We are all desperately looking forward to a return to normality in 2021, but we can’t yet say exactly when that will happen. One of the joys of running, though, is that it’s a simple and flexible sport. With that in mind, I wanted to give you some ideas for keeping yourself motivated beyond race day. When I work with athletes, I often encourage them to set goals that don’t involve events. So have a crack at some of these 12 challenges – they might take your running to the next level.
Run offroad half the time
What: Aim to run 50 per cent of your monthly miles away from unforgiving asphalt. Getting offroad can not only help reduce some of the impact of running, it also means you’ll be running in more beautiful places, with better air quality. And traffic should not be an issue; if it is, something is very wrong.
How: Strava heatmaps can be a great place to see which offroad routes are popular with other local runners, or get out your trusty Ordnance Survey map and do some planning of your own. If you are heading to more remote paths, always let someone know your intended route and when you expect to get back, and take a charged mobile phone with you.
When: With the longer days and generally better underfoot conditions this challenge is best suited to the summer months, when you should find a great range of options and
still be able to hit some good, quick sessions offroad if you wish.
Do 12 strength workouts
What: Consistent and focused strength and conditioning (S&C) helps you become stronger and less injury-prone, and can also increase performance by improving your running economy. In this challenge, you will do 12 S&C sessions in six weeks – two a week.
How: For each session, pick between three and five exercises that focus on hips, quads, hamstrings and calf muscles. Of course, body-weight exercises and core work are useful, but aim to have the majority of exercises focused on load bearing. Weighted squats, lunges, step-ups and calf raises will provide the strength you need.
When: A good starting point would be to add your strength sessions on the afternoon or evening the day after your hard running sessions. So if you do an interval session on Tuesday, add your S&C on Wednesday afternoon or evening. Twice a week is the minimum stimulus you’ll need.
Know your heart base
What: Get in tune with your body by monitoring your Resting Heart Rate (RHR) and your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) each morning for a month. As you get fitter, your RHR tends to go down, but it can rise if you are tired, ill or overtraining. If you are recovering well, your HRV increases but it can drop if you are overcooking things. Monitoring both can help you make better training decisions.
How: There are a host of apps that measure RHR and HRV. Many of the newer GPS watches will also monitor both with a chest strap (to work out VO2-max estimations, stress and recovery scores etc). The old-school method – taking your pulse from your wrist or neck, counting the beats for 30 seconds and multiplying by two – can work well, too. Use this data to adapt your training and know when to step away from your plan and take extra rest if RHR and HRV indicate a problem is on the way.
When: Try to take daily measurements at a consistent time of day, ideally soon after waking. You might want to add this challenge in a period where you are looking to increase the volume or intensity of your training.
Run up Everest
What: Hills are a runner’s friend. They help build strength and good form, and can allow you to get your heart rate up to higher intensities without the impact or the speed required on the flat. Mount Everest stands 29,000ft above sea level. Your challenge is to get to that lofty elevation over the course of three hilly months.
How: Track your climb – Strava, Garmin Connect and Polar Flow are just some of the apps that will allow you to monitor your upward gains. While structured hill-repeat sessions are one way to accumulate ascent, simply taking your easy and steady runs over more undulating routes will be your best – and least likely to exhaust – way of reaching your target. Consider a regular 45-60-minute undulating run with mixed-length hills, running the uphills strong at 7-8/10 effort, and everything else easy.
When: Including a hilly block of running can be very useful in the earlier stages of race training; for example, the first six weeks of a marathon schedule. Rather than splitting the 29,000ft evenly over the three months, perhaps consider a small progression, with more climbing in the final month as you adapt and get stronger.
Bank your positivity
What: This challenge is about filling your bank of positivity for the next 12 months, to tip the mental scales in your favour by gradually building up positive reflections.
How: Get yourself an old-fashioned piggy bank and four blank notes. On one of the notes write down one thing you could have improved over the last week. On the other three write down one thing that has gone well over the last week. It could be a run, something to do with your strength training, your recovery or lifestyle, or simply your outlook on running or life.
When: On Sunday each week, sit down with your piggy bank and your notes and reflect on what they can tell you about your progress. The challenge is to do this for all of 2021 and feel that positivity build.
Get more ZZZs
What: Collect an extra night (eight hours) of sleep over the course of a month. We know that sleep is critical to recovery and performance, but while many of us focus on building our running in a structured way, we often don’t do so with our equally important recovery.
How: This might be one of the hardest challenges of the lot, but I genuinely believe that, with discipline, it is one of the most achievable. I say that as the father of a young daughter, and with a job that sees me working at all hours. Get it done by respecting good sleep hygiene and leaving your phone out of the bedroom at night, eating a little earlier in the evening if you can and being disciplined about when you call time on your latest binge watch on Netflix.
