Fartlek running has influenced some of the past greats and it’s still as effective today

As many of us know, fartlek literally means “speed play”. This mode of training is not only used nationwide, but it’s also a worldwide phenomenon.

In a previous article in Athletics Weekly (December 6, 2012), we traced its foundations to Gösta Holmér of Sweden, who as an athlete was awarded a decathlon bronze medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Why was fartlek developed?

Holmér developed the notion of playing with speed in order to assist Swedish athletes as a response to the dominance of the Finnish distance running contingent spearheaded by the ‘Flying Finn’ Paavo Johannes Nurmi. He set countless world records at distances between 1500m and 20km and in the period 1920-1928 he won nine gold and three silver medals at the Antwerp, Paris and Amsterdam Olympics.

Who used fartlek?

Two of Holmer’s most prolific pupils were Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson. Hägg set multiple world records in races from 1500m and above. Andersson set a world 1500m record in 1943, clocking 3:45.0 in Gothenburg. Incredibly the two Swedes swapped the world mile record no less than five times between 1942 and 1945 with Hägg making it his own property between 1945 until 1954 (4:01.4) when a certain Roger Bannister rewrote the history books.

The legacy of Holmér

In the 1930s, Fartlek spread over the world inspired by Holmér’s response to the Finnish successes. Great coaches in later years such as Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand, who had Murray Halberg and Peter Snell in his stable of great runners, and Percy Cerutty of Australia, who had athletes of the calibre of Albie Thomas, Dave Power and Herb Elliott, used it as an integral part of their training schedules in the 1950s and 60s with the volume ranging from 4-12 miles.

British international athletes such as Ian Stewart, Andy Holden, Mike Kearns and Mary Stewart used the medium as part of their training programmes along with countless other athletes and coaches across the globe.

More recently many more coaches have adapted it to suit the needs of their athletes. Nevertheless, what remains is the basic Holmér training session, which is speed play and the use of all three energy systems, which also serves as an enjoyable and beneficial training aspect.

Fartlek principles

Although there are a variety of structured and less structured approaches to the fartlek method, all forms have certain similarities.
» The intensity of training is varied between higher and lower ends of the spectrum, including faster than race pace running and jogging or even walking
» Terrain underfoot may be varied – for example, road, trail and grass
» Fartlek typically incorporates undulating running

How to integrate fartlek

Bud Baldaro, the national coach mentor for endurance, is keen to emphasise the variability of intensity which fartlek can offer. The coach of around 60 GB internationals says: “On the one hand, the fartlek session can be the easiest thing you do all week but on the other hand, it can be the hardest.”

He points out that fartlek can be used in both rural and urban settings. “After making sure you are warmed up, simply pick a landmark such as a tree or lamp post and run to it hard and then slow to a jog until you’ve recovered,” he says. “You then select another landmark, run hard to that, recover and so on, continuously.

“Be creative and imaginative, above all else. Specificity is important in training, so short and fast bursts will help you for races such as 5km and 10km. Longer efforts within the fartlek session are more suited for 10-mile and half-marathon race preparation. In practice, it’s best to mix and match the length of the bursts.”

Former international runner David Lowes agrees with Baldaro, but gives some cautionary advice. He explains: “It didn’t work for me, and probably because I didn’t implement it correctly! Because of where I used to live, I had to do the majority of my training alone. Fartlek is great in a group of similar-ability runners where each individual can work off one another. Although there are many variations, a basic plan needs to be well thought out before commencing a session.

“Fartlek is sometimes referred to as ‘run as you feel’ and if you’re particularly tired beforehand, as I often was, then the session can disintegrate into a meaningless outing with a poor work ethic.

“There can be a cross-over between interval training and fartlek and, although both serve basically the same purpose, perhaps fartlek ideally should be done in an undulating parkland or wooded area where distance markers are non-existent and specific pace is irrelevant with the percentage of effort being the main criteria.

“Of course, it can also end up being too hard and too fast if a group becomes really competitive – that can have positive and negative outcomes. Fartlek can certainly be a welcome and beneficial break away from the mundaneness of urbanisation. Without the control from a coach’s start-stop whistle it can still be a tough workout if planned thoughtfully in a run-free environment where everyone in a group gets the chance to express themselves.”

Why does fartlek work?


Internationally respected coach Peter Thompson demonstrates above the three energy systems, namely aerobic, lactate and alactic (ATP-CP). The aerobic system is the sustained energy system which uses oxygen and fuel stores. The lactate system is sometimes referred to as the linking energy system – it has a capability to operate without oxygen and uses fuel stores and produces both lactic and acid. The alactic
system is short in the duration of its use (maximum 10 seconds) and its high intensity makes it a stored start-up system. While it is capable of operating with no oxygen, critically no lactate or acid is produced.

As the diagram above indicates, the three energy systems are not mutually exclusive, but they have inter-dependency. At a British Milers’ Club residential weekend, athletes were encouraged to focus on three athletes in one of the many presentations, namely Mo Farah, Lynsey Sharp and Usain Bolt. At surface level most athletes present made the correct observation that being a 5000m-10,000m runner Farah’s predominant energy system was aerobic. They rightly agreed that 800m runner Sharp’s predominant system was that of lactate and they were quick to answer that Bolt’s predominant use was the alactic system.

A deeper probing however revealed that while the Jamaican’s 9.58 world record over 100m could indeed rely exclusively on his alactic system, over the longer 200m sprint he would inevitably have to utilise his lactate system for part of the 19-20 seconds in which he would be in motion.

In returning to the double Olympic and world champion Farah, although his aerobic system will predominate in his excursions over both his gold medal-winning distances, he will at various points of his races utilise the other two energy systems. His famed lightning quick last 400m on occasion will require utilisation of the lactate system, while his flat-out drive for the line, with a sprinting technique perfected under his coach Alberto Salazar’s meticulous attention to biomechanical detail, makes undoubted use of his alactic system over the final 70-80m.

Thompson maintains that fartlek is a form of what he terms “lactate dynamics training”. This can be achieved by a diversity of methods where, he explains, “lactate production is deliberately increased by the intensity of exercise and then alternated with periods of less intense activity.” This interplay of intensities teaches the muscle cells how to both use and clear the produced lactate during the less intense recoveries. If employed correctly, the alternating lower-intensity periods during fartlek can become a time when lactate usage for energy production and clearance rates can be accelerated.

The legacy of fartlek

It is worth remembering that “speed play” is an inherent principle of training for all endurance-based sports. The fartlek principles are often utilised in the training of cycling and swimming plus games-based sports such as football or hockey. It’s here to stay, so use it wisely!

» About the authors: David Lowes is AW coaching editor and BMC academy director. Matt Long and Geoff James served as his squad lead coaches at the recent BMC residential training weekend