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  • Writer's pictureMaria Brandon

On the 'art' in Fartlek

Fartlek: the funniest and most fun of runner jargon.

Each time I type “fartlek” on an athlete’s training plan I giggle to myself remembering a text from my sister after completing a run on hers that read “just finished licking the farts.” I know you’re laughing, too, because we runners not only love a good pre-race poop or mid-run fart story, but part of being a runner—no matter how competitive you are—is being a child at heart. So, no surprise then that fartlek means something characteristic to childhood: play. Specifically, speed play. And even though we typically think of (and, as coaches, prescribe) fartleks as a less structured form of interval work, I’ve lately applied the term to almost every run I set forth on.

For anyone reading this who doesn’t know me personally, I’m just over two months postpartum with our first child, Teagan. I ran through the majority of pregnancy, including training for and “racing” the Brooksie virtual at seven months pregnant with my then four-months-postpartum sister, but backed off a LOT afterward and, as prescribed, abstained from running until six-weeks postpartum. I’m easing back into running now and, with my fitness far from where I’ll work to get to, the word “speed” rarely crosses my mind in terms of speediness. Playing with speed, however, is what gets me through most every run these days.

As mentioned, we typically discuss or prescribe fartleks as shorter pickups of faster running followed by slower and easier recovery periods. Most Cadence classes I coach at Great Lakes Athletic Club (GLAC) are fartlek-style. For example, last Friday, runners completed three ninety-second fast spurts with just thirty seconds recovery, three times, with three minutes recovery between sets. Another mile (starting and ending with a warmup and cool down, of course). A final example (one of my favorites for outdoor running) might utilize driveways, trees, telephone poles (Orion-area runners, the Poly Ann Trail is GREAT for this one), etc. as slow-down or speed-up markers.

What all of the examples I just listed have in common is that they’re workouts designed to mechanically and cardiovascularly increase running efficiency while allowing the mind and heart (switching to the non-cardiovascular meaning here) to feel a bit freer of structure. Ironically though, these structure-free runs seem to most often appear within the structure of a training plan (or class in the case of Cadence). So maybe, in this season where races are unpredictable, footing is iffy, weather is frigid, or we’re just not at our fittest and fastest, we can free up the fartlek of structure even more by worrying less about speed, and focusing more on play; less on planning, more on asking ourselves as we lace up our shoes or maybe mid-stride, what can I do to make this run playful?

Let’s distinguish between playful and fun, knowing that, for any number of reasons, not all runs—even fartleks—feel ‘fun.’ Instead, let’s think of playful as synonymous with imaginative and ask ourselves, where can I get creative with this run in a way that sparks some spirit in my steps and gets me to end of it not necessarily speedily, but playfully so that my spirits stay high enough to step into the next run, and the next…

On the treadmill, where you have the luxury of programing pace by the .1 MPH, you might give yourself some “rules” such as “if you increase the pace, you can’t decrease it until the end of the run or until X minute/mile.” You might sporadically double-dog-dare yourself to hold a particular pace or effort level for a specific duration. Or, you might cue up a good playlist and make your run a dance party, varying your speed with different songs, picking it up on the refrain, incorporating a longer surge or recovery on a bridge, etc.

You can, of course, dance and play through outdoor runs, too. I’ve frolicked about many a snowy sidewalk, rutty trail or puddle-soaked path pretending I’m a character in a video game, bouncing off spring pads and dodging landmines. And, while don’t typically listen to anything when I run outside, I might pop on a playlist for a run I anticipate struggling with and trick myself into ‘dancing’ through those miles.

And the dance doesn’t have to be a fast one. Speed work might imply running faster, but speed doesn’t necessarily mean running fast or even pushing the pace for that matter—it just means the rate at which you’re moving. So, why couldn’t you fartlek (i.e. play with speed) by running slower than you might usually run, too? You know those “easy six miles,” recovery, and shakeout runs that appear on your training plans that you’re tempted to hustle through because they’re boring? Play with them instead. Sync up your steps to some slow songs, use the extra time on your feet to daydream, make-believe you’re flying—whatever resonates with you and helps you relax into the run.

Relaxation might be the ultimate goal of the fartlek. We can’t always trick ourselves into having fun, but we can trick ourselves into letting go. Surrendering to discomfort as it appears not only physically, but also mentally in the form of self-doubt, anxiety, and/or boredom and combating these things by inciting your imagination to run with you, away from them.

Enough on this for today. Now, go lick some farts.

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