Injecting speed into your running will pay huge dividends and fartlek is a fun way to do it, writes Paddy McGrath

Fartlek is the Swedish term for speed play and it should be precisely that. In essence, it involves bursts of faster-paced running interspersed with gentler recovery running. The beauty of it is that it removes the constraints of interval training so that you do not have to be a slave to the stopwatch or the track. It’s used by athletes of all levels and is a way to boost confidence and speed along while at the same time rediscovering the pure enjoyment of running.

With my more experienced athletes, I often advocate a fartlek run in which they measure only the total duration of the run or the overall distance covered. Other than that, their aim is to enjoy the session, to rediscover the freedom of running as they feel without pressure.For these reasons, fartlek training is as psychologically refreshing as it is physically rewarding.

It’s not just the fact that this kind of workout stimulates your VO2 max and enables you to handle the kind of changes in pace and terrain that you might encounter in a race – it’s beneficial to the mind as well. Once you have become accustomed to the changing pace of a fartlek session, the best way to approach it is to run as you feel, adding bursts of speed and recovery based not on the ticking of your watch, but on what your body tells you is right.

Unlike many other types of running session, it is ideal for doing in mixed-ability groups. Fartlek is something I do regularly with the younger athletes I coach as it means they get to run together regardless of their basic speed and current level. It’s all-inclusive and everyone enjoys it.

Each runner gets to select a distance over which they think they can lead the group – it might be 120m or 600m – and surprises the others with their choice. More than anything, Fartlek should be fun.

How often?

It’s generally advisable to run a fartlek session every week, although much depends on your racing goals and aspirations. There is no reason why it shouldn’t replace interval training on the track if your focus is local parkruns and 5km races. There is an added advantage to this – running on softer and mixed terrain means there is less chance of injury than on the hard surface of a track.

Where to do it

There really is no end to the variety of places you can do fartlek. Woodland trails and parks are ideal, although many runners do sessions on roads and a few even choose to run on tracks. The terrain can be undulating or flat, muddy or dry and can entail you running lots of small loops or one large one. What matters most is that it is different each time.

How to do it

Fartlek can be as long as you want it to be, but my advice is to aim for 35 minutes to 1 hour in duration. Always aim for 5-10 minutes gentle running to warm up before your first “burst”, but beyond that, the key is to experiment and not to stick to a rigid format. Change it regularly so that you never get stuck in a rut. Below are some other Fartlek sessions you might want to try.

Group fartlek
If you are running in a group it is a good idea to give everyone a number so that they know when their burst will come. The key is to take people by surprise, as you might in a race, by running hard for a distance predetermined in your mind.

Fun fartlek
You can do this in a group or alone. Once you have decided on your total run duration and completed your gentle running as a warm-up, select markers that occur naturally in the environment between which you vary your pace. So, it might be that you run hard past three lamp posts and then jog for the next four lamp posts. On a hilly route you might decide to run hard up the hills and to jog to the next one.

Shorter-burst fartlek
After a warm-up, perform 10 to 12 bursts of faster-paced running lasting 1 minute with a 1-minute jog rest in between. Your effort should be slightly faster than 5km race-pace effort.

Longer-burst fartlek
After your warm-up, perform five or six bursts lasting 2 minutes, with a 1-2 minute jog between each hard effort. There are variations on this, of course, so do experiment. My athletes sometimes do a pyramid of 1-minute, 2-minute, 3-minute, 4-minute bursts and back down again, each with a recovery period. Again, your effort should be similar to 5km race-pace effort.

» Paddy McGrath is a former Irish international and qualified coach who currently coaches junior and senior athletes. He can be found at paddymcgrathrunning.com