Fartlek Training: What Is It and How It Is Done?

Fartlek training is one of the methods athletes use to achieve greater endurance and speed. Learn all about it in this article.
Fartlek Training: What Is It and How It Is Done?
Diego Pereira

Reviewed and approved by the doctor Diego Pereira.

Last update: 08 May, 2023

Developed in the early 1930s by Gösta Holmer, Fartlek training is still one of the most widely used methods for athletes to improve their performance. It’s primarily used in track and field, although other disciplines have also adapted it to their training regimes (such as soccer).

This type of system was developed in parallel with high interval training, or HIIT. Although they share similar principles, their main difference is that the Fartlek method is less structured. Therefore, its practitioners are freer to choose how to apply it according to their goals, performance, or weekly plan.

Its translation from Swedish is speed game. It consists of including abrupt changes in speed, direction, or terrain based on intervals. Over time, these changes generate a variety of benefits, including increased endurance and decreased running time. It’s used by sprinters, middle-distance and distance athletes.

Types of Fartlek training

Although designed exclusively for professional athletes, this doesn’t prevent any sports fan from including Fartlek training in their exercise routine. To do so, you can choose different variants, among which we highlight the following.

Fartlek by times

This is the classic variant of the training, the one with which it gained worldwide popularity. It consists of focusing your objectives on speed changes at time intervals. These, unlike HIIT training, are not structured categorically. The athlete chooses them according to his or her endurance, strength, and race pace.

For example, you can run two minutes at low to moderate intensity and then include one minute at maximum intensity. The times are chosen on a personalized basis, as long as you keep in mind that the maximum intensity period has to be shorter than the medium or low-intensity period. This is because during the latter the body can recover to face the next change of pace.

Fartlek by distances

El entrenamiento Fartlek en pistas
Using running tracks to perform Fartlek training is an excellent option to take advantage of its full potential.

If there’s no way to measure the time or you think this method is impractical (you have to be timing your progress all the time), then you can choose Fartlek training by distance. As the name suggests, the paces are determined by changes made every few meters.

The preferred terrain for this variant is the athletics track, since it’s possible to make an exact measurement of the meters. However, considering the informal nature of this training, there’s no obstacle to adapting them to other contexts.

In this way, you can use objects to delimit how often to change the pace of your speed. If you are training around town, use a parked vehicle, a tree, a signpost, a bench to sit on, or anything else to guide you on when and where to change your running pace.

Fartlek training over terrain

In this variation, distances or time are set aside and replaced by changes in terrain. It’s well known that you have to make a greater effort on inclines, while on descents you tend to relax a little more.

The trick lies in planning a route that contains ascents, descents, and flat terrain. With the help of these, you can integrate speed changes, preferably when the terrain tends to be steeper. Fartlek for terrain can be perfectly adapted to trail running,  hiking, etc.

Fartlek training by heart rate

Many track and field fanatics are accustomed to keeping track of their heart rate. If you like to train with a heart rate monitor, the Heart Rate Fartlek is for you. It consists of integrating pace variations according to the nature of the heart rate.

It all depends on your physical condition, age, and competition aspirations. In general, during sudden changes, try to keep your heart rate at or slightly above 160 beats per minute. In the recovery phase, try to bring them down to 130 or slightly lower.

Free Fartlek training

There’s also the free Fartlek, a variant that brings together all the others and makes them coexist in a single training day. You can change the intensity of the run based on time, distance, terrain, or heart rate, or even combine them all at the same time.

For example, you can choose a steep terrain, mark out an object in the distance, aim to reach it at a certain time, and do it with your heart rate at or above 16 beats per minute. As you can see, this is the most versatile variant that allows you to experiment more with your body’s capabilities.

As for the running time, it’s usually determined according to the type of athlete. The following values can serve as an example:

  • Sprint athletes: between 10 and 20 minutes
  • Short middle-distance athletes: between 20 and 40 minutes
  • Long middle-distance athletes: between 40 and 60 minutes
  • Long-distance athletes: more than 60 minutes

These times are only referential, as they need to be adapted to the capabilities of each runner. Even so, keep in mind that the race should be shorter because the speed changes will weaken you more in contrast to a continuous race. This is at least until you assimilate the technique completely.

