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This is a question originally from Fitocracy by ivh:

Btw, does anybody know how the Swedish word "fartlek" made it into English running lingo?

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@ivh whoah. welcome to EL&U (and that's all the way from Fitocracy!) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo May 9 '12 at 11:52
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It came into use in English the usual way. There was no equivalent word in English. There was a word in Swedish. –  David Heffernan May 9 '12 at 13:55
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I think it's because fart is funny - snigger –  mgb May 9 '12 at 14:58
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6 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

It doesn't appear to be a commonly known Swedish word, but rather a term coined for a specific purpose: Swedish coach Gösta Holmér developed the fartlek training method in 1937.

The method was introduced to the US in the 1940s, after two Swedes made it famous:

The system originated in the 1930s and was made famous in the 1940s by Gunder Hagg and Arne Anderson, who took turns lowering the world record for the mile [in 1942, 1942, 1943 and 1945] as they tried to break the barier of the magic 4-minute mile.

The earliest citation in the OED is from a 1952 Scholastic Coach:

The answer that finally emerged was ‘fartlek’—the Swedish system of training.

An earlier snippet dated 1950 from the American Athletic Journal (by the National Association of Basketball Coaches of the United States and American Football Coaches Association) has a note from the editor saying this training method is spreading globally:

"... For example, it has been proven that it is much better to run at a fast pace for shorter distances, with walking and resting intervals and continued repetition, than it is to jog for too long a time at one pace, since excessive jogging will develop only a jogger and not a runner." (This was written ten years ago, but where may one find a better description and justification of the new training method, Swedish "Fartlek" or speed-play, which is now receiving such worldwide attention -Ed.)

And a book called Fartlek: The Swedish Distance Training Technique, from Track & Field News, March-Sept., 1949 was published in Los Altos, California. Contents:

Swedes alter distance training rules, by C. Nelson.--Fartlek, by G. Holmer.--More about Fartlek, by F. Wilt.--More about Fartlek; why Fartlek is successful, by C. Nelson.--More on distance training, by C. Nelson.--Swedish distance training schedules, by C. Nelson.

The technique was further described in American and British running and physical education publication in the fifties.

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+1 for finding a 1949 citation! haha –  Paul Amerigo Pajo May 9 '12 at 11:51
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Very nice. Excellent research. 1up. –  Fr0zenFyr May 10 '12 at 8:57
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I've sent the possible 1949 and 1950 antedatings to the OED. –  Hugo May 20 '12 at 20:30
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I'm Swedish and I've never used or even seen the word fartlek. It's not listed in the most common of Swedish dictionairies - although quite easy to understand in Swedish. "Fart" means speed, "lek" means play or game. So, a car race might be a "fartlek" if it's running for fun. Does that make sense?

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For what it's worth; I'm swedish too, and I haven't either heard this word before. –  Speldosa May 9 '12 at 10:40
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It appears to be an alternative English word for interval training. In Swedish it has been replaced by 'intervallträning', which means just that. Kind of like 'tungsten' (Swedish for heavy + stone) which in English is used for the element which Swedes call by the German name 'wolfram'. –  njlarsson May 9 '12 at 12:25
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Interval training implies set periods, I believe fartlek is more about running fast or slow depending on how you feel in a less regimented manner. –  StephenPaulger May 9 '12 at 13:46
    
Yes, fartlek is quite different from interval training. Interval training is structured. Fartlek is not. –  David Heffernan May 9 '12 at 13:56
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I'm afraid it didn't take a great deal to find what it means: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fartlek?q=fartlek

A system of training for distance runners in which the terrain and pace are continually varied

1940s, from Swedish fart "speed" + lek "play"

Since Swedish has an, um, interesting single word for that method of training and English doesn't really, it's not surprising that the Swedish word found its way in.

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I keep imagining a training regimen that stresses a diet rich in beans... –  MT_Head May 9 '12 at 7:40
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@Andrew, in Swedish we don't separate words that much. We concatenate and create new composite ones. In English you'd just use "speed play" so I don't think it's that interesting... –  Asken May 9 '12 at 11:48
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From wikipedia

Gösta Holmér
Fartlek training was developed in 1937 by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér (1891–1983) and has been adopted by many physiologists since. It was designed for the downtrodden Swedish cross country running teams that had been thrashed throughout the 1920s by Paavo Nurmi and the Finns. Holmér's plan used a faster-than-race pace and concentrated on both speed and endurance training.

Linking to the article Finding Fartlek
The history and how-to of speed play
By Joe Schatzle, Jr.
As featured in the November 2002 issue of Running Times Magazine

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so the path is from Holmér -> Nurmi -> ??? I remember reading an account by Sebastian Coe in the 80's and it mentioned fartleks? Maybe the running boom & incorporation of the word helped? –  Paul Amerigo Pajo May 9 '12 at 8:31
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Please see update. Seems the word was following the global usage after seeing how well it worked in the international sports events from the late 30s and up. –  mplungjan May 9 '12 at 8:56
    
thanks for the update! :) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo May 9 '12 at 11:50
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AFAIK the transfer is attributable to trainer Jack Daniels and his popular book 1988 Daniel's Running Formula, in which he describes, how he learned about the training method from a Swedish trainer.

From his blurb:

"In the years between [the 1956 and 1960] Olympics, Daniels studied exercise science at the Royal Gymnastics Central Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, under Per Olof Astrand, one of the world's best sports scientists."

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I was using the word long before 1988, so this can't be right. –  David Heffernan May 9 '12 at 13:57
    
@DavidHeffernan: Daniels has probably been using the word in the US (and elsewhere) since he learned about it in Sweden in the 1950s, and his later 1988 book probably helped spread it a bit more. –  Hugo May 9 '12 at 15:58
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This term was used a lot in the British Army. When I was in the Mob not so long back, during physical training running sessions, we did 100 m normal pace followed by 50 m fast pace repeatedly.

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Can you give a rough timeframe of when you first heard it? –  Hugo May 9 '12 at 15:58
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In 1992 in whilst posted in Germany, –  icecurtain Jun 11 '12 at 14:18
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