Amanda Loudin

Written by Amanda Loudin


How Fartlek Runs Will Make You a Better Runner (Plus 7 Workouts to Try)

In this day and age of GPS watches and uploading your runs to Strava, many runners are dialed in to very specific paces and distances for their speedwork.

And that’s fine; if you want to know how to run faster, this has its important place in your repertoire.

But there’s another type of speedwork for runners that is much less structured and still just as effective.

It’s called fartlek.

Fartlek training is Swedish for speed play—and it can deliver a lot of bang for a little buck.

A fartlek run is one of the oldest types of speedwork, dating back to the 1930s. Swedish coach Gosta Holmer created this phase run as a way to bring his national-level athletes to competitive form and target their rival Finnish runners.

His thinking with the method?

Create training that would simultaneously work on endurance and speed.

What is a fartlek?

At its simplest form, fartlek requires that after a warm up, runners alternately surge and recover in the midst of a middle distance run.

No set paces, no set distances, just a chance to turn the legs over at a faster than normal rate until the legs have had enough.

Then a cool down.

Today we are going to explain when you should use fartleks in training and share 7 ways you can give it a try.
If you are looking for a first workout back after some time off running, this is one of the best ways you can give your body a kick start into hard running again.
How Fartlek Runs Will Make You a Better Runner (Plus 7 Workouts to Try)

The beauty of the fartlek is that it can work so many systems in one workout, depending on how your run it.

Your aerobic and anaerobic systems can get in on the act.

You can also work your sprinting ability, and conversely, your ability to hold a faster pace for a longer distance.

Everything wins.

It’s also a great way to break the habit of being slave to your watch.

Sure, you can set out for a specific overall distance for these runs, but the in between sections—where you play with speed—should be strictly off the clock in the sense that they represent any type of specified pace.

Remember, this is loosey goosey running, but with a purpose.

But you can also develop fartlek “routines,” which is to say slightly more structured fartlek.

These might be by time, by distance, or by terrain.

Truly, the sky is the limit.

Sound like fun?

It is.

Here are some guidelines and variations to get you started:

When to Run Fartleks

You can use speed play any time throughout your year, but probably the most optimal time is between your base training and specific speed training cycles.

Let’s say you have a May target race.

You’d spend most of winter up until about February building a solid base. Then take a month to build in weekly to twice weekly sessions of 30 minute fartlek sessions.

It’s not the hard pounding you’ll perform later with track or even tempo, but it’s a solid transition phase to prep your body for the hard work ahead.

Another option is to use a 45 minute fartlek once a month once you are into your heavy speed training as a way to give your body a much needed break.

How to Run Fartleks

As explained, true fartlek is lacking in any real structure.

If you want to try this approach—and you should now and again—simply warm up and then after a couple of miles, start inserting some surge/recovery efforts.

Fartlek training for beginners?

You could try this:

Mark off streetlights, and use them for destinations. Surge from one light to the next and then recover until you reach the next one.

Or press the pedal to the metal at about 90 percent effort and roughly 100 meters, then back off for a comparable distance.

Keep alternating until your legs begin to tire and then back off/recover.

There are no hard and fast rules to this type of training, which is why it serves as a perfect introduction/transition to the next, more structured phase of training.

Hill Sprints for Speed

My friends and I run a very hilly route every Thursday morning.

For the most part we run it at our aerobic pace, but sometimes, we throw in hill surges, too.

All told we probably hit about 10 to 12 hills on this seven-mile route. This is a great way to incorporate fartlek.

Find a hilly route and after warming up, push every hill that you encounter. Recover at the top and on the downhill/flats.

Do hill sprints make you faster?


You’ll find it builds strength, helps your legs turn over faster, and also makes you a stronger downhill runner.

Trust me, my friends can crush some hills and I think it has plenty to do with running this course just like this.

Short Interval Fartleks

This type of speed play is better done on flatter terrain where you can really work the leg turnover.

