By Alan Culpepper—To improve as a runner—regardless of your experience or ability—sticking to a sensible training program that takes into account your current level of fitness and previous running history is key. To accomplish that, you have to be honest with yourself and make a commitment to eliminating some of your barriers to success.
Before I prescribe a coaching plan for age-group runners interested in running their first 10K, improving their half-marathon PR or even qualifying for the Boston Marathon, I ask them what kind of runner they are. I’ve found more often than not that most runners fall into one of four categories.
The “I Want to Get Back Into It” Runner
This runner is not running very often or at all, but talks about it frequently with other athletic types, friends and coworkers. He might catch the New York City Marathon on TV or get goose bumps watching inspirational Olympic highlights (complete with musical accompaniment) and then exclaim: “That’s it! I need to get back in shape.” This runner has a sincere interest in getting started and usually has a lofty goal such as running a first marathon, but unfortunately lacks one important piece: the actual running.
If this is you: It becomes all too easy to get derailed and slip back into complacency without a goal. Don’t wait to get into shape or improve your fitness; register for a race as soon as possible and you’ll have all the motivation you need. Choose something that sounds fun, unique, or features an attainable challenge, and sign up now.
The Seasonal/Occasional Runner
This runner typically uses the annual 5K or 10K road race as the impetus to get out and start the standard six- to eight-week training routine to avoid total agony and just complete the race. That’s just enough time to feel good about her progress but not enough time and commitment to maximize her race-ready fitness. After the race, this runner’s training often becomes sporadic and that nice new pair of running shoes ends up seeing more mileage going in and out of Starbucks.
If this is you: If you only run for a few months at a time, you’ll benefit from picking more than one goal race. Pick three target races over a three- to six-month period and hold yourself accountable for consistent training and gradual improvement. You have proven that you can be consistent, just extend that over a longer period and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at your increased fitness.
The Run Every Day At The Same Pace Runner
This runner is committed and consistent, enjoys staying in shape and recognizes the joy of running but struggles with implementing the necessary type of running to improve. The standard neighborhood loop at the standard pace becomes too easy and methodical and often lands this runner in a deep training rut or extended plateau. Ongoing commitment and motivation to get out the door is not the issue here, but rather a variety in training stimulus and perhaps some incentive to endure the discomfort necessary to improve.
If this is you: If you always run at the same pace, you can’t expect to run any faster on race day. What you need is a training plan, training group or a coach. This will help spice up your workouts with tempo, fartlek and progression runs that use different paces with varying amounts of rest to stimulate higher levels of fitness. Assuming you already have a good aerobic base, you should see big gains within four to six weeks.
The Enthusiast Runner
This runner is committed, goal-oriented, enjoys the running lifestyle and camaraderie of training and racing. The only aspects typically lacking are workout variety and individualization. Workouts are usually moderate tempo-paced efforts, just hard enough to feel challenging but without the true discomfort and suffering necessary to improve. This runner sometimes runs with a group, but often runs too hard or too easy depending on the group dynamic and how she trains with others.
If this is you: If you are an enthusiast, you need to develop a specific training plan that complements a specific goal. Pick a race 12 to 16 weeks into the future, but before you start your training program, pick a reasonably aggressive time goal and then select a plan or coach that can help you achieve those goals. The more specific your goal, the more individualized your training needs to be. Write down your goals in a training log and share with your training group or coach as a means of holding yourself accountable.
No matter where you fall in that spectrum, there are easy ways to address your specific needs so you’re able to train better and get faster. (Personally, I’ve lately fallen into the third category and know that I need to pick a goal and commit to it.)
We all have different things in our lives, internally and externally, that hinder us and motivate us. The key to progressing from your current situation and improving as a runner is being honest with yourself, finding out what those barriers and catalysts are and then stepping out of your routine. From there, you can find the simple joy and alluring energy that comes from creating and preparing for a goal. Start today and take the necessary steps and you’ll soon be on your way to become a fitter, faster runner.