Difference Between: Fartlek, Tempo, and Interval Runs

Running is not just about putting one foot in front of the other. It’s about pushing your limits, improving your speed, and building stamina. To achieve these goals, runners often turn to different training methods like fartlek, tempo, and interval runs. These workouts, although similar in some aspects, have distinct characteristics and benefits. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore each of these training methods in detail, helping you understand the differences and how to incorporate them into your running routine.

Man running on the road

Running is a versatile sport with various training methods to suit different goals and preferences. Fartlek, tempo, and interval runs are three popular training methods that focus on improving speed, endurance, and overall performance. While they share a common objective, each method has its unique characteristics and benefits.

In this guide, we will delve into the specifics of each training method, providing you with a comprehensive understanding of how to incorporate them into your running routine. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced runner, these workouts can help you take your running to the next level.

What is Fartlek Running?

History of Fartlek

Fartlek, a Swedish term meaning “speed play,” was developed in the 1930s by Swedish Olympian Gosta Holmer. The concept behind fartlek training is to alternate between moderate-to-hard efforts and easy running throughout the workout. Unlike structured interval training, fartlek runs are relatively unstructured, allowing runners to be more flexible and creative with their workout routines.

How to Perform a Fartlek Run

Fartlek runs are known for their spontaneity and adaptability. After a warm-up, runners can play with speed by incorporating faster efforts for short periods followed by easy-effort running to recover. While many runners choose to run time-based fartleks, such as running fast for three minutes and then slowing down for two minutes, the possibilities are endless. You can get imaginative and use landmarks or other cues to vary your pace.

Fartlek runs can be performed individually or in a group setting, making them highly versatile and enjoyable. In a group, runners can take turns leading and mix up the pace and timing, providing mental stimulation and motivation.

Benefits of Fartlek Training

Fartlek training offers several benefits for runners of all levels:

  1. Improved Mind-Body Awareness: Fartlek runs require you to constantly adjust your pace and effort level, enhancing your mind-body connection and awareness.
  2. Mental Strength and Stamina: Pushing yourself through alternating periods of moderate-to-hard efforts and easy running helps build mental fortitude and stamina.
  3. Stress-Free Workout: Fartlek runs offer a refreshing break from structured training, allowing for a more free-flowing and enjoyable running experience.
  4. Winter-Friendly Option: The non-stop aspect of fartlek runs eliminates the need to wait around in the cold, making them an excellent choice during winter months.

Understanding Tempo Runs

Purpose of Tempo Runs

Tempo runs, also known as threshold training, focus on running at a sustained effort level just below or at your anaerobic threshold. This effort level, where your body shifts to using more glycogen for energy, is typically characterized by increased breathing and the ability to speak in broken words. Tempo runs help improve your lactate threshold, enabling you to run faster at easier effort levels.

How to Incorporate Tempo Runs into Your Training

Tempo runs are typically longer, continuous runs compared to fartlek workouts. The duration of a tempo run can range from 20 to 40 minutes, although they can be broken up into shorter segments with brief recovery periods in between. To perform a tempo run, you can use different methods to gauge your effort level, such as monitoring your heart rate or maintaining a consistent pace.

During a tempo run, it’s crucial to maintain a steady effort level, aiming for around 7/10 on the perceived effort scale. This means you should feel challenged but still able to carry on a conversation in broken words. Consistency in pace or heart rate is key to reaping the full benefits of tempo training.

Benefits of Tempo Training

Incorporating tempo runs into your training routine can yield several advantages:

  1. Increased Lactate Threshold: Tempo runs help raise your lactate threshold, allowing you to sustain a higher pace for longer periods at easier effort levels.
  2. Improved Focus and Mental Strength: Running at a challenging but sustainable effort level during tempo runs enhances mental focus and fortitude.
  3. Race Simulation: Tempo runs closely mimic race conditions, helping you practice maintaining a steady pace and mental composure during challenging situations.
  4. Enhanced Running Economy: Consistent tempo training can improve your running form and economy, making you a more efficient runner.

Exploring Interval Runs

Definition and Purpose of Interval Runs

Interval runs involve alternating between short, intense efforts and periods of recovery time. These workouts are characterized by running at a faster pace than your tempo run or fartlek pace. Intervals are an effective way to improve your speed endurance, running form, and running economy.

Compared to fartlek and tempo runs, interval training places a greater emphasis on pushing your limits and running at or near your maximum effort level. The structured nature of interval runs allows for precise control over the duration and intensity of each effort, making them an excellent tool for targeted training adaptations.

Structuring an Interval Workout

Interval workouts can be customized based on your fitness level and goals. The duration and intensity of each interval, as well as the recovery period, can be adjusted to suit your specific needs. For example, you can perform short and intense intervals, such as 12 x 400m at 5K pace with 400m of easy jogging between reps. Alternatively, you can opt for longer intervals, like 3 x 6 minutes at 5K pace with 2 minutes of easy jogging between reps.

During interval runs, it’s crucial to maintain proper form and technique, even at high speeds. Pay attention to your breathing and avoid overexertion. The recovery periods between intervals allow your body to adapt and recover, ensuring you can perform each interval with quality and intensity.