The benefits of the Fartlek training method

If you feel encouraged by this training method, just wait until you discover its benefits. 100 years have passed since its inception and it’s as relevant today as ever thanks to the following.

Improve speed and coordination

There have been several studies that corroborate the effectiveness of Fartlek training in improving running speed and coordination. An article published in the Journal of Physical Education and Sports in 2014 suggests that the changes are noticeable in non-specialized runners as well, in this case, soccer players.

By including improvised variations of your speed you improve the coordination of your muscles with your brain. As you put it into practice, you discover that you don’t need a stopwatch to time your run or to be continually checking your heart rate monitor, in case you develop the time and pulse variant, respectively.

Your speed will also experience considerable improvement. Continuous running can cause runners to become so accustomed to a pace and cadence that they eventually become sluggish. This can be modified with the help of Fartlek training.

You improve your endurance

Studies suggest that Fartlek is also useful for improving endurance. Maintaining a pace at maximum capacity for set distances, times or terrain is not easy, but as you train, your muscles build up the endurance needed to complete the course without major changes.

Endurance is a highly valued quality in long-distance athletes, especially those who specialize in running marathons. Even among short middle-distance competitors, it’s also a great help, as they become accustomed to maintaining a continuously high pace.

Improve your overall aerobic capacity

El entrenamiento Fartlek es un ejercicio aeróbico
Aerobic exercises are very positive for cardiovascular health. Combining or alternating them every few periods with strength training is also excellent.

Evidence indicates that Fartlek training improves lung capacity and thus increases the maximum oxygen consumption that the athlete can process. At the same time, a continuous program of several weeks is useful for cardiac modifications.

You improve your explosive strength

Very useful for sprinters, in which the delay of a millisecond can cost them a race. Research has been done on how Fartlek improves explosive strength; that is, the power with which a runner can move from a resting state to one of maximum capacity.

Other ways in which a change-of-pace routine of this type can benefit you include the following:

  • It helps tone your muscles.
  • It prevents stagnation of results after you’ve been following a plan for a long time.
  • It can make you lose weight or, in any case, keep it off.
  • It contributes to improving your running times and results in the short and medium term.

The disadvantages and contraindications of Fartlek training

As with any routine, Fartlek training isn’t without disadvantages and contraindications. The first of these is the risk of injury. Even among experienced athletes, improvised changes of pace can have a negative effect on the muscles.

These are exposed to stress and demand for which they’re not prepared, which can lead to muscle tearing or other similar injuries. It’s for this reason that you should perform deep stretching and warm-up exercises to minimize the risk. Even when you do them, you should be cautious and increase the pace by listening to your body.

The terrain variation can cause you to suffer from ankle sprains, especially if you practice it in nature. If you’re not trained, the alternations in pace can have a negative effect on your heart, which may start to work abnormally and cause episodes of arrhythmias or angina pectoris.

For all these reasons, it’s recommended that you do a stress test before you consider including this method in your routine. When you do, don’t increase the pace more than necessary. Start with short changes and increase them as you progress. It won’t take long for you to assimilate the technique and experiment with the freedom of Fartlek training.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Babu, M. S., & Kumar, P. P. S. P. Effect of continuous running fartlek and interval training on speed and coordination among male soccer players. Introduction Aerobic Physical work out are done with oxygen. Use of oxygen in the body metabolic or energy generating process to perform th. 2014; 1(1): 33-41.
  • Breeze, S. Renilton; Senthilkumar, M. Effect Of Fartlek Training On Explosive Strengthamong Inter-Collegiate Athletes. Ganesar College Of Arts And Science. 2018: 306.
  • Eleckuvan, M. R. Effectiveness of fartlek training on maximum oxygen consumption and resting pulse rate. International Journal of Physical Education, Fitness and Sports. 2014; 3(1): 85-88.
  • Kumar, P. Effect of fartlek training for developing endurance ability among athletes. Int. J. Phys. Educ. Sport. Heal. 2015; 2: 291-293.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.