Fartlek Training for Swimmers

Fartlek Training for Swimmers: How to Spice Up Your Aerobic Work

Is it sprint work for distance swimmers? Distance work for sprinters? It’s both! Here is why swimmers should embrace Fartlek training during their workouts.

Swimmers spent a metric butt-ton of time in the pool, swimming back and forth, around and around, all in the hopes of leveling up their speed and conditioning in order to punch their personal best times straight in the kisser.

While we circle around that black line we engage in a variety of different types of training. There’s the long, slowish-paced aerobic work. There’s the fast stuff. And there’s the faster-than-race pace stuff.

For most swimmers the long and boring stretches of our practices are, well, boring.

We lose focus, lose our concentration, and lose count of how many laps we’ve done. (True story: I lost count doing a 200 easy last week.)

Fartlek training can take those long, tedious stretches of straight swimming and make them a little more challenging, a little less boring, and also develop some of those fast twitch muscle fibers that everyone keeps talking about.

What is Fartlek Training?

Besides being fun to say, and almost guaranteed to elicit laughter from some of the more juvenile-minded swimmers of the group (present company included), Fartlek is a type of training where you do long, straight swimming interjected with random bursts of speed. (Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play.”)

Here’s an example.

Let’s say you were doing a 1500 swim with a swim snorkel mounted to your grill.

Every 200 or so you would break into a full sprint for a period of a 25-50m, and then dial it back down to an easy, long pace for another 200 or so meters, alternating between medium paced swimming and sprinting for the duration of the rep or set.

There are some good reasons that Fartlek training can be a great addition to your swim practices:

It’s low pressure speed work.

Swimmers, whether they admit it or not, don’t always like doing the high intensity stuff on the clock.

High intensity efforts, after all, are an instant barometer of how well they have been training to date, and as a result swimmers will intentionally biff the effort, or play down expectations to avoid feeling disappointed.

With no clock on them, swimmers can let it fly without worrying that they are matching or exceeding their personal practice best times.

Fartlek Training for Swimmers
Fartlek training: You’ll lose count less often!

Helps you develop gear changing ability.

Fartlek swimming is awesome for teaching you to switch gears at a moment’s notice, and this can come in pretty handy.

Often times in your middle distance (and longer) races you will need to be able to hit the gas to catch a swimmer that is trying to break away. Or otherwise be able to drop the hammer spontaneously to get away from a swimmer or make a move.

Fartlek training helps you develop the ability to go from easy to fast on the drop of a dime.

Crush a lot of meters quickly.

Want to tickle both your slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers?

This kind of training is perfect for not only hitting both, but also for getting in a lot of yards relatively quickly, which is helpful for those with limited time in the pool (which is just about everybody).

More on the value of high yardage sets in a moment.

Focused yardage.

“Garbage yardage” is something you hear a lot about in swimming. Fartlek requires the focus and concentration to mind your speed, making those long yardage sets a lot more interesting.

You’ll also lose count a lot less often. Bonus.

Options are endless.

Fartlek training is versatile. You can do it performing regular old swim, doing kick, doing pull, and with any piece of equipment you can dig out from your mesh bag.

Alternating strokes is a popular option as well: do the cruise work backstroke, the sprint stuff doing freestyle. Or vice versa. Or whatever!

Another awesome feature of this kind of work is that your fast efforts can cover any point of the pool: off the walls, in and out of the walls, mid-length to develop explosive speed, and so on.

Tip for coaches: Have your swimmers do a 20-minute swim. Every three minutes blow the whistle to launch your swimmers into a sprint. Toot it a second time :20-:30 seconds later to have them return to cruise/easy pace. The swimmers will be at varying points in the pool during the course of the sprint efforts, and it will keep them focused and engaged and waiting on the whistle.

Your feel for the water will improve.

One of the lesser talked about benefits of swimming lots of yards is that your feel for the water and efficiency will improve.

Of course, this is only the case if you are swimming those yards with a focus on efficiency, but I know that after about 700-800 yards of straight freestyle swimming with a snorkel on my stroke feels exceptionally better than it did at the outset.

There is a reason Alex Popov would often do 5,000m swims in the middle of practice—over the course of all those lengths he was dialing in his stroke and feel for the water.

Because Fartlek training takes your stroke up and down the intensity ladder you feel the water at different speeds, which helps you develop better water-gripping awareness.

Sample Fartlek Sets for Swimmers

Here are a couple different sets that I have been playing around with in recent weeks:


2,500m freestyle kick with a board – Leg conditioning 101.

  • Pick 15m of the 4th 25 of every 100 to go fast on. Alternate between the first 15m of the 25, the middle 15m, and the final 15m.


2,000m freestyle with snorkel – Stroke count deluxe!

  • Swim 35 strokes at a controlled, relaxed pace. Focus on a consistent kick and high elbow catch.
  • Swim 15 strokes at a full sprint (go fast into the walls if you hit a turn before the 15 strokes comes up)
  • You’ll end up doing fast work in every area of the pool—some will be into the wall including a flip turn, some mid-length, some breaking out.

In sum…

Fartlek training: fun to say, fun to do, and good for your swimming as well!

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of YourSwimLog.com. He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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