2017 is going to be your best year yet. I just know it.
I know I said that about 2016, and even 2015, and 2014, 2013, and … well, you know. It was true then, and it’s true now. Every year, we get better. We learn from our mistakes and build from our successes, and we emerge stronger for it. This is true for life as it is in running — the more we push ourselves, the more we grow.
In 2016, hundreds of you pushed yourself with our year of running challenges: 12 months, 12 challenges, and 12 ways to grow. You became stronger runners, but you also became stronger people: by completing January’s run streak, you flexed your resilience muscles; in July, you went out of your comfort zone by getting muddy on the trails. You emerged from these 12 challenges happier and healthier.
This year, we’re bringing a whole new set of monthly challenges, designed to help you grow as a runner and as a person. You’ll establish habits that will make you faster runners, yes, but you’ll also face fears and find joy.
Here’s how it works:
- Below I’ve outlined 12 monthly challenges to help you become a better runner (and person). Commit to tackling one challenge each month throughout 2017.
- The challenges build on the last, so start with the first.
- You don’t have to start in January, but in my opinion, there’s no better time to commit.
Stick with us, and you’ll see — it’s gonna be a great year.
Challenge 1: Log It
Runners like fancy watches and doodads that track mileage and heart rate, but the most valuable tool for an endurance athlete has the fewest bells and whistles. Metrics are nice, but they don’t tell the whole story. A watch can tell you that you ran five miles today, but how did you feel during those five miles? Solid? Sluggish? Like you could have run five more, then wrestled a bear?
This is important information!
Keeping a written journal forces you to take the time to reflect on each and every run, rather than mindlessly typing splits into an app. A good journal can help you identify patterns and correct course when things are starting to go south.
If you notice a series of not-so-great days, or record a higher heart rate for several days in a row, that’s a sign of over-training. You might note that eating Mexican food the night before a long run was a bad idea (or a fantastic one). If you’re a female runner, you may notice a pattern of performance that coincides with your menstrual cycle. Note your personal patterns, then plan your training and races accordingly.
Objective: Establish a habit of journaling each day’s workout.
Rules: Purchase a notebook (or, if you’re feeling fancy, a runner’s training log). Record your workout for the day (or a rest day, if applicable), how you felt, and factors that may have impacted your performance: food, sleep, heart rate, weather, mood, social factors. Include any information related to your big goals for the year, such as weight or mile splits.
- Running 101: Keeping a Training Log
- How This Simple Tool Can Unlock Potential and Lead to PRs
- Believe I Am
Challenge 2: Love Yo’self
“My thighs are so fat.”
“I’m too slow.”
“I’ll never be a ‘real’ runner.”
For some reason, things we’d never even think to say to another runner’s face become perfectly acceptable to say to ourselves.
Stop that! You stop that right this second, you hear? Negative self-talk is not motivational — if anything, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why bother working harder when you’re a fatass with no hope of getting faster?
Except you’re the furthest thing from a fatass with no hope. Focusing on your so-called failures blinds you to your potential for success, and let me tell you, pal: you’ve got a lot of potential.
Objective: Muzzle your inner critic.
Rules: If you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself. You’d never call your best friend a “lost cause” just for having one bad workout. Instead, give yourself the warm, loving pep talk you deserve.
- How to Combat Negative Self-Talk
- Positive Self-Talk: Inside The Heads of America’s Top Runners
- The Power of a Running Mantra
Challenge 3: Breathe Easy
After years of struggling with exercise-induced asthma, I finally got my coughing fits under control with one simple trick: breathing through my nose.
No, really: I’d spent hundreds of hours in doctors’ offices and thousands of dollars on prescription medications, when all I needed to do was shut my damn mouth.
Experts tout the benefits of nasal breathing during exercise for asthmatics as well as for runners with no breathing problems. The nose creates warmer, more saturated air, which is more agreeable to the lungs. Nasal breathing also causes us to slow down our breathing rate to take deeper breaths; this, in turn, creates a lower heart rate and lower perceived exertion.
Objective: Eschew shallow mouth-breathing in favor of inhaling and exhaling through the nose.
Rules: During easy runs, practice breathing exclusively through the nose. As you become more comfortable with the skill, incorporate nasal breathing into harder efforts.
