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What is a fartlek? The training technique made me a faster runner

Add this playful, unstructured strategy to your running practice.
What is a fartlek? The training technique that will make you faster
In a fartlek run, you might pick out a tree or road sign and run faster until you reach it, then jog slowly until you get to another marker. Getty Images

When I started running a few years ago, I would jog from one telephone pole to the next, then walk past two, three or four poles until my heart rate came down and my legs recovered. Then I would add another pole-to-pole jogging segment, and take another walking break. I started off with three to five of these cycles in my earliest “runs” — it would be more accurate to call them walks.

But slowly, over weeks, my jogs got longer and my walks got shorter. Before long, I could run a mile without stopping, and I worked up to 5Ks, 10Ks and, once, a half-marathon.

It turns out, I had stumbled onto a training technique called a fartlek. The term comes from the Swedish words for "speed" and "play," and it was developed by a coach who wanted to help athletes perform better.

“The fartlek workout is a playful workout where we run fast, and we don’t care how fast we run, and we run slow, and we don’t care how slow we are. There are literally no rules except faster and slower,” Randy Accetta, director of coaching education for Road Runners Club of America, told TODAY.

In a fartlek run, you might pick out a tree, lamppost or road sign and run faster until you reach it, then jog slowly until you get to another marker. On a track, you might walk on the curves and jog on the straightaways. Or, you can create a playlist where you run faster during the verses and slower during the choruses. If you change your mind and you want to go faster or slower for longer, that’s fine. You decide how far and how fast you want to run during your workout.

“It’s done based upon how you feel. Psychologically, you can adjust quite easily to how you are feeling,” Anthony Wall, a certified personal trainer and senior director of global business development for the American Council on Exercise, told TODAY. “Feel is quite important for somebody who’s starting out because if they focus on structure, there can be a sense that they didn’t complete the workout, and maybe they feel they’ve not done what they were meant to.” With fartleks, there is always a sense of completion and accomplishment.

What are the benefits of fartlek workouts?

Fartlek workouts are good for you in many different ways. They can:

  • Improve your cardiovascular fitness. Fartleks teach you how to breathe harder and process oxygen more effectively.
  • Build muscle strength. Working your legs harder makes them stronger.
  • Improve your form. Running faster often makes your running form more effective.
  • Increase your speed. Your overall pace can improve when you add faster segments to your workouts.
  • Build fun into your routine. “Fartleks let us have that inner child play where we don’t worry that we’re living up to somebody else’s standard of an interval,” Accetta said.
  • Help you get better at racing. “Part of being a better runner is being able to run your own race and not worry about what other people are doing. This style of training allows you to get comfortable with changing your speed based upon the terrain,” Wall said.

What’s the difference between fartleks and interval training?

In a fartlek run, you’re not bound by any structure. No one is telling you what to do, and you’re not working toward a specific goal. “In many interval workouts, the whole goal is to run a specific distance at a specific pace with a specific recovery,” Accetta said. “Interval workouts are deeply structured.”

Add a little structure if you like

The point of fartleks is the lack of structure. But that said, a lot of people like to have a plan. So you could jog or run for 15 to 30 seconds, then walk or run slowly for a minute. “Give yourself some guidelines, and go for the pace you think is comfortable,” Wall said. “You could run for 15 seconds at your higher intensity, and if that’s too much, you just slow it down.”

And if you need to give yourself more time for recovery, go ahead. “You don’t have to force yourself to maintain a pace or intensity for a certain distance, because [fartleks are] based upon feel,” Wall said.

Let yourself play, enjoy the play and don’t stress about the outcome.

“You can run the risk of feeling bad about yourself, thinking ‘I should have run to that tree instead of this tree,’” Accetta said. “But my advice is to live the concept of playing. Let yourself play, enjoy the play and don’t stress about the outcome. You can still get the physiological and emotional value of the workout with play vs. with structure.”

Can fartleks work for you if you’re not a runner?

You can incorporate the premise of fartleks into lots of different workouts. “The notion of playing with effort is very rewarding,” Accetta said. You could go faster and slower in a pool or on a bicycle. You could even do weightlifting exercises like lat pulldowns until you want a rest, take a break and come back and do more. “Think about it in terms of grit and discipline — we back off and then go do it again,” Accetta said.

Here’s how to give fartleks a try

Fartleks can work for you whether you’re brand new to running, you're getting back into running after a break or an injury, or you are an experienced long-distance runner. How you incorporate fartleks into your running routine depends on how fast and how far you’re accustomed to running.

For a 30-minute fartlek run, you might want to:

  • Warm up for 10 minutes at a comfortable pace.
  • Work about five bursts of faster running into the middle 10 minutes.
  • Switch back to your relaxed pace for the last 10 minutes.

Your fast segments might be 30- to 45-seconds long, and they don’t need to be full-on sprints. Wall recommends playing in the zone between 60% and 80% of your maximum heart rate. If you’re not tracking your heart rate, think about how you feel instead. On a scale of 1 to 10, your low intensity might be a 5, and your faster segments might be a 6 or a 7, and when you slow down you come back to a 5.

“If that feels good, do another one. If it feels a little bit too hard, maybe you go for less time or you bring down that intensity,” Wall said. “Start out easy and learn how your body operates.”

Give fartleks a try and you’ll likely find yourself running faster and farther. It worked for me.