Fartlek: Sweden’s gift to running

‘Speed-play’ is a tried-and-tested training technique to aid speed endurance — and it separates the runners from the Runners

Fartlek involves making multiple significant alterations to the pace during a run, and is commonly practised by solo runners. Photograph: Moof/Getty Images/Cultura RF

There are many names for those who run, from fun-runner and jogger through trail runner and marathoner, and, at the far end of the spectrum, sub-elite and elite athletes. What we, as runners, choose to call ourselves is indicative not only of our experience and preference for specific distances and events, but also of what we perceive our ability and commitment levels to be. Some people call themselves joggers, other people will tell you they are athletes. The choice of words alone provides a wealth of information about the runner’s sense of self. Personally, I have a theory that, regardless of one’s speed or stamina, there are only really two types of people who run: runners and Runners.

For people in the first group, running is something they do. The same is true of those in the second group, but for them, the fact that they run is part of what actually defines them.

When you meet someone else who runs, it can be difficult to know at first which group they belong to. Are they a runner or a Runner? You could ask them their times, or how often they run, but such questioning is fraught with competitive tension, and can have the unfortunate effect of making either one of you feel inferior.

There is, in my opinion, one failsafe way to make the distinction. In order to find out on which side of the line a person falls, all you have to do is drop the word Fartlek into the conversation.

If they snigger, smirk or raise an eyebrow even the slightest bit, then you are talking to a runner — someone who runs, but is not defined by it. They hear “Fartlek”, they think “fart”.

If, on the other hand, they don’t so much as bat an eyelid, but instead nod seriously and perhaps ask you something about interval sessions, then you have a Runner on your hands. They’ve crossed the line, and running is not only what they do, it is who they are. These are people who could hear the word “fart” in any situation, and all that would pop into their mind is a particular type of training session first developed in Sweden in the 1930s.

Fartlek has “fart” in it because that is the Swedish word for speed. Lek means play, and so “speed-play” serves as a rough translation, although Fartlek (with a capital F) is how it’s always been known. It was developed by the national cross-country coach Gösta Holmér in response to the Sweden team’s poor performances against their Finnish rivals. Fartlek is not, in fact, a common word in Sweden; most non-running Swedes wouldn’t even recognise it as a compound noun. But in running circles the world over it is respected as a tried-and-tested training technique with proven benefits for speed endurance.

Holmér’s innovation was to combine speed work and stamina training into one session, in which the runner makes multiple significant alterations to their pace during a run. Like interval training, it involves running at speeds far higher than normal for short periods. Where Fartlek differs from interval sessions is in the fact that these short bursts of pace occur within a continuous long run. The short, fast runs alternate with longer periods of easier running.

A Fartlek often occurs on trails or roads, rather than on a track, which means that it is commonly practised by solo runners. This independent element gives the runner greater control over their own session; there need not be a pre-determined schedule and the runner can instead feel their way through, gauging when and for how long to take the faster bursts.

This puts more responsibility on the individual: go too easy and the Fartlek will become nothing more than a training run, with little or no benefit to speed endurance. Go too hard, and you risk giving yourself too little time to recover between bursts. The key to getting a Fartlek right is to be both honest and wise, and, as a result, it is usually most effectively practised by runners (or should that be Runners) with more experience. That being said, Fartlek can also work equally well in groups, particularly if everyone is at a similar level, as the longer, slower portions of the run provide ample opportunity for everyone to catch up.

My first experience of Fartlek was also the first time I ran with my club. In fact, it was my first ever organised training session. I’d never heard the word before, and this being the first time I was meeting my new clubmates, I stifled my snigger, but it was there nonetheless. What followed was a session that was by turns testing and reassuring. Naturally, I went off too fast on the earlier efforts, and by the end of the session was finishing the shorter bursts in a position far nearer the back than the front. But this didn’t bother me, as the benefits of this kind of training were immediately apparent. Thanks to this session, and the others that followed, I began to make rapid improvements, and was soon running in cross-country and road races in times far faster than I would previously have imagined possible.

In retrospect, that first Fartlek session was when I put one toe over the line, and stopped being just someone who runs. Thanks in part to the efforts of Sweden’s pre-war cross-country coach, running is now part of what defines me. Who am I? A husband, a father, a brother, a son, a Runner.

Edward blogs at medium.com/@edprice and tweets at @edprice7


Originally published at www.theguardian.com on June 9, 2015.

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