Fartlek, a Swedish word meaning “speedplay,” is as much fun to do as it is to say.
Originally conceived in the late 1930s by a Swedish cross-country running coach, it’s a training technique that puts the body through its entire natural range of paces, from slow to gaspingly fast.
The idea: after a slow-to-moderate warmup, the runner (walker, cyclist, hiker, snowshoer, cross-country skier) structures a workout by varying the pace as she pleases, speeding up, loping along, all-out sprinting. No rules, no stopwatches, no competition, no stress — just changing gears and speed as the spirit moves you.
Fartlek workouts are especially fun to do with a partner or a group, following the leader, changing the lead after a minute or two.
For many years I belonged to a running group that met after work every Tuesday from April through Labor Day to run speedwork. Our coach structured these sessions to train and tune our muscles, tendons, hearts, and lungs for racing. Fartlek workouts always appeared early in the season, paving the way for more intense speedwork later on.
Different paces, different distances, the transitions from one speed to another, changes in grade (uphill and down), and changes in terrain all place different demands on the body. The idea of training is to help the body adjust to the demands by increasing them gradually and maintaining that level of preparation until the race itself.
The workouts also taught me how I could keep a constant mental monitor going, to feel the speed, so I’d know just how long I could sustain a certain pace without crashing, when and how much to back it off; and when I could step it up a notch, how to surge, how to run uphill and down, how to cut wind resistance by drafting another runner.
I learned a lot in those years of training to race (and racing); fo example, feeling tired at a normally comfortable pace indicated a need to back off, take a day or two off, and get more sleep or risk illness or injury. Most important, I learned that regular bouts of going through all my paces on a regular basis made the physical and mental stresses of daily life, well, much less stressful.
An artificial knee (and osteoarthritis pretty much everywhere else) keeps me from running these days. But I still employ fartlek workouts two or three times a week during my walks, swims, and other fitness activities.
And I religiously apply “intentional speedplay” to daily life, preparing mind as well as body for the unpredictable demands of ordinary human existence.
Because sandwiched among the occasional leisurely hours come the long, slow-but-demanding and sometimes boring efforts (stacking firewood, spreading compost), and those need-for-speed moments (the flood in the basement, a health emergency, fire in the kitchen), and the stop-you-in-your-tracks times of grief and loss.
It pays to engage in regular bouts of contemplative lifeplay to prepare for all of them.