The Benefits of Fartlek Training
Speed Training & Cross-Country Advice
The Benefits of Fartlek Training

The word ‘fartlek’ is a Swedish term which means ‘speed play’. It is a running session which combines speed and endurance. The principle behind fartlek training is to enable the body to adapt to various speeds, conditioning the body to become faster over the longer distance.

Why is fartlek training so popular?

It’s important not to always run at the same speed or distance, as the body will quickly adapt to this, getting comfortable with the session, and you will not progress.

In order to improve speed and endurance one must vary one's speed and be prepared to push oneself out of the comfort zone. Not only do fartlek sessions have beneficial effects on the body's physical condition, but they also train the mind in becoming stronger, strengthening willpower and thus allowing the runner to keep running and not give up as easily. When we race there are usually some occasions when the mind can overwhelm us and tell us to stop. The more training sessions we do that incorporate this speed variation, the stronger and more resistant we become to giving up mentally mid-race. The body can usually go much longer and faster than the mind would have it believe it can.

How does fartlek training work?

When running a fartlek training session, you run for either a set time or distance and within that block you don't stop and rest.

For example, if you were doing a 30-minute fartlek session, you would plan how many minutes of that session will be at a faster pace and how many minutes will be at a slower pace. You would then repeat this for the 30 minutes and just alter your speed within the time.

If you want to improve your speed you would then increase the speed of the slower segments of your run slightly over time so that they become closer to the speed your faster segments are already at. To improve the endurance aspect of the fartlek session you would simply reduce the shorter, recovery segments. If you want to improve both speed and endurance then you can combine both aspects within the fartlek session.

The benefits of fartlek training:

  • It’s a great test for strength and endurance
  • It improves speed and race tactics
  • It improves the mind over matter game
  • It improves your ability to put on a spurt in races and overtake a competitor when tired, or knock seconds off your finish time
  • It is great for getting into the racing mindset as a fartlek session mimics the surges of speed you may put on in a race for example: to pass other runners, sprint for the line, or reach check point on time
  • Incorporating these surges of speed helps runners to gauge and learn how much they can push their body over shorter segments while at the same time keeping enough physical and mental energy in reserve to go the whole distance and complete a race
  • There is a lot of flexibility within the workout, for example a high intensity session where you push your body to its limits or a low intensity session if you are tapering for a race or easing back into running post-injury
  • A fartlek session can be completed alone or with another runner or in a group.

Two experts give their thoughts:

“There doesn’t need to be a set structure to the run. For your first quick burst, you might choose a target that’s just 100m away and sprint to it flat out. Then for the next hard run you’ll see something 800m away and stride towards it at your 5K race pace…If you want to add an unexpected element to fartlek training, run with a friend and take it in turns to call the next fast leg.”
– Bud Baldaro, coach and RW Contributing Editor

Brian Mackenzie (runner, running coach and creator of Cross-Fit Endurance)
gives a more structured example of a Fartlek session:

  • 10 minutes warm-up
  • Repeat 3 times - Stride hard for 30 seconds, jog 90 seconds. Repeat with 15 second decreases in recovery jog e.g. 30-90, 30-75, 30-60, 30-45, 30-30, 30-15 and 30-15-30
  • 10 minutes cool down

Source: Mackenzie, B. (1998) Fartlek Training

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