The Other Reason Why I Love Fartleks

In the past I’ve been accused of crossing boundaries, so I’ll leave my #1 reason out of this post. If the word fartlek doesn’t make you giggle, you may forever remain in the dark.

Fartlek is actually a Swedish word that means “speed play.” It refers to any workout in which you increase your speed and intensity for short bursts, then drop down to a comfortable pace until you resume breathing regularly, and repeat for however long you like.

Fartlek exercises are one of the best ways to get faster, according to The Runner’s Handbook, the Essential Classic Fitness Guide which I found on display at the library the other day. Seeing that the book included an entire chapter on improving speed (with a major section on fartleking), I was nonplussed. I’d been following a marathon training schedule as if it were my patriotic duty, running every time it told me to and increasing my weekly mileage. It never told me that there was other stuff I was supposed to be doing in order to get faster; I just thought that sort of thing came with the course of running regularly and often.

I replaced the handbook on its shelf with the cover facing backward, like I used to do with scary books so they couldn’t watch me while I slept. Then I forgot all about fartleks until one morning when I was on a long run and realized I was getting bored. The route I’d chosen was a busy and flat road with little to observe except the light posts and the cars that kept crossing the double yellow lines on the pavement to avoid hitting me. Then I remembered something about light posts. The Runner’s Handbook had included a hot tip about efficient fartleking, which was to locate courses with regularly-spaced landmarks (like benches or posts) and speed up or slow down alternatively between them.

I waited until I got to the next light post and sped up, and I was off like Seabiscuit. When I reached the post after that, I resumed a regular pace until the next one. And so on until before I knew it, I was back home with a sheet of brownies in the oven and feeling good about myself.

Aside from playing half-hearted tag in summer camp, I can’t remember ever doing much sprinting. If you haven’t really tried it either, mark my words: it makes you feel as powerful as Rocky in those famous workout montages. The funny thing about sprinting is that you don’t really get that winded while you’re doing it–the pain only catches up during the recovery. Far from grueling and horrible as I’d imagined when I first read about them, fartleks are exactly what their name means–playing around with your speed. There are no rules about how far or fast to sprint, and no fancy pace-measuring equipment is required. If you’re tired, you can recover over a longer distance than your sprint; and if you’re feeling great, you can pick up the pace and pretend you’re the fastest racehorse, the most victorious underdog wrestler, or whatever action-inspired fantasy does it for you.

Mari Zagarins

When Mari isn't running, biking, hiking, or jumping-jacking in and around her home in Montpelier, she is practicing her facial expressions in the mirror and contemplating whether she should learn to swim.