Mastering the Fartlek

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

Interval training has been used in distance running since Finland’s Paavo Nurmi won the first of his 9 career Olympic gold medals in 1920. Nurmi went on to break 22 world records in distances from the mile to the 20k over the following decade, but the rest of the world would eventually catch up and evolve. In 1937 Swedish coach named Gösta Holmér, fed up with the Finnish domination in cross-country (an Olympic sport back then), began training his runners with an innovative workout regimen called “fartlek” running. The aim of fartlek running was to improve both speed and endurance. With fartlek running, Swedish for “speed play,” Holmér’s athletes dominated the sport in the 1940’s and earned Holmér the title, “Father of the Fartlek.”

Fartlek running, like interval training, remains relevant for coaches and athletes around the world today. A fartlek run is a continuous run with pace changes throughout, both faster and slower. In contrast to interval training, the recovery portions of a fartlek workout are performed as a continuous run rather than with rest. One of the beautiful things about fartlek running is it can serve many purposes whether you’re looking for a moderate workout early in a training plan, a harder workout later in a training plan, more of a speed based workout with shorter, quicker pieces, or a strength workout with longer, sustained pieces. The following are just a few examples of different fartlek workouts that meet a variety of needs.

Telephone Pole Fartlek

The “telephone pole fartlek” is a workout that symbolizes the true nature of a fartlek run in that there are no set distances, paces, or times. As a running community we tend to quantify everything we do, but stepping away from that, especially early in a training program where you’re just building fitness, is a good way to transition into some harder running. As with any workout, and all fartlek running, it is important to start with 15-20 minutes of easy running in order to warm your muscles up. The “telephone pole fartlek” is traditionally done on a road lined with telephone poles and performed by alternating paces between telephone poles – speeding up from one to the next and then slowing down until the next pole. However, this workout doesn’t have to be done with telephone poles; it could be done with any landmarks along your normal running route. The idea is to listen to your body and push yourself a little bit but finish feeling like you could have done more.

Descending Tempo Fartlek

The descending tempo fartlek is the fartlek I implement most frequently because not only is it a great workout but it teaches the patience required for proper race execution. For the descending tempo fartlek the goal is to get progressively faster throughout the workout, which requires discipline to not run too fast in the early stages. The workout starts with a 6 minute piece at the pace you could race for roughly 1 hour. After each quicker piece the recovery run is half the time of the piece you just ran, and it should be run between 60 and 90 seconds per mile slower than the quicker piece. Therefore, after the 6 minute piece the recovery run is 3 minutes followed immediately by a quicker 5 minute piece that is run a few seconds per mile quicker than the 6 minute piece. The 5 minute piece is followed by a 2.5 minute recovery run. Each quicker piece is one minute shorter than the previous and a few seconds per mile quicker. The entire workout is 6 minutes – 5 minutes – 4 minutes – 3 minutes – 2 minutes – 1 minute. Keep in mind the recovery gets shorter as well, always half the time of the quicker piece, underscoring the importance of being patient early. This fartlek is best suited to a strength building part of your training program where you are focusing on tempo workouts.

Moneghetti Fartlek 

The Moneghetti fartlek is named after the great Australian marathoner, Steve Moneghetti, who created the workout. The Moneghetti, like any fartlek, can be altered based on where you are at in your training, but typically it is done in the final 10 weeks before a key race. The fartlek is only 20 minutes long, but don’t let the brevity fool you. All of the quicker paces should be run 10-15 seconds per mile slower than 5k pace and all the recovery runs should be run 50-60 seconds per mile slower than 5k pace. The fartlek starts with 2 x 90 seconds with a 90 second recovery run between each. Then 4 x 60 seconds with 60 seconds recovery run between each, followed by 4 x 30 seconds with 30 seconds recovery run between each, and lastly, 4 x 15 seconds with 30 seconds recovery run between each.

Ladder Fartlek

The ladder fartlek is a great tune-up workout for race week as it’s short and sweet with some quicker turnover work. The ladder name comes from the structure of the workout, which is 1 minute – 2 minutes – 3 minutes – 2minutes – 1 minute with an easy 90 seconds recovery run between each piece. The 1 minute pieces should be run at current 5k pace, the 2 minute pieces at current 10k pace, and the 3 minute piece 10-15 seconds per mile slower than current 10k pace. The 90 seconds recovery is run at normal easy run pace or up to 30 seconds per mile slower. To make this workout more of a strength-based workout, add 4 minutes – 5 minutes – 4 minutes in the middle of the ladder.

Every major training program has successfully used fartlek running since the Swedish world record holders of the 1940’s. Following in the footsteps of history’s great runners by utilizing fartlek running in your training program will optimize both speed and endurance and make you a more complete runner.

*This Article Originally Appeared in the August 2017 Issue of Running Journal