Challenge 4: Hips Don’t Lie
Do you have runner’s knee? It’s probably because of your hips. IT Band Syndrome? Weak hips. Sciatica? Hips, hips, hips.
Weak hip muscles — specifically, the hip flexors, glutes, adductors and abductors — have been directly linked to a myriad of running injuries in study after study after study. Even if you’re healthy at the moment, neglecting your hips now puts you at serious risk of injury later.
The good news is that it doesn’t take very much to strengthen your hips. For most runners, a few activation exercises prior to a run as well as a short strength circuit afterwards is all that’s needed to stay happy and healthy.
Objective: Incorporate simple injury prevention steps into your daily routine.
Rules: Perform at least one activation exercise, such as hip hikes, before every run. Perform two strengthening exercises (squats, donkey kicks, etc.) as part of your cool-down.
- Runners & Weak Hips: 5 Hip-Strengthening Exercises
- 4 Hip-Strengthening Exercises to Help You Run Strong
- Build Stronger Hips for Better Running
Challenge 5: Master the Mile
Most runners are bold enough to run many miles. Few are brave enough to run just one. Racing a standalone mile is 12 times shorter than a half marathon, but 100 times more difficult. Why, because it hurts. Racing the mile is a gut-busting, heart pumping endeavor that leaves most people gasping for air.
Even if your “A” race is a marathon, a mile race is a necessary component of training. Marathon training is long and slow; a mile is anything but. Shaking up your routine with dedicated speed workouts busts you out of your long and slow rut and forces your muscles to work in new ways.
Incorporating a month of speed workouts in pursuit of a mile PR now can translate to a 26.2 PR this fall.
Objective: Set a PR in the mile.
Rules: At the beginning of the month, enter a local one-mile race. If one is not available, gather a group of running friends on the track for a throwdown. Note split and set goal & training plan for improvement. Repeat mile race at the end of the month. Drink victory beer … after you’ve caught your breath, of course.
- Master The Mile: One-Mile Training Plan
- 5 Steps to Running Your Fastest Mile
- How to Run Faster
- 3 Track Workouts Guaranteed to Kick Your Ass
Challenge 6: Get Out Your Pom-Poms
You have the power to make someone’s day go from “meh” to “yeah!” All you have to do is say something nice.
Running tends to be a fairly insular endeavor: put on the earbuds, look at the watch, and strive for a personal best. We don’t typically pay attention to others, nor do we offer genuine praise for their efforts. It takes a second to say “Good job,” but the effects of that compliment can last for much longer. When you go out of your way to make someone happy, you can’t help but feel happy, too.
There’s enough negativity in the world. Why not be a positive force for a change?
Objective: Sprinkle kindness like confetti.
Rules: At least once per day, pay a fellow runner a genuine compliment. Choose specific and authentic praise: “I know how hard you’ve worked for this PR!” “That shirt looks great on you!” “Your tenacity really inspires me.”
- Out There: Compliment Accepted
- 7 Reasons Why You Should Pay a Compliment Every Day
- Why Compliments Feel Good
Challenge 7: Be a Water Baby
The Endurance Gods called: they want you to meet them at the pool. If ever there was a perfect cross-training activity, it would be swimming. By logging laps in the water, runners can build aerobic endurance while taking a load off from the repetitive pounding of their sport.
Swimming promotes active recovery of the legs while utilizing muscles that often get ignored (oh, hello, upper body!). It prevents injury and brings novelty to a run-centric training plan. It can help keep rest-day jitters at bay. Also: it’s really, really fun.
Objective: Reap the benefits of swimming as cross-training.
Rules: Add two 30-minute swim workouts per week to your training plan — either as an adjunct to or replacement for a rest day or short, easy run.
Challenge 8: Get High
To become a stronger runner, head for the hills. It can be tempting to seek out the flat, easy routes — after all, that’s where we see the fastest mile splits — but flat and easy is actually the slowest route to improvement.
Making a conscious effort to incorporate hills into every run builds strength and speed rapidly. The initial sucky parts of running hills — heavy breathing and even heavier legs — quickly translate into aerobic efficiency and powerhouse biomechanics. Climbing workouts bring the most noticeable improvements, as a hill that was impossible in week one becomes manageable in week two; by weeks three and four, you’re seeking out even bigger hills to conquer!
