What Is Fartlek Training? Everything You Need To Know

What Is Fartlek Training? Everything You Need To Know

You may have heard about it, but what is Fartlek training exactly?

For runners, there are few workouts more versatile than the Fartlek. It’s a form of speed and endurance training developed by the Swedish, meaning “speed play.” Fartleks involve varying the speed and intensity of your run in order to keep the body in constant movement, and providing both aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

In short, it’s very intense. 

The Effects and Benefits of Fartlek Training 

Most runs require two paces: a jog during warm-ups and your steady running pace. Most endurance runs have you at a single pace for a long period of time. Fartleks are different. You’ll be running continuously at a variety of speeds. Its high-intensity pushes both the limits of your body and your willpower. Since its creation in 1930 by Gustaf Holmér, it has been a key workout for many marathon and Olympic athletes.

During fartlek exercises, you’ll be running at different paces, including your steady running pace, which allows your body to supply the oxygen it needs to feed your muscles, improving your aerobic and cardiovascular health. 

However, fartleks also offer anaerobic benefits. They require massive bursts of speed, keeping oxygen from getting to your muscles. Your muscles learn to adapt to the lack of oxygen and still perform the run regardless. This is a rather unpleasant but effective anaerobic exercise and will help you burn fat–helping you run faster–and build muscle to run longer. 

By repeatedly changing your pace, your muscles are in a constant state of flux, allowing for greater flexibility and muscle growth. It’s also more fun. You’re more engaged in your workout as you time yourself, change pace, and time yourself again. It’s easy–especially in endurance-based runs–to get something like highway-eye. You just zone out after a while. With fartleks, you and your body are always aware of each other and working toward a fixed goal. 

When the body can still function under less than ideal circumstances, you’re building yourself into a runner who is both faster and has greater endurance. You won’t exactly be the Six Million Dollar Man, but that could change if you land sponsorship deals. 

Potential Dangers

Those new to running should probably avoid fartleks. They’re usually for more experienced runners, who, even with their experiences, begin fartleks at a fairly simple level. For context, fartleks are often employed by marathon runners about a month before their run date. There are also certain conditions to consider before delving into fartlek exercises. Considering trying tempo and interval runs first. They’re cousins to the fartlek (more on that in a minute) and can help ready your body for the kind of exertion that the fartleks require. 

Fartleks are often used when runners have plateaued in their speed and endurance training. If you haven’t tried tempo and interval runs, do them first. Consider them as a stepping stone. They will help you overcome the plateau. 

Regardless, fartleks can be fun. Given that the simpler versions only take a few minutes, when you’re ready to give it a shot, do them once a week and choose a variation that lasts only a few minutes. If you’ve had experience with tempo or interval running, the fartlek will be familiar but new and exciting. Likewise, your body will be prepared in some way for the exertion, but be forced to contend with a new way of functioning. Again, you’ll get more of an idea of what that entails in the following sections. 

And, naturally, just to be on the safe side, speak to your doctor about your cardiovascular health before engaging in the exercise. 

The Difference Between Fartlek, Tempo, and Interval Runs

Now, all this sounds familiar, of course. I know you’re here to find out what fartlek training is, but you should know that fartleks, tempo, and intervals runs are all cut from the same cloth. Interval training involves alternating paces to increase speed and endurance. Tempo runs are intense, anaerobic exercises meant to increase your speed and endurance. Seeing a pattern? The fartleks are a bit of a combination between the two but set itself apart in the level of intensity the exercise requires from you. While interval runs don’t require the “comfortably hard” pace of the more intense tempo exercises, neither tempo or interval runs are as unstructured as fartleks tend to be. 

Interval runs don’t take you too far out of your comfort zone. For every 5 minutes of running, there’s a 5 minute rest period. 

Tempo runs are indeed more intense and have anaerobic benefits, but their focus on “comfortably hard” running doesn’t force you to extremes the way the fartlek does. 

Your fastest pace during a fartlek requires your heart rate to be higher than it is for your fastest interval or tempo pace. Also, while fartleks allow for a recovery period, you (usually) don’t walk or stop as you would in interval runs. You’ll jog at a faster rate than your usual recovery run to keep your heart rate moving. Part of the point is to keep the oxygen supply in your muscles low, so you can build endurance. 

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What are Fartlek Training Variations?

Now you know the basics of what fartlek training is.

But one of the great things about fartleks is their adaptability. There are practically as many fartlek variations as there are possible move permutations in Go. Yes, that’s both extremely hyperbolic and exaggeratory, but you get what we’re telling you. 

Fartleks can be for anyone. 

You can change the time of your workouts as you progress. You can alter distance, terrain, and speed. Listing every possible variation is impossible. However, for your needs, we’ll go over some common variations: unstructured (the original), structured, incline, and indoor fartleks. This should give you an exercise that works best for the area in which you live and how disciplined you want your run to be. 

That said, there is one thing universal thing about what fartlek training is: do it between two and four times a week. No more, no less. If you’re considering more–a mode of thinking those preparing for marathons often subscribe to–speak to a personal trainer and your doctor before doing something potentially hazardous. 

