With 2018 well underway, you’re probably already at work on your running goals and race plans. No matter what you might be chasing, the achievement of long-term goals usually comes down to the little things you do every week.
Below are eight simple actions that every runner should try to incorporate into their routine at least once a week. But don’t feel that you need to add them in all at once. Instead, take a few weeks to make one or two of them a regular part of your routine before adding more. Eventually you’ll be able to build all of them in seamlessly and reap the benefits.
1. Sleep a Little Longer Every Night
While it used to be a status symbol to let others know how little sleep you could get by on, we have finally come to our senses. Sleep is essential for everyone, but when you are running and training hard it is even more important. Sleep is when the magic happens—your body releases hormones such as HGH (human growth hormone) that help you to recover.
As an athlete, seven to nine hours a night should be a minimum goal. You may need even more if you are in the midst of heavy training. But don’t try to abruptly change your sleep schedule either. If you don’t currently wake up feeling rested, slowly change your schedule. Start by getting to bed about 15 minutes earlier each night, and increase gradually until you’re getting the amount you need.
2. Run with a Group Once a Week
You have probably heard about the “loneliness of the long distance runner.” And it’s true, running can be a very solitary sport. You may choose running as an occasion to find some time to yourself, plus it’s an incredible way to work through thoughts and problems. But running with others can be equally rewarding!
Long runs and speed sessions are both great opportunities to run with company. Chatting on the run can make the time go by more quickly and decrease your perceived rate of exertion. You may also benefit from pushing yourself harder in faster workouts—just be careful not to let it backfire and make you run so hard you get injured.
READ MORE: 5 Habits of Successful Runners
3. Strengthen Your Core
A strong core means a powerful runner. This doesn’t just refer to having a set of six-pack abs—your core includes all the muscles that make up your abdominals, glutes, hips and lower back. When you think about all these varying components, it’s easier to understand why a strong core is so vital to your running health.
Runner specific core work should be a regular part of your routine. Again, don’t feel the need to overcomplicate it. 10-15 minutes a few days a week is plenty, and if that sounds overwhelming start with just 5 minutes and work your way up. Exercises that fire up your entire core—like planks, bridges and a modified bicycle—will improve your stamina and efficiency as a runner and help keep you injury free.
4. Vary your Surfaces
There’s no getting around it, running is a repetitive sport. Road running in particular provides little variability in terms of your running surface. Repetition, especially without the strength and flexibility to support it, can eventually lead us down the road to injury.
One easy way to counteract this repetition is by adding variety to your running terrain. Trails are especially effective, as the constant variation works different muscles, including small, underused stabilizers in your feet and ankles. If you’re new to the trails, expect to be much slower!
READ MORE: Hit the Trails to Improve Your Running
5. Lift Heavy
While runners used to shy away from heavy weights as they were afraid of “bulking up,” current research shows that you have far more to gain than lose from lifting weights. Resistance training has been shown to improve a trained runner’s economy by up to eight percent, while explosive strength training makes your 5K faster due to improved economy and muscle power.
Elite runners have come to realize the benefits of weight lifting, and you should too! Who wouldn’t want to improve form, prevent injuries, build power and speed, and handle more mileage and harder workouts?
When you start lifting weights, avoid the common traps of lifting for endurance (you get enough of that stimulus while running), taking random fitness classes or relying too much on stability training. Runners need to improve their ability to produce force—and only heavier weights will do that. And that means spending time in the weight room. If that sounds intimidating, many gyms offer classes to help people learn their way around the weight room, including proper form. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
READ MORE: How Runners Can Get Stronger
6. Run Varied Paces
We all have that pace that we routinely settle into as we head out the door, and it’s easy to fall into the habit of running the same pace (and even the same route) day after day. But, if you consistently run the same pace, you may find yourself in a performance plateau.
Varying your pace is simple—there’s no need to worry about the complexities of training zones unless that motivates you. You should spend roughly 80 percent of your time running easy—at an effort level where you can talk in complete sentences—and about 20 percent of the time running faster in workouts like tempos or speed intervals. If you’re new to speed work, start with something as simple as strides at the end of your easy runs and build from there.
7. Run “Naked”
No—I’m not advising you to head out the door without clothing! Naked in this case means going minimalist with your technology. Most runners love their gadgets—and they certainly have their place. GPS watches provide us with an enormous amount of useful data and music can pump us up when we’re feeling low on a run.
Learning to listen to your body is an essential skill that takes practice to develop. At least once a week, try leaving your watch at home, or just set it on time of day and avoid worrying about your pace. This is especially effective on a recovery day so you can tune into a pace that is truly easy. As you get better at running by feel, try to run more of your workouts this way to help you become a more intuitive runner.
8. Train your Brain
Running requires such a physical effort that it’s easy to neglect an essential part of your training: the mental component. But we all know how much our brains and positive or negative thinking can impact our workouts and races.
Mental training may be a new and uncomfortable place for many runners, but it doesn’t need to be scary. Begin by visualizing an upcoming race or workout. Picture a successful outcome and how you’ll make it happen. The more detail, the better. For races, you may want to visualize positive responses to stressful situations, such as feeling fatigued and hitting a low point.
During training, it’s advantageous to run your most difficult and race-specific workouts without any earbuds. By running without music or a podcast, you’ll learn to listen to your body more attentively and build higher levels of mental toughness. It will also help you to focus on being in the present on your run.
Becoming a stronger, healthier runner is a long-term commitment. And it’s often the small, consistent changes that make the greatest difference. Take the time to incorporate these eight elements into your running routine and you will benefit for years to come.