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Rediscovering the Freedom of the Fartlek

One runner finds her footing again in the underappreciated “speed play” workout.

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When the summer of 2020 arrived, I had a simple plan: I would start running consistently again. Whether it was one mile or 10 miles, I promised myself that I’d use the months ahead to get out the door more days than not, no matter what pace.

Like most people once serious about training, my relationship with running went through a tedious rough patch. I never really came back from a severe ankle injury several summers ago—possibly because I was burned out. I tried hiring a coach for accountability (and a healthy dose of guilt when I didn’t follow the schedule). I tried signing up for races. I promised I’d meet up with friends in the early morning hours like I used to. None of it inspired me to stick with it long enough for running to feel good again.

But then the pandemic hit, and it was only while traversing the trails that the world temporarily felt “normal” every day. The consistency started taking care of itself: I craved the fresh air and movement and missed it when I skipped a day. With no pressure to hit paces or prepare for a personal best, I stopped comparing the runner I am (older and slower) to the runner I once was (ambitious and disciplined)—and that made all the difference.

By mid-September, I was running a modest 20–30 miles a week. The relentless humidity receded one day, and I discovered a one-mile gravel loop near my mom’s house, where I was visiting. Rolling hills, fresh-cut grass, and a hint of fall in the air: It smelled like cross-country seasons of yore. The nostalgia got the best of me, and after a warm-up, I went for it: two more miles of one minute “on” and one-minute “off.” Just a slight uptick in pace for 60 seconds at a time. It was a bona fide fartlek workout, and it felt joyful and awful at the same time.

It got me thinking that in all my years of running—beginning on the middle school cross-country team 35 (gulp!) years ago—I had never given the fartlek enough respect. It didn’t hold the same credibility as mile repeats on the track or a four-mile threshold run. It was always just the filler during a base-building phase or marathon taper time. I never really paid the fartlek its proper due.

Fartlek is the Swedish word for “speed play,” and it aligns perfectly with my current keep-it-simple philosophy for running. Select an interval of time in which to run faster, followed by an interval to run slower. Repeat as many times as you want at the speed of your choosing. It’s the perfect ticket to increasing fitness, without bruising your ego in the process.

“It takes away expectations for an athlete to hit or force a certain split on the track. The fartlek gives you freedom to read your body,” says Angelina Ramos, a cross-country and track coach for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “When we enter a workout from the standpoint of ‘Let me just give the best that I have today,’ you can be pleasantly surprised by what comes out of you.”

Fartlek is the every-woman’s workout. It’s for beginners and veterans alike. Go 30 seconds on and two minutes off. Or pick it up until the next tree, then slow down to the park bench. The fartlek doesn’t care—the fartlek wants you to make the rules.

“It really allows your body to adapt and not set yourself up for injury or a drastic jump in training that you’re not ready for, especially if there are a lot of other factors going on in your life,” Ramos says. “I really love the ability with fartleks to moderate the effort depending on what you want or need.”

The variables in speed also train your body to compete, should that time ever return. No race is run at a constant pace, so adapting to shifts will help if you’re neck-and-neck with your age-group rival at a Turkey Trot.

So how do you decide how fast the “on” segments should be? It depends on what you want to get out of the session, how much training you’re doing, and how long your fast intervals are. Sarah Hopkins, University of Minnesota head cross-country and assistant track coach, says you can make the exertion as intense as you want, but if you’re going hard on your “on” segments, take the easy segments easy; if you’re only moderately picking up the pace, don’t slow down too much on the recovery periods.

“That’s what’s cool about it. If you’re just trying to spice up your training, don’t even wear a watch,” Hopkins says. “Just warm up for a little bit, then go hard for a block, then easy for two blocks. Let it evolve.” The athletes Hopkins coaches like “Wildcard Wednesday.” Nobody knows how long the “on” intervals will be until somebody picks the next card from the deck. It could be 30 seconds or it could be five minutes. It breaks up the monotony of the run.

“Distance runners get stuck being methodical a lot, thinking we have to go a specific distance at a specific pace, but the fartlek lets you inform the workout as much as the workout is informing you,” Hopkins says. “After four weeks of building consistency in running, I like to pepper fartleks in whenever you want. Play with the intensity.”

My simple running plan now includes a speed play session each week. Eventually, those 60 seconds will grow to two minutes. Perhaps by New Year’s Day I’ll be up to five. But I won’t take the fartlek run for granted. It’s liberated me from disheartening comparisons and damaging expectations. Like an old friend, the fartlek has seen me through to a happier place and an improved relationship with running.

Woman jogging a fartlek workout on highway in landscape
Photo: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

4 Fartlek Workouts

You can choose your own adventure with fartlek runs, but here are a few options from Angelina Ramos, coach at UNLV, and Sarah Hopkins, coach at the University of Minnesota.

The Beginner

  • Warm up at an easy pace for 10 minutes
  • 10 x 1 minute hard / 1 minute easy
  • Cool down at an easy pace for 5 minutes

The Ladder

  • Warm up at an easy pace for 10 minutes
  • 8 minutes steady (slightly slower than threshold pace) / 2 minutes easy / 6 minutes steady / 2 minutes easy / 4 minutes threshold / 2 minutes easy / 2 minutes threshold / 2 minutes easy / 1 minute hard
  • Cool down for 10 minutes

*If you’re training for longer distances like the marathon, you can go back up the ladder to increase the length of the workout.

The Classic

  • Warm up at an easy pace for 10 minutes
  • 3-5 sets of: 3 minutes at 70 percent effort / 3 minutes easy / 2 minutes at 80 percent effort / 2 minutes easy / 1 minute at 90 percent effort / 1 minute easy / 30 seconds hard / 30 seconds easy
  • Cool down for 10 minutes

The Fast Finish

  • At the end of a long run, spice up the final 2-3 miles with some pickups: 1-2 minutes at a quicker pace than the rest of the run / 5 minutes back to long-run pace

* Your hard intervals don’t have to be much faster, just practice shifting