Once this time of year rolls around, there seems to be a race opportunity around every corner. Whether you’re running your first 5K or are just excited to get outdoors again, it’s likely that you’ll want to strive for some new goals. In terms of improving your running performance, start by setting benchmarks and adding variety to your workout routine. Then build upon speed and endurance skills. Our experts explain how to push yourself to the next level, and train for a running personal best, all while staying healthy and motivated along the way.
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Determine your baseline.
“When you start to train, you must establish baselines,” says Mindy Solkin, running coach and personal trainer. “This includes tests for running pace, heart rate zones, breathing, and biomechanics. Once you have that info, your training plan can be created to improve upon those numbers. As a comparison, think about getting your cholesterol tested. If you didn’t know where you started, you wouldn’t know what to shoot for to make improvements.”
Running Specialist Joey Daoud recommends running a certain race or distance, getting your time, and then taking into account how hard you were pushing yourself. From there, you can figure out a personal record (PR) to aim for. You can also look at your training runs, if you’re training for a longer event, and use your average mile time as a starting point, says Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Steven Mack.
“To start really simple, you can set up a time—ten minutes, for example—and see how far you can make it in ten minutes,” adds Tyler Spraul, certified strength and conditioning specialist and head trainer at Exercise.com. “If you don’t have a GPS watch or running app to track your distance, go to a high school or fitness center track and count your laps. If you can’t run for the full ten minutes, it’s okay to slow down and walk. All you want to do is establish a baseline for how far you can go in a set amount of time. Once you have that measured, you have a benchmark to measure yourself against after you’ve gotten some more training in.”
Add different types of runs to your weekly training plan.
Daoud says that one of the biggest mistakes people make is not creating a training plan. Instead, they’ll run the exact same distance over and over in the hopes of running faster over time. Or, training runs lack variation in terms of speed or endurance. Rather than specifically outlining what each training session should achieve, lots of runners stick to what they’re most comfortable with.
“Whatever your goal is, you’ve got to break it up into smaller sections with a specific target in mind,” he continues. “Say you want to do a 5k in 25 minutes, but your current PR is around 27 minutes. That means you have to run 1k splits at a five-minute pace. So, start hitting five-minute 1k intervals with the exact same rest time between each interval. Then work up to 2.5k in 12:30, and start shortening the rest time. By using this interval training strategy, you can strategically work towards achieving a PR goal time.”
Personal Trainer Matthew Peale suggests sprint intervals, which will make your overall time faster, as well as help push through any barriers that prevented performance improvements in the past. Additionally, Mack advises keeping a close eye on pace regardless of distance (i.e., long or slow runs shouldn’t necessarily be “easy”). He often tells runners to incorporate high-intensity runs, too.
Don’t forget to cross train—and rest.
If you truly want to train for a running personal best, remember that you’ve got to do more than just run. Cross-training is crucial. “Most runners who add some strength training into their routine are pleasantly surprised at how their running improves, even without needing to do extra running,” says Spraul. “Add some weight training to your routine. It doesn’t have to be a lot. But if you have not been doing any lifting, you have a lot to gain by adding even just two to three sessions per week to your regular routine.”
Prioritize recovery time and rest days.
Another way to set yourself up for success? Don’t skip those recovery or rest days. And get a good night’s sleep, whenever possible. It sounds obvious, but Spraul says that many runners try to do way too much, too soon. Then they deal with issues related to overtraining, like extreme muscle soreness or even injury.
“Pay attention to your recovery,” says Spraul. “ If you’re having a hard time recovering all the way and only getting more sore, tired, or grumpy, you are probably doing too much. This usually ends up causing problems with recovery. Most likely [it] will lead to injuries down the road, if not right away. Listen to your body, and prioritize sleep as much as you can.”
Set a realistic goal.
“One common mistake [that] runners make in setting new personal bests is making an unrealistic goal,” says Peale. “With running, it’s seconds—not minutes—that are reduced to achieve better initial times. Over a period of time, minutes can fall off, but it starts just by improving a few seconds. When talking about Olympic sprinters for example, or NFL players, they are looking to shave a tenth of a second off their time. Just a tenth is the difference between a professional contract and getting a real job. A runner can initially aim to reduce three seconds off their time to set a running personal best. Once this is achieved, go for another three seconds, and another. In time, a ten-second difference is massive!”
Mack says that you can set a goal in one of two ways. You can look at your average time, and consider how long you’ve been running and how fast you’ve been improving in past few weeks or months. And, as a second alternative, especially if you’re new to running, you can look at data from similar races and see how people in your age group performed.
“Even with experienced runners, your baselines keep changing. So you always need to test and retest,” says Solkin. “To be honest, most runners don’t ever think about doing this. Or, they read information on the internet (or from a friend) who tells them what they should shoot for. The problem is that most of the time, these are based on formulas. After 25 years of coaching, I’ll tell you that formulas are not accurate. Running is a personal sport, so you need to get your personal numbers.”
Enjoy the journey toward your goal.
Solkin likes setting three goals with respect to running a personal best: acceptable, challenging, and dream. Meaning, there’s not really an “end” to the whole process around training for a running personal best. You can always improve and find a new goal to push toward.
“As a former walk-on college athlete, I know about reaching for goals that seem entirely unattainable,” says Mack. “For example, at the University of Missouri, we had goal sheets. There were guidelines and expectations on all of us based on the position we played and our previous performance. Coaches often set goals that seemed unreachable to us at the start. We had two options: sign off and agree to the original goal, or increase it and sign off. This led to a culture of reaching for goals that you didn’t think were possible. But, once you achieved a goal, it made you feel successful, and actually made setting the next goal even more fun.”