Take a Fresh Approach to Your Run
By Liz Plosser
Runners tend to thrive on routine. Which is generally good, since success in running depends on consistency—whether you’re aiming for a low number on the scale or on a finish-line clock. Even so, you don’t want your routine to turn into a rut. Over time, running the same route every morning or recycling a trusty training plan can actually create fitness plateaus and thwart faster finish times. “Locking into a routine will not produce PRs,” says Barbara Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati. “It takes physical and mental energy to go outside your comfort zone, but the joy of hitting your fitness goals or crossing the finish line faster makes it all worth it.” Here’s how to dust off your old regimen to run your best this year.
Old Routine: Always run the same workouts
Fresh approach: Make some weekly tweaks. All runners—from recreational runners to focused competitors—benefit from doing a mix of speedwork, tempo runs, and long runs. How you work them into your program depends on your goals and abilities. That said, “the body adapts to a routine within three to four weeks,” says David Allison, owner of Marathon Coaching Consultants in Phoenix. So adjust these workouts every time you do them. “For example, if you ran four one-mile repeats at 10-K pace this week, do 1000-meter repeats at a similar pace next time,” says Allison.
Old Routine: Run and run and run some more
Fresh approach: Take two annual breaks. “Training can sap your physical and mental resources and put stress on your support systems, like your spouse, kids, and job,” says Adam Zucco, director of coaching for TrainingBible Coaching in Elburn, Illinois (trainingbible.com). “If you never allow time to let these systems rejuvenate, it becomes very hard to make fitness gains.” Take at least two breaks a year— lasting anywhere from a week up to a month—after a big race or whenever you’re feeling worn down and grouchy (signs of burnout). Run how and when you feel like it, and cut back on intensity.
Old Routine: Run as fast as possible
Fresh approach: Run like a snail (sometimes). “You get fit recovering from workouts,” says Zucco. “If you continue to stress your system, you won’t improve.” In other words, you’ll run your next quality workout harder—and reap the benefits of doing so— only if you’ve recuperated properly from the previous one. After a race or tough workout, do one or two days of easy running—as in, you can chat or sing without a huff or a puff. Slip into that glacial pace by running with a slower-than-you pal or tuning into the latest economics podcast.
Old Routine: Walk the hard parts
Fresh approach: Practice powering through. “Most people have self-doubt when they’ve passed the threshold of what they think they’re capable of,” says Walker. “This is a natural reaction due to the need to conserve energy.” But you can conquer tough moments. Do a fast-finish pacing workout: Run three to 16 200- to 400-meter repeats, depending on your goals. Run them at a consistent pace, then drop at least one second on the final repeat. “It makes you aware of running the right pace and not going out too fast too early,” says Allison. “In the final 400, you run to the limits of your abilities, teaching yourself to overcome discomfort.”
Old Routine: Train hard, quit running
Fresh approach: Cultivate consistency. Beginners and returning runners set themselves up for failure by doing too much too soon, which quickly burns anyone out. Instead, start with slow, short distances and mix in plenty of cross-training. The variety will keep you fit and mentally fresh, says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., a certified sports psychology consultant. Avoid overdoing it by increasing your mileage no more than 10 percent from the previous week, and every fifth week drop your mileage by 10 to 20 percent to recover.
A Few Fast Fixes
Here are simple solutions to common training errors:
You had a bad race and signed up for a revenge race right away.
Fast fix: Chill. Marathoners need one to two months to recover and determine what went wrong; 5-K runners can return within two weeks.
You always run inside on the treadmill—except on race day.
Fast fix: Run outside once a week to get used to dealing with wind resistance, changes in terrain, and a different sense of pacing.
You never cross-train, lift weights, or stretch.
Fast fix: Do one of the above once a week to increase strength and flexibility, and correct muscular imbalances.
You never race, so you run the same (slow) pace all the time.
Fast fix: Reap more cardio benefits by picking up the pace within some of your runs—do eight to 10 surges lasting 15 to 30 seconds.