I did!

I had a great 45-minute/5.75M fartlek run earlier today on the river. I hadn’t done fartlek training in ages, and was reminded of how liberating and fun it can be.

Unfamiliar with fartlek training?

Fartlek means “speedplay” in Swedish and is a type of interval training that was first established by coach Gösta Holmér in 1937 for his team of cross country runners. It is now a very popular technique among all runners, as well as athletes who practice many different sports.

Unlike a speed session at the track or on the treadmill, a fartlek run is characterized by its lack of structure and subjective nature. A typical run might last 45 minutes (or more), starting out with a warm up and then following the whims of the individual runner, who may choose to practice a variety of faster paces (ranging from steady to sprinting) for varying lengths of time or distances with slower recoveries interspersed throughout. A session can be relatively easy, extremely hard or somewhere in the middle, depending on what the runner wishes to do on that particular run.

What’s the best way to try out this technique?

A fartlek run can of course be done on the treadmill, but I believe it’s better (and more fun) to do this outdoors.

Start out your run with an easy or steady pace until you feel warmed up. If you’re outside, choose a landmark (a tree, bench, etc.) and run at a challenging pace until you reach it, then jog for a few minutes. Pick another goal – perhaps closer or further away, relative to the last one – and run to it (at the same, faster or slower pace, entirely up to you), then jog until you are recovered. If there are no good landmarks on your route or you are on the treadmill, then go by time.

The whole point of this run is to break free from routine, explore a wide variety of paces at different distances and to have some fun! If you’re training for a specific event and want to make your fartlek run more relevant, then you might want to include short, sharp bursts for 5/10k races and longer sections at your tempo pace for 10-milers and half-marathons.

What are the benefits of fartlek training?

I find the flexibility of this run incredibly appealing for many reasons. Firstly, fartlek gives you an opportunity to tailor your workout to how you are feeling, which is important because you should always pay close attention to any signals your body sends you. You have complete control over your speed and distance – no rules, no pressure!

It also gives you a mental break from training plans/other forms of routine without sacrificing your fitness goals (ie. if you want a tough workout, then make it challenging!). If you normally do your speed work on a treadmill or at the track, fartlek training can provide a change of scenery, which is important in preventing boredom and burnout. You’d be surprised by just how quickly the time flies when you’re constantly mixing up your pace and making it all up as you go along! It’s like playing a game – even better if you have a running partner, in which case you can take turns deciding what’s next, increasing the surprise factor.

Lastly, it’s a great way to ease into speed work if you are relatively new to interval training and would like to experiment with faster running, or if you’ve been taking a break from structured training (as I have) and want to squeeze in some speed without pushing yourself too hard too quickly.

What did I do today?

I hadn’t intended to do a fartlek run today, to be honest. I set out for what I thought would be an easy 5 miler along the river at lunchtime, but then five minutes into the run I hit a mass of obnoxious French students clogging up the pathway (a downside of lunchtime running – hordes of young kids, mostly foreign, everywhere). As I tried to get around them through a narrow passage, a kid who couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old nearly burned my leg with his cigarette as he stealthily held it by his side. Ah, the French.

I couldn’t deal and saw that we were approaching a bridge, so I sprinted up the stairs, over the bridge, down the stairs and around the front of the pack and left them in the distance. Whew. Then I thought – haven’t done speed work in awhile – that actually felt quite good! Maybe I should do that again…And so I did, followed by a series of strides, tempo intervals, steady intervals, and slow pacing all mixed up. It was quite challenging but really fun, and before I knew it, I had done nearly 6 miles!

So give fartlek a try if it isn’t already a part of your training regime – the name is a bit silly, but I bet you’ll enjoy it!