When: Build your extra night’s sleep over the course of a month by getting 30 minutes more four nights a week. Perhaps start this challenge in the winter months, using the reduced light to help you.
Boost your sprint speed
What: So many challenges focus on running more, but what about challenging yourself to run better? ‘Flying 30s’ are a good way to measure your maximum sprinting speed. This challenge will improve that speed over six weeks.
How: Mark off a 60m straight with a cone at 30m and another at 60m. Recruit a helper who will shout go, get up to sprinting speed by the first cone, then have your helper time you from the 30m cone to the 60m one. You can improve your flying 30 time through a combination of your S&C, including drills at least twice a week, but also with 4-8 short hill repeats run near your maximum sprinting speed over 8-12 seconds, with a 90+ second recovery. If you are not used to near-sprinting speed, start at 3-5km effort and get faster as you build your fitness and confidence.
When: Drills and short hills can be a useful addition throughout the year. While very low volume (even with a warm-up and cool-down), treat these sessions like an interval session, with easy days or rest either side.
What: Vertical jumping (literally how high you can jump from a standing start) is a key measurement in performance sport. You run faster when you are able to apply more force
to the ground to improve ground reaction – so making a measurable increase in your vertical jump in a month can help you run faster. Make improvements by being disciplined in your 12 strength-workouts challenge (See No 2), looking to work heavier weights into your squats, deadlifts and lunges through six to eight repetitions, as well as by including more running drills in your week.
How: Standing side-on to a wall, with your feet flat on the ground, reach the arm closest to the wall as high as possible, marking with chalk the highest spot you can reach. Now, from the same standing position, jump and touch the wall and mark again. Subtract your standing mark from your jumping mark to get your result or use an app such as ‘My Jump 2’ to guide you.
When: A great time to increase your vertical jump could be the month before you start on your ‘Run a mile PB’ challenge (below).
Meditate for a month
What: Many runners consider the act of running itself to be a meditative process. However, I find runners who incorporate focused meditation outside of running find it easier to put the ups and downs of training and life into context. Meditation may also play a role in improving your recovery between sessions by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
How: Firstly, you will need to find a distraction-free space. Create a calm room, clear of distractions and stimulation. Perhaps pop a sign on the door to make it clear to others when you are looking for space. There are numerous apps that you can use to help you though guided meditation (try Calm or Headspace) and I would suggest starting with these. Trust the process and persevere – it takes time and work to build dedicated, consistent practice.
When: Try to complete two guided meditations of 10 minutes each week for a month. Consider including your meditation sessions on the evening after your hard sessions, or the afternoon after your longer runs.
Run a mile PB
What: Training for six weeks to set a mile PB can teach you a lot about your physical and mental limits. For most distance runners, the unmapped area of racing under 5K distance can feel almost like a different sport.
How: Start your six-week block by completing a mile time trial to assess your progression at the end. Through your mile training, look to include longer sessions such as 3 x 1km at mile effort with 5-6 minutes rest; shorter efforts such as 6-8 x 400m at mile pace with 1-minute rest; cut-down sessions such as 1km, 800m, 600m and 400m, starting a bit slower than mile pace and running each repeat progressively faster, with 4-minute recoveries; or even the a classic test session such as 4 x 400m at mile pace, with 30-45 seconds’ rest.
When: A good time to build in your six-week block would be after a period of 5-10K training. This will have given you the support speed and endurance to cope with the more intensive sessions for mile prep.
Go watch-free for a week
What: A watch-free week can teach you a lot about how to judge your own effort.
How: If you’re not yet ready to let go, consider an old-fashioned stopwatch and run to time and effort. If you have structured sessions to do, work these out on a scale of 0-10, with 1-2 being easy jogging and 10 running at 1500m-3km effort. If you feel brave, go out without any measurement at all, run as you wish and target unstructured ‘free’ fartlek sessions, mixing in hard efforts as you feel.
When: Include your watch-free week in the earlier stages of your build-up
to a race. You may find the freedom you gain is something you want to continue on easy/recovery days or even sessions later in your plan.
Up your frequency
What: I haven’t included a mileage or ‘run streak’ challenge here, because we all have different constraints on our training and lifestyle. But our bodies respond very well to frequency of training, so in this challenge I encourage you to add an extra training session each week for six weeks.
How: Adding an extra session might not mean doing more training. It could mean taking a 60-minute run and spreading it as 2 x 30-minute runs over two days. See how your body adjusts to greater frequency. For some, it might even mean training twice on one day. ‘Double days’ won’t work for everyone, but managed with care and with your additional workout being a very easy or cross-training session, they can be very effective.
When: Do this challenge at a time of lower work or life stress, when you are energised and recovering well.
Tom Craggs is an England national team coach and owner of Fast Running Coaching.
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