Fartlek Anyone?

“If you feel that your mood and motivation is low, and that you are slipping into a kind of summer hibernation before the start of the winter training, think about a bit of Fartlek speed play”

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a well-known condition that affects some people in the winter months and depresses the mood. It is sometimes linked with lack of daylight.

Cyclists’ Summer Disorder

However, I think there is also a form of ‘cycling summer disorder’ where some racers’ mood and motivation begin to ebb during the height of the summer. This is unfortunate as it is the time of year when everyone should be reaping the rewards of the winter hardship and enjoying the warm weather, long days and good form.

It can  start as early as July. The flurry of much-anticipated races in March and  April are a distant memory and the Rás is done and dusted. Keeping motivated to the National Championships is even a struggle for some. Talk is already beginning about ‘next year’ and ‘putting in a good winter’. It is reflected in the race calendar, with the gaps getting bigger as the summer progresses.

This, in turn, leads to anxiety and a feeling of guilt, and it is a time when some turn to coaches for advice as they feel, now more than ever, the need for structure and discipline.

Sometimes, when listening to stories like this, I discern that the real problem lies with the rider having lost the joie de vivre of cycling. The bigger picture – that cycling should be fun – is forgotten.

Trying to manage this is important, firstly because everybody should enjoy the bike. Secondly, people who give up training early in the summer tend to start their ‘winter’ base training early and in not very good condition. This, in turn, leads to a long winter and the circle begins all over again.

Part of the answer, of course, is in good long-term planning and goal-setting. However, in helping to manage the immediate problem, I sometimes suggest they just forget about a rigid training plan for a while and try a Fartlek approach. Most have never heard of it!



Fartlek had its origins in Swedish athletics in the 1930s and the concept is mostly translated as ‘speed play’. Like everything, the term has morphed into many meanings but it can basically be understood as a kind of un-structured interval training.

In other words, while modern interval sessions are normally prescribed with specific intensities over specific times, Fartlek sessions are done entirely on feel – the athlete mixes up, or ‘plays’, with the effort depending on how he or she feels.

In this case I am interpreting the concept very loosely to focus more on the ‘play’ element – to ride with no plan, to have fun and cycle just as you feel like it.

Not having a plan or a structure for a ride is actually difficult for some. the idea of cycling for fun and pleasure, as opposed to ‘training’, is a leap too far! However, the key thing about this strategy is that if you do truly abandon yourself to this idea of ‘play’ you will, in fact, get in a lot of the type of varied training that is included in structured interval training.

Watching children at random play in open spaces must be best example of this lose type of Fartlek – they undergo an un-structured but enormous range of intensities and mobilities.

Moreover, when you go by feel and mood you are nearly always fresh. And, refreshing your mood and motivation, while trying to retain some form, is the purpose of this strategy.


How to do it

There is no one correct way to do this particular type of Fartlek – being prescriptive about it is contradictory to the idea. Ideally, you would set out on your ride with no plan on what you are going to do, and just go as you feel. It can take endless forms but the main thing is just to be carefree in your attitude.

You may spend hours leisurely exploring routes you haven’t gone on before, or you might just feel like an hour of hard effort and hit the afterburners over every drag.

It can be a time to renew social contacts, to join up with local friends and riders and just fall in with whatever they are doing. Or, to invite a few friends to just go for a ride: you may end up with a few hours of good chat or hammering each other on the road.

It’s a good time also to go exploring on the bike – to re-discover that child-like sense of play and turn off the usual routes just to see where they go. You may find yourself making a random attack to the top of a hill, or sprinting downhill with the wind at your back just to enjoy the thrill of speed.

It is definitely a time for putting away the Garmin and forget about checking out the Strava segments.

This doesn’t mean that you should forget about racing. It may be a time to enjoy racing even more – to enter with no great plan or expectation and see what happens. In fact, in cases like this, I encourage riders to target an end of season race to mark the finish of the competitive year and to savour it before the long winter begins.

This approach is not for riders who remain focused and motivated at this time of the year and still have clear goals in their sights. However, if you feel that your mood and motivation is low, and that you are slipping into a kind of summer hibernation before the start of the winter training, think about a bit of Fartlek speed play.

Share This: