Whether your 2015 races went well or not, it’s time to start thinking ahead to new objectives. But before you become too giddy about how fast you’re going to run in 2016, implement some of these strategies to avoid common mistakes, and jump-start your training in the new year.
1. Review your year, and set new (and appropriate) goals
Before you set goals for the year ahead, make sure you’re doing it right. “They need to look into the past before they create this plan for the future,” says Bobby McGee, a longtime running coach and performance adviser for USA Triathlon.
To review your year, you have to first know what you did. That’s why the best athletes keep logs, whether it’s an old-fashioned journal or one of the many apps available for mobile devices.
Look over your past year’s log and ask yourself, “Did I do the things to set myself up for success?” says Steve Magness, author of “The Science of Running.” Be brutally honest with your assessments. Where did you fall short? Where did you excel? Did you achieve what you set out to?
Only after answering those questions should you start setting “challenging but realistic” goals, explains Trent Stellingwerff, head of innovation and research for the Canadian Sport Institute.
Stellingwerff makes his athletes create two sets of goals: the ones they could achieve if all the stars align, and then the realistic ones that they hit about 80 percent of the time. He also has them focus on process goals, not results. If you set a goal to win a certain race, but an Olympian shows up, then you may not meet your goal despite doing everything right. Instead, focus on the steps you can take and what you can control. These are what he calls SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.
2. Take a break—but not for too long
A good time to do this evaluating is when you’re not actually training. Take a two- to four-week break of rest and unstructured active recovery after your last race of the year. If that coincides with the holidays, all the better.
“Eat, drink and be merry,” says Malindi Elmore, an Olympian in the 1500 meters for Canada and coach with the Run SMART Project. Enjoy your break and fit in whatever exercise you can, but set a time to get back to a real schedule again. And make sure that deadline isn’t too far away.
“The first mistake age-group athletes make is they start too late,” McGee says. If you want to run an early-spring marathon, then January 1 is too late to begin base training.
Depending on the timing of your last race, your break might end well before the holidays and you might be back to training by early November. Many of McGee’s athletes finish their season in September and, after their break, he has them do eight to 14 weeks of base training. That amount can vary depending on the athlete’s experience level, but four to six weeks is a minimum, he contends. To fit all that in, you may need to get going soon.
3. Take ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ to heart
When we first get back into training, there’s a tendency to go too hard and do too much out of the gate. That can lead to burnout or injury, especially during the winter, when stress fractures are common.
“Maybe make the first few sessions 25 to 50 percent lighter than what your brain thinks you can do,” Stellingwerff suggests.
Most of your base training should be fairly easy, says McGee. He has his athletes do their base training at 60 percent of their heart rate reserve. (Calculate this by subtracting your resting heart rate from your max heart rate, multiplying by 60 percent, and then re-adding your resting heart rate.) That tends to be a much slower pace than people expect. But even if you have to walk or jog to keep your heart rate low, it’s important to go easy on your easy days so you can go truly hard on your hard days.
People try to run too hard on their easy days, says Elmore, which means they aren’t rested enough for their hard workouts. A speed workout of 10 x 1 minute at an all-out effort with a 60-second rest between each interval should be very, very hard—not kind of hard.
4. Mix it up
Running easy miles all the time can get boring, though, so don’t be afraid to mix it up.
“During that time of year, you’re almost grinding it out,” Magness says. “Introduce something new that hasn’t been there the last few months.” He suggests hill sprints, weightlifting, or maybe even yoga or snowshoeing. Magness often has his athletes do workouts where they need to run 25 minutes at tempo pace, but can fit it in however they want, whether that’s broken up into 5 x 5 minutes, or even 10 minutes and 5 x 3 minutes.
When we try something new, we work a different part of our fitness and mind. Elmore started swimming a few years ago and, even though she’s running less mileage, she’s still able to hit similar times and has become a better athlete overall.
The off-season is also a good time to mix in dynamic strength work with exercises like squats, step-ups, and lunges. That helps strengthen the muscles, tendons, and connective tissue in the lower legs so that when you’re ready to run long you don’t get hurt, McGee says.
5. Find new motivation
It’s important to mix things up over the winter and to set short-term process goals, but it also helps if you find a way to make it fun.
For elite athletes, motivation typically isn’t as big of a problem. Their secret to success isn’t just an innate drive, though; they create a daily training environment that works for them, Stellingwerff says. You can do that too by finding friends to work out with, joining a group to make yourself accountable, hiring a coach, or just changing your schedule.
In the winter, when it’s dark and cold outside, Stellingwerff reschedules his workday so he can fit in exercise while the sun’s out—even if that means doing it with co-workers.
Get your spouse or significant other to really buy into your goals, Elmore says, then it can be something you’re working at together. She and her husband, who both compete in triathlons now, will go to the pool with their 1-year-old. One person swims with the baby and one swims laps, then they switch.
Most importantly, you need to have the right mindset to consistently log the miles. Remember that being able to run is something you like to do. Gratitude can be fuel. “It’s a choice, not a sacrifice,” McGee says.