Fartlek. (Do I dare?) Chill. This strange sounding word is a Swedish term that means, roughly, speed play. A verbal rite of passage …when you can say this word with impunity and in mixed company, you’ve arrived as a runner.
Fartlek takes the place of technical speed workouts, those dreaded, punishing, desperate drills that teach the body it actually can run faster than it thought possible. The Swedish came up with a plan to take the spook out of speed. Running from light post to light post; fast to one, jog to the next, accomplishes the goal of making the body run fast, but isn’t as mind boggling as looking at your coach-assigned interval workout; a paper covered with…4x400m w/400-m jog; 4x200 m, 200-m jog; 2x800 m, 2x400 m, 2x800 all with 400-m jog; 6x400@goal pace….aaaaggggghhhhh!!!!
To do fartlek, vary the speed and intensity of your pace, creating work and allowing recovery without stopping. Warm up by starting your run as you ordinarily would, jogging at a comfortable pace for about 10 minutes. Then, for a set period of time, “play” by alternating slow, medium, and faster paces for short periods of time. These timed intervals can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. You don’t even have to look at your watch. Try running each segment by picking out a different landmark; Run harder to the fifth telephone pole, for example; then recover by jogging to the pine tree at the curve of the canyon; then pick up the pace again. Follow faster bursts with slower ones for recovery. These workouts can seem like child’s play, as you intersperse fast bursts with slower recovery jogging, choose your own start and stop distance, and vary the intensity as well as the speed; it’s productive and positive.
Never go so fast that you are sprinting. Alternate tempos so that the overall effect is one of breathing more heavily than you’re used to, but so that you can still recover within a minute or so for your next burst. Fartlek will begin to train your mind and your body to shift gears, to feel the difference in paces, and to recover efficiently. So although these workouts can indeed feel like playtime, pay attention to what you are feeling: You can learn a lot.
We can use the fartlek principle in our non-running life as well. As we take on a project, the initial enthusiasm often propels us full force into the exciting venture, then as the new wears off and the reality of the ‘distance’ materializes, burn-out strikes. It’s important to remember that the ‘finish line’ is still out there, and that it’s okay to take a breather, enjoy the process as it develops, keeping an eye on the far horizon.
My mom used to say, “Slow down Elaine, you go at everything like you’re killin’ snakes.” I know that’s true, as it is for many of us. So it’s important to remember; relax, regroup, ‘jog’ to the next metaphorical telephone pole, and then accelerate. You’ve kept the heart rate, maintained continuity, and had a brief respite from the energy drain of the commitment. The up-side is that in picking up the pace again, you realize you can do more that you thought you could, you aren’t totally exhausted and sick of your project, and there really is a finish line!
See? The Swedes have some really good ideas. Swedish pancakes, Swedish meatballs, Swedish massage, Swedish interval training …think fartlek, food and fun.