Even though I am no longer a competitive runner I still love a good fartlek. Basically, this means I want to do something a bit more intensive to test myself compared to my usual easy and steady runs, but at my own pace and effort, and I don’t want to structure it as a pre-planned work-out. The point of a fartlek is that you will never do exactly the same work-out twice and this ‘freedom’ can really help you to get something done when mentally you don’t feel like a conventionally structured workout.

Coach John Danahay

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fartlek – This gives a good outline of the origin and history of this type of training as well as a list of suggested fartlek workouts. (I must admit that I think adding too much structure and planning into a fartlek partly defeats its purpose in my mind – although see my own examples below…).

Fartlek can be around a set course, or for a fixed length of time, or entirely as you feel. It can be in the town or countryside or a mixture of the two. It can even be around a track. Use landmarks and the topography, up hills, down hills, straights, gates, styles, lamp posts etc. to start and stop your efforts, and only use your watch to determine how long the session is in total.

Fartlek can be an easy workout with just some short faster strides at random, maybe even walking breaks, or an extremely hard workout of repeated intensive efforts including hills if they are on your route or a mixture of as many different types of running as you can fit in your allotted time. Sometimes you just don’t feel like training hard but doing a fartlek instead can get you pushing yourself before you know it.

In terms of intensity across a training programme, I would recommend starting with lower intensity earlier in the base training period and increasing the intensity gradually towards the pre-competition period with fartleks perhaps once every 2-3 weeks instead of a conventional repetition or interval session. Overall a more intensive fartlek workout is likely to include about 50% of the session or runtime spent in ‘effort’.


A fartlek on the grass playing fields or a park works really well in the winter months as a weekend session when you haven’t got a cross-country race and want a workout that allows you a bit of breathing space from that competitive pressure. If possible use a local cross country course and aim for an equal total workout time to your typical cross country race distance with similar warm-up and cool-down too. A few shorter faster efforts in a fartlek are great for maintaining some leg speed ready for the track season too. Watch the overall effort though. Fartlek is addictive and you can quickly develop a taste for pushing yourself harder and harder and over-train if you do them too frequently.


Although not true fartlek in the sense that you control it yourself, coach controlled fartlek on playing fields or track involves the coach controlling your efforts at random with their whistle. The extra value of this is that you have to run hard when you least expect it, or when you really don’t want to. This can deliver excellent tactical race preparation but will also be an extremely hard session physically so should be used sparingly and not later than a week before a target race. This is particularly relevant to middle distance track racing if you are preparing for championship middle distance events where you will get that type of tactical race.


Training on winter evenings in a town or city can be a bit of a slog and there is a tendency to convert workouts to steady runs just to get them done. Sections of pavement between road junctions, traffic and street lights and other street furniture can act as random start and stop points. Depending on the event you are aiming for a fartlek can be over a similar running time to a shorter race like 5k or 10k, but even a long Sunday run can include some fartlek if you missed a workout the day before. Don’t forget however that fartlek nearly always counts as a workout, not an easy or recovery run.


Beyond the aerobic capacity benefits from shorter fartlek workouts highlighted above, off-road ultra-distance race training will also benefit from changes in pace and from breaking up really long training runs into shorter sections. These might not include high-intensity efforts but variation between hiking, jogging and running paces at random will improve your all round conditioning and help the time to pass more quickly.


Armed with a rough knowledge of where local segments are can give you some motivation to run really hard and beat some of the local CRs all in one run. Choosing a route with a number of segments and easy or steady running between them, hit each segment as hard as you can, and see if you can move higher up that leader-board. Again this counts as a really hard session and shouldn’t be used close to a race. If it all sounds a bit planned don’t forget you can vary your pace, miss a segment out or even create a new one for others…


Although a fartlek should really be an individual random effort workout here is an example ‘outcome’:

Start with easy ‘warm-up’ running for 15 minutes, accelerate between 2 lamp posts, jog 1 lamp post, go hard again for 3 lamp posts, slow to easy running for a few minutes, at the bottom of a hill increase effort to 5k race effort up the hill for approx. 30 seconds, jog down again and repeat, then steady run for approx. 5 minutes on the flat, accelerate up to 5k race effort for 2 minutes, slow down and jog back to start of the 2-minute effort and repeat, steady run back to the hill and run up hard again for approx. 1 minute, run back to where you started progressively increasing the pace to full out effort just before the end, finish with easy 10 minutes ‘cool-down’ running.

This ‘workout’ will have worked through a full range of paces and energy systems as well as resistance work on the hills.

By Running coach John Danahay