Is fartlek training right for you?

Because fartlek training is highly adaptable, it can benefit runners of any fitness level — particularly runners who want to improve their aerobic capacity, speed, and overall cardiovascular fitness. Whether you are an experienced athlete or just starting your running journey, fartlek training can be customized to meet your needs. The flexibility in intensity and duration makes it valuable for any runner. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Tips for beginners

For beginners embarking on fartlek training, here are some helpful tips to get started:

  • Start gradually. Shorter intervals and slower pace are better in the beginning. This allows your body to adapt to the changes in intensity.
  • Listen to your body. Pay close attention to how you feel during the workout. Then, adjust the intensity accordingly. It's important to push yourself initially, but not too hard or fast.
  • Mix it up. Adding a combination of fast and slow intervals during your run helps challenge your cardiovascular system and improve your overall endurance. So, feel free to slow down or change your pace often.
  • Choose varied terrains. Running on different surfaces such as trails, hills, or tracks adds diversity and helps to engage different muscle groups. Be sure to switch it up often to maximize your benefits.
  • Focus on form. Maintain proper running form with good posture, relaxed shoulders, and a slight forward lean. This reduces your risk of injury and keeps you running more comfortably.
  • Use landmarks or counting to time your intervals. Instead of relying on a strict time or distance-based schedule, use landmarks like trees and lampposts, or count in your head to guide your speed changes for fartlek intervals. Remember, it is more loosely timed, so have fun with it.
  • Incorporate recovery periods. Allow yourself sufficient recovery time. Adding resting intervals to catch your breath can reduce fatigue and burn-out.
  • Stay consistent. Consistency is critical for progress. Aim to include fartlek training sessions weekly to build endurance and improve your overall running performance.

Tips for advanced runners

For advanced runners looking to take their fartlek training to the next level, here are some tips that go beyond the basics:

  • Increase intensity and duration. Challenge yourself by adding longer and more intense intervals into your fartlek sessions. Push your limits by gradually increasing the time and speed of your fast intervals.
  • Experiment with different ratios. Play around with your work-to-rest ratios to enhance your VO2 capacity and improve your recovery time. For example, try shorter, faster intervals with a shorter recovery period or longer intervals with longer recovery breaks. Fartlek training gives you the power to try new things while you running.
  • Add hills. The dreaded hills are very beneficial. Include hill sprints or hill repeats in your fartlek training for more strength and power in your lower body. Running uphill challenges your muscles and cardiovascular system differently while adding extra dimensions to your training.
  • Focus on pace. Hone your ability to control your pace during fartlek sessions. Practice running at specific paces for different intervals to improve your race strategy and maintain consistent speed over longer distances.
  • Use technology. Using a GPS watch or running app to track your intervals, pace, and progress allows you to monitor your progress. Analyzing the data from different runs can help you identify improvement areas and set new goals.
  • Incorporate fartlek within longer runs. Instead of standalone fartlek workouts, integrate fartlek intervals into your long runs while training for longer races like half, full, and ultra-marathons. Simulating racing conditions and practicing your running strategies can help you maintain your speed during the big race while you are fatigued.
  • Focus on recovery. As the intensity and duration of your fartlek workouts increase, ensure you prioritize proper recovery. Allow sufficient time between hard sessions, incorporate rest days, get plenty of sleep, and ensure adequate nutrition to help optimize your training adaptations.
A proper warm-up and cool-down are essential for any workout. Stretching before and after your run helps promote recovery and reduces muscle soreness. Listen to your body, enjoy the challenge, and continue to push yourself while maintaining an overall training balance.

Fartlek training is a dynamic and versatile approach to improving running performance. Whether you're a beginner or an advanced runner, fartlek training can help enhance your workout. Benefits like increasing aerobic and anaerobic capacity, boosting cardiovascular fitness, and increasing speed help improve overall race performance.

The flexibility and adaptability of fartlek training make it enjoyable and effective for runners of all levels. So, lace up your running shoes, hit the roads or trails, and embrace the power of fartlek training to take your running to new heights.

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