One of my favorite early, pre-season workouts has always been:

Warm up a few miles.

10 x 1-min hard with 10 x 1 min easy in between.

Cool down a few miles.

This gives your body a chance to get into a nice, faster rhythm and then recover out before beginning again.

You can shorten it to 30 seconds on/off, or lengthen it to two minutes on/off, all depending on your fitness level, race goals, and time of season.

Long Interval Fartleks

Just like shorter intervals, you can run fartlek with longer surges/recovery and boost your stamina.

This is especially good when you are prepping for a season of longer races like half marathons or a at the start of a marathon training schedule.

You can simply alternate matching time periods.

After your regular warm up, try this:

5 minutes on with 2-3 minutes off, repeated 4-5 times.

Finish up with a cool down.

Or try this:

Build in 2 x 10 minute sets, with a 5 minute recovery between each.

Ladder or Pyramid Runs

As the name suggests, ladders give you an opportunity to go up and/or up and then down again in time spent pushing your pace.

An ascending ladder might look like this:

Warm up your usual distance.

1 minute hard, 30 seconds easy

2 minutes hard, 1 minute easy

3 minutes hard, 1 minute 30 seconds easy

4 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy

5 minutes hard, 2 minutes 30 seconds easy

Repeat the set a second time if desired.

Or try the pyramid this way:

1 minute hard, 30 seconds easy

2 minutes hard, 1 minute easy

3 minutes hard, 1 minute 30 seconds easy

4 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy

5 minutes hard, 2 minutes 30 seconds easy

4 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy

3 minutes hard, 1 minute 30 seconds easy

2 minutes hard, 1 minute easy

1 minute hard, 30 seconds easy

Cool down as usual

How to Know What Pace to Run in a Fartlek

Since you won’t be using a watch to see your paces during fartlek, I’m not going to outline specific paces for you to hold.

However, you can pace by feel for much of fartlek if you want to work some differing systems.

In the case of an ascending/descending ladder set, for instance, try running the shorter segments faster than the longer segments.

Or try to negative split the descending intervals when compared to the front set.

Want to know the most important part of running a fartlek?

Don’t look at your watch!

Simply let your effort level tell you how you are doing.

An added bonus to this approach is that it helps you learn better how to run by feel as opposed to aiming for a certain number.

This can come in quite handy on race day.

How to Use Terrain for Fartleks

Much like the hill surging mentioned in number three, you can use the terrain you are running as markers for your fartlek.

Try running hard on a few hills, then give it a go on descents.

When you hit the flats, try to go all out for short bursts.

Remember, there are no rules, so try it all on for size and see how it feels.

You might learn something about your strengths and weaknesses and what you need to work on when you move on to more structured speed work later on.

Trail Running Speed

The Swedish runners who first used fartlek were rumored to do most of the training on dirt trails.

This is actually a perfect place to “play” with speed.

You probably already know:

Trail running is slower than road running, but did you consider that you can use trail running for a workout?

You get a forced variety of terrain when you run trails and you can find perfect spots to alternate pick ups.

Climb to the top on a hilly trail at a nice and easy pace, for instance, and then practice alternating pick ups all the way down to build quad strength and important stabilizing muscles.

Of if you hit a nice stretch of flat trail, turn on the burners for a few minutes and then recover for a shorter period before starting it up all over again.

What is Most Important with Fartlek Runs?

Have fun!

Running with concentrated, structured intent 12 months out of the year can get just as mentally exhausting as physically.

One of the great gifts of fartlek is that it gives your mind a break from all that thinking about pace, distance, and watch stalking.

Use these sessions to interject some fun into your running.

Find your inner kid again.

Then when you come back to the more intense sessions, you’ll feel like you hit the refresh button.

Come this late winter, give fartlek a go. I guarantee you’ll reap the benefits come spring and summer, both mentally and physically.

Use fartlek workouts as a sneaky way to improve your speed as a runner. Click To Tweet

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