Benefits of Interval Training

Incorporating interval runs into your training routine can yield several benefits:

  1. Improved Running Form and Economy: Interval training promotes better running mechanics and efficiency, helping you maintain proper form even at higher speeds.
  2. Enhanced Endurance: Pushing your limits during interval runs improves your cardiovascular fitness and endurance, allowing you to sustain faster paces for longer durations.
  3. Mind-Body Coordination: Interval training challenges your mental and physical coordination, helping you become more in tune with your body’s capabilities.
  4. Increased Motivation and Fat-Burning: The intensity of interval runs can boost motivation and stimulate fat-burning, making them an effective tool for weight management and overall fitness.

Fartlek vs. Tempo vs. Interval: A Comparison

While fartlek, tempo, and interval runs share the common goal of improving speed and endurance, they differ in structure, intensity, and targeted training adaptations. Here’s a breakdown of the key differences between these training methods:

Differences in Structure and Intensity

  • Fartlek Runs: Fartlek runs are characterized by their unstructured nature, allowing runners to alternate between moderate-to-hard efforts and easy running. The pace and duration of each effort can vary based on individual preference and creativity. Fartlek runs provide a more free-flowing and unpredictable workout experience.
  • Tempo Runs: Tempo runs involve running at a sustained effort level just below or at your anaerobic threshold. These runs are typically longer and continuous, requiring runners to maintain a steady pace or heart rate. Tempo runs are more structured compared to fartlek workouts, focusing on sustained effort rather than varying intensities.
  • Interval Runs: Interval runs consist of alternating short, intense efforts with periods of recovery time. The pace during intervals is faster than tempo runs and fartlek efforts, pushing runners to their maximum or near-maximum effort level. Interval training is highly structured, allowing precise control over the duration and intensity of each effort.

Targeted Training Adaptations

  • Fartlek Runs: Fartlek runs primarily improve mind-body awareness, mental strength, and stamina. The unstructured nature of fartlek workouts enhances adaptability and mental fortitude.
  • Tempo Runs: Tempo runs target the improvement of lactate threshold, focus, race simulation, and running economy. These workouts help runners sustain a faster pace for longer durations, simulate race conditions, and enhance running efficiency.
  • Interval Runs: Interval training aims to improve running form, economy, endurance, mind-body coordination, motivation, and fat-burning. The high-intensity efforts of interval runs challenge runners to push their limits, leading to various physiological and psychological adaptations.

Designing Your Training Plan

Now that you understand the key differences between fartlek, tempo, and interval runs, it’s time to incorporate these training methods into your running routine. Here are some guidelines for designing an effective training plan:

Incorporating Fartlek, Tempo, and Interval Runs

To maximize the benefits of all three training methods, consider incorporating them into different phases of your training plan. For example, during the base-building phase, you can focus on fartlek runs to improve mental toughness and build a solid foundation. As you progress towards race-specific training, gradually introduce tempo runs to enhance lactate threshold and race simulation. Finally, incorporate interval runs during the peak phase to improve speed endurance and running economy.

Customizing Intensity and Duration

When designing your training plan, customize the intensity and duration of each workout based on your fitness level and goals. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of fartlek, tempo, and interval runs over time to avoid overtraining and reduce the risk of injury. Listen to your body and make adjustments as needed, ensuring a balance between challenging yourself and allowing for proper recovery.

Tips for Success

To make the most of your fartlek, tempo, and interval runs, consider the following tips:

Listening to Your Body

Pay attention to how your body responds to different training methods and adjust accordingly. If you feel fatigued or experience pain during a workout, it’s important to prioritize rest and recovery. Push yourself, but also respect your body’s limits to prevent overtraining and injury.

Staying Consistent

Consistency is key to achieving long-term progress. Aim to incorporate fartlek, tempo, and interval runs into your training routine consistently, adhering to your customized plan. Consistent training allows your body to adapt and improve gradually over time.

Sample Workouts

To help you get started, here are sample workouts for each training method:

Fartlek Workout Example

  • Warm-up: Jog for 15-20 minutes.
  • Fartlek: Run for 20 minutes, alternating between 2 minutes of slow running and 30 seconds of fast running. Repeat until 20 minutes are completed.
  • Cooldown: Jog for 10-15 minutes.

Tempo Run Workout Example

  • Warm-up: Jog for 15-20 minutes.
  • Tempo Run: Run for 15-30 minutes at a steady pace or heart rate within zones 3 and 4.
  • Cooldown: Jog for 10-15 minutes.

Interval Run Workout Example

  • Warm-up: Jog for 10-15 minutes, perform pre-run stretching, and running drills.
  • Intervals Set 1: Run 5×2 minutes at a medium effort with 2 minutes of active rest between reps.
  • Rest: Rest for 4 minutes.
  • Intervals Set 2: Run 5×2 minutes at maximum effort with 2 minutes of active rest between reps.
  • Cooldown: Jog for 10-15 minutes.


Fartlek, tempo, and interval runs are powerful tools that can elevate your running performance to new heights. By incorporating these training methods into your routine, you can improve your speed, endurance, mental strength, and overall running efficiency. Remember to customize your training plan based on your goals, listen to your body, and stay consistent. With dedication and a well-rounded approach, you can reach your running goals and unlock your full potential.