Updated: Mar 7
Got big goals for your running in 2022? You're not alone! Whether you're planning to go for a new PR, increase your weekly mileage base, or chase a new distance record, lots of athletes use this time of year to set up race and training calendars and figure out what they need to do to achieve their big dreams. There are a lot of simple changes you can make that will have a huge impact on your running and fitness.
Unfortunately, thanks in part to the wellness industry's relentless focus on weight loss, sometimes we focus too much on eating less and shrinking your body. And while weight loss can impact running times (particularly in the short term), restricting energy intake can make training very unpleasant and cause serious health problems over time. Crash dieting can also lead to unhealthy cycles of restricting and bingeing, and rarely leads to sustained weight loss.
So rather than burning yourself out on yet another unsustainable diet plan this January, here are some suggestions for actionable changes you can implement that will definitely make an impact on your running this year - no weigh-ins or giving up cookies required.
Get Your Zzz's
Want to be awesome at running? Start working on being awesome at sleeping. Sleep is one of the easiest ways to help your body recover and take advantage of training gains. Most adults need 7-9 hours/night, but you may need more or less depending on your unique physiology. One rule of thumb for runners is to add an extra minute for each mile run throughout the week to your nightly sleep needs (i.e., if you run 60 miles/week, you'd need an extra hour on top of your baseline sleep needs).
You can improve your sleep by going to bed at the same time each night, reducing intake of caffeine and alcohol, and unplugging from devices before bed. Some individuals may benefit from drinking tart cherry juice (~16 oz) in the evening, taking a magnesium supplement (make sure it's 3rd party certified!), and avoiding meals too close to bedtime. You can also help meet your sleep needs by napping if you can't get enough at night, and there is limited evidence suggesting that "catch up sleep" may help compensate for reduced sleep during the week.
Slow the Heck Down
Hopefully this won't be the first time you've heard this, but if you're going all out on every workout and run - you need to slow down. Counterintuitive, yes, but easy running is the secret sauce of training gains. Think of your body like an engine. Running at an easy pace builds you a bigger engine, while running hard fine-tunes the engine you already have. But to get faster, you want to have the biggest engine possible. Easy running helps build your aerobic capacity, so that over time, you can hold harder paces for longer periods of time. It also makes it possible to stack up mileage while recovering appropriately, so you can avoid injury and take advantage of your growing fitness. By going truly easy on your easy days, you will find that you can go harder on your workout days!
An easy pace means you can hold a conversation and talk in complete sentences on the run. It's somewhere around a 4/10 on an effort scale (or lower!). You can use a calculator like McMillan or Daniels to get an estimate of what your easy pace should be relative to your race goals, but it's also important to adjust based on factors like the temperature, humidity, how well you slept, how stressed you are, etc. Your easy pace might be an 8:45 mile on some days, and a 10:00 mile on other days. That's okay, because the effort level is what's most important.
If you tend to get caught up in comparison, it might be best to practice logging off Strava (or other social media) from time to time, or taking your watch off and running by effort for a set amount of time. Look to the examples of elite athletes - Molly Seidel, bronze medalist in the Tokyo Olympics marathon, runs her easy days at an 8:30+, but her marathon pace is closer to a 5:30. Eliud Kipchoge, who has covered the marathon distance in under two hours, routinely does runs at an 8-9 minute pace. By taking their easy days easy, these world-class athletes are able to see massive payoffs when it matters.
I promise - your run still counts even if the splits aren't impressive, or if you don't record it or post it anywhere. Your running buddies can do whatever they want - YOU can choose to do what's right for your running, and the proof will be in your race results.
Prioritize Recovery - No, Really.
Along with running easy days easy, prioritizing recovery is a crucial step to building fitness that many athletes neglect. Runners like to run. Tt can seem like everything else is not as big of a priority during training! However, recovery is critical to meeting your potential as a runner. That's because recovery is where we actually gain fitness. Training breaks down our muscle fibers and stresses our bodily systems. It's after the training - in recovery - that we provide our bodies the tools to repair and build strength!
