by Greg McMillan, MS
To modify a quote from Mark Twain, "Goal setting is easy, I've done it a thousand times." Most of us begin each new year with a set of goals - lose weight, run more, complete a marathon. Stretching every day is a popular one for runners.
Unfortunately, very few of us will accomplish these sometimes-grandiose goals. Here are some specific tips and strategies so you can get started right away making positive changes to your running program.
Goal 1: The 5 Rs Equal More Fun
No matter what your reason for starting was, the reason you keep running is the way it makes you feel. That runner's high has little to do with endorphins and more to do with the peace and energy each run offers. As the great Steve Prefontaine said when asked why he ran, "I have acquired an enjoyment for it." That's the way it is for most of us, isn't it?
Despite the fact that enjoyment is the reason most of us keep running, I've found that few runners set goals to maintain and increase their enjoyment. Most think that running a certain number of times per week or number of miles, or achieving a certain race time are more appropriate goals. But shouldn't one of your first and most important goals be to increase the fun in your running?
To keep your running fresh, remember the 5 Rs: Routes, Running Partners, Races, Routines and Recovery. Incorporate a different one of these strategies in each week for the next five weeks. You'll quickly find that your running is rejuvenated and more interesting than ever before.
Goal 2: The 4 S's to Better Health and Fitness
- Run your Routes backwards. This offers a refreshing new perspective on your courses.
- Run with a new Running buddy. This is especially rewarding when you run with someone who is new to running. You'll relive the days when you first caught the running bug.
- Enter a Race. You don't necessarily have to race it. Just being around a group of other runners is really uplifting.
- Change your Routine. While making running a habit is helpful, sometimes it's good to vary your routine. Try running before work one day, then during lunch another day and finally after work. You just may find a better, more enjoyable routine.
- Take a Recovery day. This can mean cutting the length of your normal run in half or adding some other activity like running in the pool, trying one of the new elliptical trainers or dusting off the old bike a day or two a week in place of your normal running.
While fun is the reason you keep running, it's likely you started running to improve your health and fitness. There is a simple way to stay forever fit. I call it the 4 S's of total fitness: Stretch, Strengthen, Satiate and pSychology. I know. The last one isn't an 'S,' but work with me here.
Goal 3: Get "LITE" for Better Running
- Stretching helps keep the connective tissue (muscles, tendons and such) loose. John Jerome in The Elements of Effort goes so far as to say, "Age is what makes [connective tissue] tight, movement is what keeps it loose. If you can't stay young, stay loose." Start by stretching for one minute before and three minutes after every other run for a week. Pay attention to how you feel during the runs when you stretch versus the ones where you don't stretch. Feel any difference? Over time, you will. Even a simple thing like four minutes of stretching will make a difference in your running this year - and it's a much more attainable goal than stretching before and after every run.
- Strength training usually doesn't appeal to runners. You like to be outside with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, not in some musty gym. To maintain some strength training, however, all you have to do is a few simple exercises like sit-ups and push-ups once or twice a week. Start with three repetitions of each and add another rep each week. By the end of the year, you'll do wonders for the important support muscles of the body. You can build to a more comprehensive program, but this is a great way to start.
- Satiate refers to your nutritional program. While there are as many "diets" out there as fish in the sea, good nutrition comes down to what you learned in grade school - the four food groups or, these days, the food guide pyramid. Base your diet on sources of complex carbohydrates like pasta, grains and legumes. Mix in some meat or beans, some fruits and vegetables, some dairy and the occasional oils and fats and, without too much trouble, you've got yourself a healthy, balanced diet. Eat only until you're full and don't deprive yourself of that occasional decadent treat (I myself enjoy a weekly cheeseburger). You'll be happy, content and satiated at every meal.
- The final S is psychology. I'm not talking about some new sports psychology technique or a 12-step program. I'm simply talking about maintaining a positive mental attitude. We all experience "bad patches" in our daily lives. Staying positive and working through them always leads to a greater appreciation of each and every moment. Keep a smile on your face and be quick with a kind word. After all, surveys say that regular exercisers are believed to be happier than non-exercisers. Let's confirm that belief.
Part of having fun and improving your health and fitness means getting more from your running. You want to increase your endurance. Build your stamina. Gain a little speed. And you'd love to sail past that young whippersnapper at the 4th of July 5K. You can accomplish these things by incorporating a simple idea into your training. It's called getting LITE.
At least once every two weeks, increase the Length of your longest run. I won't go into all the benefits that come with having one run longer than the others. Suffice it to say that you'll notice a big increase in your endurance, while your shorter runs will begin to feel easier.
Next, occasionally change the Intensity of one of your runs. Mix it up a little. Run fast for a while, then slow it down to a jog. Once you feel recovered, pick up the pace again. Repeat this a few times, varying the intensity and duration of each hard effort, some shorter and faster, some longer and slower. This is probably one of the best fitness-building runs you can do. Once every three weeks is all that is necessary.
It's also fun to play with the Tempo of a weekly run. Try to complete one of your normal distance runs 10 to 20 seconds per mile faster than usual. This works especially well when you are crunched for time but want to squeeze in a run. You shouldn't increase the tempo of every run, but once a week can be invigorating.
Finally, go Extreme once a week. Finish an easy run with some fast 10 to 20-second sprints. These are not all-out, but controlled efforts at near top speed. Your stride will become longer and quicker, guaranteeing a long and enjoyable running career.
Getting To It
As the days get longer and the air warms, it becomes time to revisit your new year's running goals. Remember the 5 Rs to running fun, the 4 S's to health and fitness and always think LITE to take your running to a new level. These simple strategies will keep your running fresh and exciting - and that's what it's all about.
Greg McMillan, M.S. is a certified Health and Fitness Instructor and has coached dozens of runners in addition to being a successful runner in his own right. He has written articles on almost every topic related to running. Learn more at McMillan Running.