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Training & advice

Fartlek or speed play

Fartlek training literally means 'speed play' in Swedish, which is where it originated.

This training technique was employed by Gosta Holmer, coach to world record holders Gunder Haag and Arne Anderson as he worked to increase their leg-turnover and speed-endurance.

The traditional fartlek session would take place in the pine forests of Sweden and the runners would run fast or slow as they felt. Easy or steady running would be interspersed by bursts of speed or longer efforts whenever the mood took the runners and so the runners would train in both aerobic and anaerobic training zones. 

Fartlek training is great for the 'feel good' factor as runners enjoy the feeling of running fast and relaxed and taking their time as they recover. Psychologically it can increase confidence and the enjoyment of running.

However, there is some criticism of this method. It can be difficult to see the physical training objective and the session can seem unstructured. For this reason, fartlek sessions are sometimes planned with more discipline. A typical fartlek session that a coach or leader may plan could be something like:

1 minute fast, 1 minute slow. 2 minutes fast, 2 minutes slow, 3 minutes fast, 3 minutes slow, 2 minutes fast, 2 minutes slow, 1 minute fast, 1 minute slow.

This session could improve speed endurance but the coach or leader may also want to improve the runners ability to 'change gear' and increase pace on command to simulate how it may be in a race when a runner tries to 'shake off' a competitor. In this instance he or she may not tell the runners how long each effort and recovery is going to be but blow a whistle or use another command each time the pace is to change. The coach may mix up the length of the efforts and recoveries and may plan the session to ensure the runners work each of the energy systems and improve both leg-turnover by putting in shorter efforts with  longer recoveries and speed-endurance with shorter recoveries.

Notice that the efforts are described in terms of time rather than distance. This is because the fartlek session tends to be run on surfaces that are not marked out although they could also be adapted to running tracks and 3-2-1 courses would lend themselves well.

Like other training methods the fartlek session should progress through the training cycle and the runner should decide whether they are using fartlek to get faster or to run faster for longer. If speed is the objective the fartlek training session will start to build in faster efforts with longer recoveries. If speed-endurance is the objective there should be an increase in the number of efforts within the session and recoveries should be reduced between them as the training cycle progresses.