Nutrition is one key part of this equation. Specifically, giving your body the fuel it needs to repair after a workout, and supporting recovery throughout the day. Rather than skipping your post-run snack to "save calories", think about adopting the mindset that you're not finished with your workout until you've eaten. Ideally you'd eat within 30-60 minutes of finishing the workout. Foods with carbs and protein are best - a meal like breakfast tacos or chicken and potatoes is great, but you can also start small if you feel nauseated or if exercise blunts your hunger. Think about having a snack ready to go - chocolate milk or soy milk, peanut butter and jelly, or yogurt with fruit are good options to get something in quickly. Don't forget to follow that up with hydrating and eating well throughout the day to get your body ready to go for the next workout.
I also like for athletes to consider incorporating intentional rest days into their routine. If you never take days off or have anxiety around resting or doing less, that should be a red flag. Your body can handle a day off - in fact, it will probably benefit from the extra rest and the opportunity to reset before resuming hard training. Days off can help you stay consistent and healthy in your training without getting burned out. Many coaches encourage or require athletes to take days off, and it's worth trying out to see how it works for you. By the way - you still need to eat on rest days!
Think Addition, Not Subtraction
One of the problems with starting a diet or trying to lose weight every January is the focus on subtraction - what you need to cut out, what needs to be taken away, what you need less of. I like to encourage runners to think about what they can ADD in rather than what has to be taken away.
Wanting to improve your nutrition as an athlete is valid and important. Food can make a big impact on your training, and really helps to push you to that next level. But you don't have to cut out sweets or dairy or burgers to make an impact, and you don't have to force yourself into a smaller body to become a better athlete. Instead, maybe there are changes that can add value to your diet instead of leaving you hungry and cranky.
Maybe you need to focus on eating 3-5 servings of vegetables every day. Maybe you need to consume more balanced meals (every meal should contain carbs, fat, and protein), or maybe you need to hone in how much of those nutrients you're getting (Is your plate 50% carbs before long runs? Are you getting at least 20-30 gm protein at all your meals?). Maybe you're injured, and you want to promote recovery. Consider increasing your seafood intake to 2x/week for omega-3 fatty acids, adding 15 gm collagen (with Vitamin C) before your rehab appointments, or making half your plate colorful fruits and vegetables at most meals.
One big caveat here - first consider how much you're eating overall and whether it's a good fit for your training. Underfueling has much more significant risks than overfueling, and many athletes don't realize how much nutrition they need to sustain their health in training. Look for red flags of underfueling like constant fatigue, poor performance, GI issues, a missing menstrual cycle or low sex drive, frequent injuries, feeling cold, unintentional weight loss, or a very low heart rate (<50 BPM, possibly spiking when you go from sitting to standing). If you notice these, work on increasing your intakes (likely with professional assistance) before fine tuning your diet. Check out my fueling guide for female athletes as a first step here!
Don't try to do too much all at once. Even a few simple adjustments can make a big difference in how you feel and how you perform.
Get Some Extra Help
I can tell you that at any level, one of the best things most of us can do for our training is to get help from the experts. Runners tend to have a very "do-it-yourself" attitude toward everything from nutrition to injury to training, and while it can work for some, most of us need a hand from time to time. I have a coach and physical therapist (technically, I have one person that does both) that takes the guesswork out of my training plan and has helped keep me healthy returning from a major injury. My orthopedic doctor was instrumental in diagnosing a long term chronic injury, and I really wish I had seen him sooner rather than guessing what was wrong by googling it for months.
Elite athletes don't do it alone - they usually have a team of people keeping them healthy. If you have a specific area of training that you're struggling with, consider finding someone who understands athletes that can help. This might be:
Orthopedic Doctor/Sports Medicine Doctor
Obviously, hiring professionals isn't possible for everyone, and you certainly can put together a decent plan on your own. But if you're reading this, your running hobby is probably pretty important to you, and you'll reach your goals faster if you have a team in your corner. Don't just bank on copying your friend's nutrition plan or asking for training advice online. Go to the source and invest in your sport to get the most out of your training and a more direct path to results.
The best part about all of these suggestions? None of them involve weighing yourself or measuring your progress based on a single metric. If you truly want to achieve your potential as an athlete, say goodbye to your scale and get busy making the changes that will level up your training in 2022.
What's your goal for next year? Let me know in the comments!