Unstructured Fartlek

What often draws runners to the fartlek–besides its charming name and physical benefits–is its unstructured nature. In its original form, the fartlek was more about listening to the body and engaging with your environment. The informality makes it fun since God knows the breathlessness and burning in your muscles surely isn’t. You probably have a designated running route. Choose a marker along that route. It could be a tree, a car, or the overhanging lampost outside the Monarch Theatre. It’ll be a important later. Now, here are the basics:

  1.  Do a 10 to 15-minute warm-up–stretching, light running, whatever. 
  2. When your muscles are loose, increase speed to a comfortably hard pace (approximately 75% of your maximum heart rate). You should be breathing hard enough that having a conversation should be difficult, but not so much that you’re gasping. Run to your landmark should take between 10 to 90 seconds to reach at this pace.  
  3. Reach your landmark at this pace. 
  4. At the landmark, decrease speed until you’re breathing normally again. 
  5. Increase speed to a comfortable running pace. 
  6. Repeat so that you’ve run at your comfortably hard pace between 4 and 6 times. 
  7. Cooldown run at a comfortable pace for 10-15 minutes. 

Structured Fartlek 

Some people work better with structure. Fartleks are an incredibly versatile exercise and can easily work in a timed environment. For beginners, try this structured fartlek.

  1. 10-15 minute warm-up at an easy pace
  2. 1 minute at a fast pace.
  3. 2 minutes at an easy pace. 
  4. 1 minute no running.
  5. Do 3 to 4 sets.
  6. 10-15 minute cooldown jog.

Structured fartleks often take a pyramid structure. To the surprise of no one, they’re often called Pyramid Fartleks. For example, a beginner’s structured fartlek example might use a 1-2-3-2-1 format. We’ll explain.

  1. Do your warm-up. 
  2. Run hard for 1 minute.
  3. Run easy to 2 minutes.
  4. Run hard for 3 minutes.
  5. Run easy for 2 minutes.
  6.  Run hard for 1 minute.
  7. 10-15 minute cooldown run at a comfortable pace. 

When you’re ready for more, move on to the advanced 2-3-4-4-3-2 structure.

  1. Do your warm-up.
  2. Run hard for 2 minutes
  3. Run easy for 2:30
  4. Run hard for 3 minutes
  5. Run easy for 2:30
  6. Run hard for 4 minutes
  7. Run easy for 2:30 
  8. Run hard for 4 minutes
  9. Run easy for 2:30
  10. Run hard for 3 minutes
  11. Run easy for 2:30
  12. Run hard for 2 minutes
  13.  10-15 minute cooldown at a comfortable pace.

Structured Fartleks for Marathon Runners

While structured, we can be a little less specific here. You’ll have to know ahead of time what your pacing is to properly modulate this exercise. 

  1. Do your warm-up
  2. Run 1 minute at your approximate 5K race pace.
  3. Jog for 1 minute
  4. Run for 2 minutes at your approximate 10K race pace.
  5. Jog for 2 minutes. 
  6. Run for 3 minutes at your approximate half-marathon race pace.
  7. Jog for 3 minutes.
  8. Run for 2 minutes at your approximate 10K race pace.
  9. Jog for 2 minutes.
  10. Run at your approximate 5K race pace
  11. Jog for 1 minute
  12. 10-15 minute cooldown at a comfortable pace. 

Inclined Fartleks

If you live in a hilly area, you can adapt your fartleks around it. Use your climb up the hill to run at your fastest pace. This will help you build your aerobic capacity and leg muscles. After you’ve reached the summit, run downhill at a relaxed pace to aid in recovery. Depending on the terrain, you can simply reclimb the hill for the duration of your workout, or move on to the next. In advanced inclined fartleks, you would increase the duration of these workouts. 

Indoor Fartleks  

Inconsistent weather patterns and seasonal difficulties like extreme heat or cold have often been a detriment to runners. However, treadmills have helped make a difference. Modern treadmills especially can be programmed for your specific needs, keeping time and alerting you of your speed to help maintain your pace. Literally, all you have to do is show up. You know, show up and not pass out from exertion. But that’s anybody. 

If you have access to a treadmill, consider this popular hill-based fartlek exercise, popularized by NSCA-certified personal trainer and coach Mike Simon. 

  1. 5-minute warm-up at 3.5 miles an hour and at a 7% incline.
  2. Run for 1 mile at 6MPH and 1% incline.
  3. Decrease to 5MPH for 3 minutes at 1% incline.
  4. Increase speed to 6.8MPH for 30 seconds at 1% incline.
  5. Decrease to 5MPH for 3 minutes at 1% incline.
  6. Continue to shift between 6.8MPH for 30 seconds and 5MPH for 3 minutes at a 1% incline until you’ve run for 25 minutes.
  7. Run for 1 mile at 6MPH at a 1% incline.
  8. Cooldown jog at 3.5MPH at a 5% to 7% incline. 

The treadmills can also be programmed to structured  1-2-3-2-1 and 2-3-4-4-3-2 fartleks if you aren’t into inclines and need to train for a marathon. 

Fartleks aren’t for every runner, but they are something every runner should try. Even in its most basic and simplest forms, they can help you overcome plateaus and give your training a boost of fun. 

And there you have it: now you know what fartlek training is.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.


  1. Runner World
  2. BBC
  3. Runtastic