The Strategy of Running a Fartlek


For some time, I have intended to devote one post to the fartlek….”speed play” for runners.

Swedish Olympic coach Gusta Holmer invented the strategy after reviewing his country’s military training exercises, which used varied pace brisk walks and jogs to increase fitness.

Typically, a steady-paced, short or medium-distance run is injected with intervals, hill repeats or tempo runs. Physiologists characterize the fartlek as the training continuum; every system of the body is affected.

imageIf speed work has not been a part of your regular training, the fartlek is a good introduction before hitting the track for more intense work. Begin with easy terrain (flat, not hilly; smooth not rough), for shorter distances and slower speeds. Begin with 4-8 speed bursts at 10k pace over a distance of about a quarter-mile or 2 minutes each during a 20-30 minute session. Total mileage, including warm-up and cool down, will range from 3 to 6 miles. Be conservative with pace and recovery.

The goal is to minimize the stresses on the body as it eases into harder work. Stick to one overload factor, speed. Adding another, such as the resistance of steep hills, would increase the level of difficulty too much in the early stages.

You can fartlek three ways – by landmarks, by time, or in combination. Pick targets, of varying distances away, to run briskly to – the top of a hill, the next lamp-post. These intervals can be structured or unstructured; in other words, the same time/distance repeats or variable. Eventually, it should be as easy or hard as you choose.

One of the best examples of the fartlek comes from Bob Glover and Shelly-lynn Florence Glover in their book, The Competitive Runner’s Handbook, where they describe their class fartlek: a 5 to 8 mile loop of Central Park in New York:

“We stay off the pavement whenever possible as I lead the adventurous group into the park’s nooks and crannies. We run on grass, dirt, cinder, and up huge rock formations. I’ve even led groups up and down a playground slide and through water fountains. The workout includes bursting up Belvedere Castle for a spectacular view, a timed quarter-mile around the track after charging the Great Hill, a flower-scented loop of the Conservatory Garden, a visit to the zoo, a winding tour of the Ramble, the long drive up Cat Hill, and, of course, a practice kick into the New York City Marathon finish.”

Even if you know none of the landmarks, it sounds like a fun run.

As you progress, the advanced fartlek will train both the mind and the body. Run between a little harder than the introductory fartlek pace to almost as grueling as race intensity, including hard training on the flats, along with both up- and downhills.

If you want to be challenged, push yourself to the edge of what you can tolerate, then go again before fully recovering.

My contention has always been that life is a fartlek. Shelly-lynn says, “The students never know where we will run next, when we’ll start a burst, or what pace I’ll throw at them. You learn to run hard when required, not when you’re ready.”

In fact, fartlek is a fair description of life after all.