If you’ve never heard of the term ‘fartlek,’ you’re probably laughing – or at least snickering. What a goofy word! If 8th graders were reading this, they’d be holding their sides and falling out of their desks, laughing. Hey, I used to be an 8th grade teacher; I know this to be true.
What is a fartlek?
Fartlek is actually a term that names what just might be the most fun way to run faster. Yes, fartleks are a form of speed work. Fartlek is Swedish for speed play, and play is just what it feels like.
The textbook definition of a fartlek workout would be a continual run in which the runners run at a different pace during different segments of the run, and the segments can be defined by physical landmarks, time, perceived exertion, steps and even heart rate.
The segmented running is really what makes it a fartlek. Segments can be defined by virtually anything. A segment might be the distance between physical objects such as street lights, property lines, driveways, mail boxes, city blocks, hedges, utility poles, or water hydrants, but they might also be defined by units of time, seconds or minutes or even by steps. I have often defined a segment for my beginners by stipulating a number of steps.
Farlek workouts are flexible.
One beauty of this type of workout is that it’s infinitely flexible. You don’t need a track, but you certainly could do them on a track. It’s just as easy to do in a rural area as in the city and just as much fun for a new runner as for a veteran runner.
And the segments don’t have to be equal in distance, either. I used to train a large group of runners in a park where we ran on a one-mile paved loop, and I used light poles to distinguish the segments for fartleks, but since the light poles had been installed over time, some replaced over the years, the distance between them varied quite a bit. That just made the workout more fun.
You likely have done a fartlek workout before, even if you didn’t know that was what you would call it.
And it’s great fun for a group of runners training together.
How to do a fartlek workout:
First, of course, you do a one or two-mile easy warmup. Then you alternate two different speeds of running, traditionally. I, however, often use three different speeds. For example, I might say, “Run one segment at warmup pace, followed by one segment at 10k pace, followed by one segment at 5k pace, and repeat for two miles. The segments are often light poles, but of course, the light poles might be too close together. No problem. In that case, a segment could be defined by two or even three light poles.
Examples of fartlek workouts:
Now, keep in mind that this is a speed workout, but that doesn’t mean it has to be super intense. The above workout, the warmup/10k pace/5k pace fartlek wouldn’t be terribly intense because the most intense part is 5k pace, which shouldn’t be too intense for a short distance.
Here is a more standard example: Run at an easy, conversational pace for one segment, then do a pickup for the next segment. A pickup might also be called a stride. This just means you continually increase the speed for the duration of the segment.
If you’re new to speed work, fartleks are the best way to get started.
Some people are intimidated by speed work on a track, and it does tend to be a bit more intense. Fartleks are fun, plain and simple. You’ll have fun planning your fartleks and fun carrying them out. If you can recruit a few friends, well that’s always more fun. Try this: if you and a group of friends who want to do fartlek workouts, say once per week, why not let a different person plan the workout each week? This will keep if fresh and it’ll be even more fun because you’ll never know what to expect.
Fartleks are great for adding just a little speed work to your base-building phase. You may be planning on more serious and traditional speed work later in your training cycle, but it’s nice to take a break from that for a while early in the season.
Many times I have my runners stop between segments and do some sort of exercise. For example, I might have them do a balance exercise at the end of each series. So, take my first example when they would do one segment at warmup pace, one at 10k pace, and one at 5k pace. Then, I might have them alternate standing on one foot for 15 seconds and then the other foot for 15 seconds before doing their next three segments.
Another option would be to do the fast feet drill for 20 steps, slow motion running in place for 20 steps, then fast feet for 20 steps again before heading off. My runners seem to enjoy these workouts and they certainly add an extra dose of strengthening, coordination, intensity, variety, and balance to the workout.
That kind of thing is a serious departure from traditional fartleks, but I really like them, and my runners seem to both enjoy and benefit from them.
Now, here is a description of several different – more typical – workouts. Do each after a thorough warmup, of course.
Three Fartlek Workouts:
- The 3-2-1 fartlek. Run 3 minutes at 5k pace followed by a 3-minute easy run. Next, run 2 minutes at 5k pace followed by a 2-minute easy run. Last, run 1-minute at 5k pace followed by a 1-minute easy run. Then, repeat but for the faster segments, run slightly faster than 5k pace. This could be modified by building it around 10k pace.
- Alternate one segment at mile pace and one segment at 5k pace or alternate one segment at 5k pace and one segment at 10k pace. If you don’t know your 5k or 10k paces, just run by effort. Run the 5k pace at an effort you feel you could sustain for 3.1 miles, and run the 10k pace segments at a pace you think you could sustain for 6.2 miles.
- Find a block with four distinct sides. This would work best in the suburbs in a closed in subdivision with few cars, or it can be done in a park where the path forms some sort of geometric shape with defined sides and corners. Alternate running hard for one side and at easy conversational pace on the next side. After one time around, start running two consecutive segments at the hard pace. On the third lap, run three consecutive legs at the hard pace. It really doesn’t matter if each side is the same distance. If the sides differ in length, that just makes it more interesting. Of course, you could do the same thing with a watch by running one minute hard alternated with one minute easy for say, a mile. Then, alternate one minute easy with two minutes hard for the second mile. Last, alternate one minute easy with three minutes hard.
Fartlek Workout for Beginner Runners:
- Walk one minute, run as slowly as you can run and still be running for one minute. Then run one minute at conversational pace. Before starting each running segment, stand in one place and do a head to toe form check. This allows a little extra rest but the time is productive. Then, run in place for 25 steps before starting to run. This will reinforce good form. These short segments are a good time to concentrate on form. Do this for two to three miles.
- Alternate two minutes conversational pace running with one minute of fast walking, then one minute conversational pace running with two minutes walking and repeat for two or three miles, depending on fitness level.
- Walk one segment equal to one minute, do a drill for one segment equal to one minute, and finish with one running segment equal to one minute. Do this for two miles but change the drill from time to time as you go. I like the high step walking drill, the skipping drill, the side to side drill, and the backwards running drill. The fast feet drill is good, too, but that’s probably too intense for a whole minute.
That’s it, lots of different options, and that’s why fartlek workouts have long been a popular staple in the training regimens of runners of all levels from novice to cross country runners, middle of the packers, back of the packers and Olympic athletes, one and all. One thing that keeps us all fresh is change. No one likes to do the same kind of training week in and week out. Don’t let yourself get into a rut because there is no need. Your body and mind will be happier with more variety.