Just Knowing How to Train Can be the Difference

by Site Author


The Swedes used to dominate track and field. In early-twentieth-century Olympic games, they won dozens of medals in Track-and-Field events, quite an achievement for a small country. The medals were well deserved. The Swedish runners were talented and they worked hard. But there was something else. The Swedish runners had a secret weapon.

Before the twentieth century, runners followed simple training protocols. They just ran and ran. Weightlifting was not yet popular, and, when it came to sports, science did not inform practice.

But in the late 1920s, Gösta Holmér, a Swedish runner and coach, invented “fartlek.” Fartlek is a form of interval training, a way to mix sprinting and jogging during workouts.

During Fartlek, runners jog together with their coach. The coach blows a whistle, and the runners jog backwards. After a second whistle, the runners sprint to catch up to the coach, and then jog alongside him again. Fartlek translates as “speed play,” and it’s a playful way for a coach to add sprinting into a runner’s training.

Fartlek and, more generally, interval training, is now standard practice in running. Even high-school running teams practice this way. But in the 1920s, interval training was revolutionary. And so it led to the incredible—though temporary—dominance of Swedish runners.

Of course, the Olympics have gotten more competitive than they were in the 1940s. Today good training technique is just one requirement to compete at an international level. The world’s best athletes don’t just employ sophisticated training techniques, they also start with extraordinary talent.

That said, the experience of the Swedish runners is a case study. Their dominance shows how simple, good ideas can matter. In any field, the people at the top do not dominate solely due to talent or natural ability. Rather, winners often win because they know how to train.