Not just for Ikea lovers or the faint of heart, Fartlek training is one of the most commonly used workouts in running — and one of the most beginner-friendly! Swedish for ‘speed play’, Fartlek training refers to any type of run or workout in which you alternate periods of faster running with periods of slower running. They’re a great introduction to speed workouts, mostly because each runner gets to decide for herself how hard to push. There’s no need for GPS devices or tracks to measure how far you’ve gone, either — Fartlek training can be as simple as dashing to the next tree down the road!

While training can be structured with pre-determined time or distance intervals, Fartlek training is often done based on feel. All you need to know is this — mix in bursts of faster, more intense running with stretches of slower-paced, relaxed running. You have the freedom to experiment with different paces and distances depending on how you’re feeling that day, too. As long as you’re getting those more intense bursts in, you’re benefiting your fast-twitch muscle fibers. Those short, quick bursts build up strength in the muscles and give us practice running at quicker paces, helping to make you a faster runner. They’re also good at preparing you for more structured intervals and repeats on and off the track that can really take you to the next level.

If you were to play a word association game, you’d probably pair up ‘speed work’ with ‘track’, and that’s a fair association — the fastest runners in the world get faster on the track. But, the rest of us aren’t always able to use a track — maybe you live too far away from one, or maybe the local schools are just being stingy with public access! Fartlek training is great because it doesn’t require a track at all — you can do it on any of your usual roads and trails. Instead of running at a faster pace for a lap or a certain amount of time, you can simply keep up the pace until you get to the next intersection or tree. That leaves plenty of room for you to challenge yourself, too — pretty soon, you’ll be identifying landmarks and stretches of trail and road as Fartlek goals!

The rest periods of slower running are almost as important in Fartlek training. We want to make sure to run these portions slowly enough to give our muscles a chance to relax and recover and to give our heart rate a chance to come down to prepare us for the next interval. If you’re like me, you’ll just want to run at that faster pace all the time! But, that’s not sustainable, so this slower pace allows us to have a longer training run overall while still working in that faster target pace. Use Fartlek training consistently, and you’ll see that faster pace become more and more sustainable over time!

While Fartlek training doesn’t need to be tied to a time or distance, here’s a more structured example to give you an idea of how to think about Fartlek training on the run:

  • 10-15 minute warm-up at an easy, conversational pace
  • Repeat alternating of the following for 20-30 minutes:
    • 1 minute faster pace
    • 2 minutes slower pace
  • 10-15 minute cooldown, easy pace

But, don’t forget that what’s so great about the free-flowing nature of Fartlek training is that times and paces can be adjusted as you see fit. As long as it’s some form of fast, slow, repeat, you’re doing Fartlek training!

Fartlek training is the door that opens up into the whole new world of speed workouts. Most other types of speed work are a bit more structured, but are much easier to do after you get your body used to the on-and-off nature of Fartlek training.

Give Fartlek training a try and have fun with it. Welcome to fast lane!