I’ve just got back from a long weekend away, exploring the delights of Prague. It was my second time visiting: the first was as a fresh-faced 19 year old, on a backpacking adventure around Europe. I fell prey to some of the tourist traps (quick tip: pubs in the heart of the old town, with signs in English saying ‘traditional Czech cuisine’ are rarely good value for money, or, indeed, particularly traditional). I returned as a more seasoned traveller, and had an incredible time firmly off the beaten track: riding the efficient, faultless tram network to districts like Zizkov and Karlin, eating delicious goulash and open topped sandwiches and drinking copious amounts of strong coffee (not to mention perhaps a few perfectly poured Pilseners).
Strolling the gorgeous streets, I had time to think. It was a real break from the frenetic pace of my normal day to day. February was, as you’ll know if you had the chance to read this recent post, a pretty punishing month. This trip seemed to arrive at a perfect time: I’ve returned crackling with energy and enthusiasm, raring to go and full of ideas, whereas before I felt drained.
But why is that the case? What happened? I don’t think ‘getting away from it all’ or ‘resting’ are convincing explanations.
Something made me think of this line from Josh Waitzkin, in his fantastic book ‘The Art of Learning’:
“Of course there were plateaus, periods when my results leveled off while I internalized the information necessary for my next growth spurt, but I didn’t mind.”
This was part of his experience climbing to the very heights of two disciplines: firstly chess (where he became a national champion at the tender age of 9) and then martial arts (world champion in Tai Chi Chuan). It’s well worth a read.
Waitzkin raises a critical, obvious but oft-neglected point: it’s just impossible to continue at a flat-out pace indefinitely. And yet it seems expected of us in this demanding world. We have to remind ourselves that a paradigm of constant, linear progression is unattainable. I realised I needed to apply something I’d learned running to the rest of my life: the principles of ‘fartlek training’.
This Swedish technique (meaning ‘speed-play’) is simple. It’s some form of continuous exertion, spliced with shorter bursts of intensity. So you’re out on a run, cruising along. Perhaps you decide to sprint between alternate lampposts, or for the chorus of each song you listen to. It doesn’t matter how you do it. The principle remains the same.
This needn’t be confined to exercise. Apply it to the rest of your life. Allow yourself periods of recovery – not coming to a complete halt, or opting out entirely. You’re still moving forward. When you feel the urge, when you’re able, you can push yourself as hard as you can, knowing it’s not forever, and not beating yourself up when you have to lower the pace.
Do as those clever Swedes do: get a bit of mental fartlek training in your life.