Maybe 2016 was a banner year; you set PRs in every race you ran. Maybe it was the opposite—a year you’d like to put behind you. Or maybe you’re just stuck in a rut and can’t seem to take your running to the next level. Whatever happened, now it’s time to evaluate what you did well and figure out what you can do better to run faster in 2017.
“Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets,” says Drew Wartenburg, head coach of the NorCal Distance Project elite training group. But there are some specific things you can do immediately.
1. Set a goal
The first thing you should do in 2017 is set a goal for 2017. “Train for something out there on the horizon,” Wartenburg says. It doesn’t have to be a race, but it does need to be something that will get you out of bed in the morning and give you a reason to get faster. Maybe that’s running farther than you ever have or trying something you’ve never tried.
“Sign up for an event that’s outside of your comfort zone,” says Magdalena Boulet, a 2008 U.S. Olympic marathoner and winner of the 2015 Western States 100. If you’re a little nervous, you’ll be a little more motivated, she says.
2. Make a plan
Having a goal without a plan is like hoping tomorrow you’ll wake up and suddenly be a sub-3-hour marathoner. Yet, that’s exactly what many of us do, running the same loop around our neighborhood a few times each week, with a tempo and long run here or there, but without any real structure.
You can either look at your goal and plot backward with smaller goals, or you could follow and tweak a generic training plan, or you could simply join a training group with people who have similar goals. “It can also be helpful to hire a coach to help you reach your goals and keep you accountable,” Boulet says. Whatever your plan is, make 2017 the year you have one.
3. Go short and fast
Include variability—different training stresses at different times. But, while people remember to do tempo runs, mile repeats, or even 800m track workouts, they often forget to actually run fast sprints. “People rarely run fast,” says Ben Rosario, coach for the Northern Arizona Elite training group.
Add into your regular workout repertoire: 10 x 20 seconds really fast, then jog easy for 1–2 minutes in between each. Focus on form and turnover. “Picture yourself like you’re Usain Bolt,” Rosario says. Or, Boulet recommends twice each week finishing off an easy run with strides or short hill sprints.
The bouts of speed will improve economy and help engage fast-twitch fibers, which can then be called on later.
4. Warm up first
One thing that can almost definitely be improved is what we’re doing before we even start running. “Warm up to run, don’t run to warm-up,” Wartenburg says. This is especially important if you just rolled out of bed or if you’ve been sitting at a desk all day. Warming up prevents injury and prepares us to run faster.
What does that mean though? A good warm-up will include a few minutes of dynamic active stretching, some lateral movements and muscle activation. Wartenburg recommends finding a dynamic warm-up routine online that you like, such as the popular lunge matrix.
5. Add one more day of running
In a perfect world, Rosario says, most recreational athletes would be running more frequently and more mileage. While there are lots of ways to improve, simply running more is often the most overlooked one. The caveat, of course, is that no one should increase their mileage too quickly, but there’s no reason regular runners can’t be running six days a week, he said—albeit slower or shorter than the professionals.
That may not be realistic with your schedule, but Rosario recommends starting out by just adding one more day of running each week, however short the run is. Then go from there.
6. Change your shoes
One thing you can easily do right now is start varying what shoes you wear for runs. “I always advise people to mix it up a bit, and try alternating between a couple different shoes depending on the run,” Boulet says.
This can help prevent injury simply through variation. Plus, different shoes are good for different types of running. Trail shoes typically provide better traction and light racing shoes are best for fast running.
“In the long run (pun intended) you actually don’t spend more money on shoes, since each pair will last longer if it’s not being run in every day,” Boulet says.
7. Run harder on your long runs
One of the regular workouts nearly every runner does is the long easy run. But that doesn’t mean every long run needs to be a slow slog. Many runners would benefit from occasionally mixing up that staple. “We’ve found a lot of success with spicing up that long run and making it harder,” Rosario says.
One option to try in 2017 is to throw in surges throughout, such as making the first few minutes of each mile faster. Or, Roasrio likes to have his athletes finish many of their long runs with three fast miles. The key is for each mile to be faster than the one before, so you finish “and feel good about yourself,” he jokes. Plus, you get to practice pushing through fatigue like in a race situation.
8. Take time off
If we really want to get faster at running, we also have to stop running sometimes. After a half marathon, take a week off, and after a marathon, you should have two weeks off, Rosario says. Time off means zero running, just easy walking or swimming or biking.
Many athletes get too scared they’ll get out of shape, but nearly all injuries, Rosario says, are the result of not recovering enough.
9. Sleep more
After you’re done running, the ways to improve don’t stop. “Outside of running, better recovery and sleeping more are the number-one things,” Wartenburg says. “Sleep is probably better than doubling your mileage in terms of return on investment.”
There’s a reason most professional athletes get close to 10 hours of sleep every night. That’s time your body needs to rebuild muscle fibers and repair cells, especially if you’re putting it through a lot. Resolve in 2017 to carve out time to sleep more—think of it as training time for your next marathon.