What’s more, hills are speedwork in disguise. When you return to your flat-and-easy route next month, prepare to be impressed.
Objective: Get in touch with your inner billy goat and climb.
Rules: Incorporate at least one half-mile of hills into every run workout this month. This may be one long, steep hill or a series of short rolling hills; it can even be hill repeats on a parking ramp. Adjust your effort level appropriately — ignore your watch and instead aim for the effort that aligns with that day’s workout. At first, this may require slowing down or even walking.
Challenge 9: Roll On
For most runners, the foam roller only sees action when a muscle is tight and grumpy. Though foam-rolling is certainly an important tool in addressing injury, what if we took a more proactive approach to this tool?
It’s much easier to prevent injury than it is to treat one. Five minutes of foam rolling each day can potentially keep you from being sidelined for days, weeks, or even months. Foam rolling prevents tight muscles and uncomfortable knots from appearing in the first place. You’ll increase flexibility and expedite recovery. And after those five minutes of rolling are over, you’ll feel pretty darn good for the rest of the day.
Objective: Establish a daily habit of foam rolling.
Rules: Pick a specific time of day where you can dedicate five minutes to foam rolling every single day: after a run, during TV commercial breaks, before brushing your teeth. Commit to rolling at least one area of your body — it doesn’t have to be the same each day — for five minutes.
Challenge 10: Find the Fun (Run)
What do you do when your running regimen feels … well, regimented? It’s okay to feel a little burned out as you move into the later months of 2017. After all, you’ve been sticking to your carefully-crafted plan for 10 months. By this point, it’s understandable if you feel like skipping workouts or phoning it in.
However, once you skip one workout, it can be a slippery slope to skipping two, then three, then, oh, let’s just hibernate until spring! Pass the cookies!
Rather than take the rest of the season off from running completely, try adjusting your priorities instead. Find the joy in running again by mentoring a new runner, signing up for a themed fun run, or planning a running getaway. Train for an obstacle race. Enter your local beer mile. Join a social running club. Play!
This is supposed to be fun!
Objective: Rediscover the fun in running.
Rules: At the beginning of the month, outline five fun things you’ve always wanted to do as a runner, whether it’s race in a tutu or explore a new trail. Over the course of the month, check off at least three of those items.
Challenge 11: Give it Away
How many pairs of old running shoes are in your closet right now? How about race shirts you never wear? Chances are you’ve accumulated a lot of crap as a runner. That sports bra you only wore twice might not work for you, but it would be great for a new runner. The same goes for those socks you got as a Secret Santa gift last year, but never wore.
Plenty of organizations can put these items to good use. Give Your Sole distributes athletic shoes to the less fortunate, while Nike Grind turns them into playgrounds. Several organizations collect and distribute race medals to ill children. Many running stores partner with local and national organizations to collect and distribute running clothing and gear to those who can really put it to good use.
Objective: Clean out your closets and build good race karma all at once.
Rules: Go through your mountains of clothing and gear. If something hasn’t been used in a year, donate to an organization that will put it to good use.
- The Life-Changing Habit to Start Today
- One World Running
- Sunburst Races Medal Donation Program
- What Can You Do With Your Race Medals?
- How to Donate Your Used Running Shoes
Challenge 12: Set a Big Goal
Over the past year, you’ve taken on lots of challenges. Now, it’s time for you to decide what your next challenge will be. What have you learned over the past year, and how do you want to apply it to your future?
Pick something that scares you just a little bit. After all, if it doesn’t scare you, it’s not a goal — it’s a task.
Perhaps the swimming challenge in July piqued your interest in taking on a triathlon. Maybe the climbing challenge of August gave you the boost of confidence you needed to sign up for that super-hilly race. Maybe you’ve decided to transition from omnivore to vegetarian or vegan, or to tackle your first ultramarathon.
Objective: Determine how you will Make Awesome Happen in 2018.
Rules: Write your goal down and devise the plan you’ll need to accomplish it in the new year. Compile a list of resources — books, training guides, websites — you’ll need to achieve your goal. Put the plan in action by officially signing up for that race, telling your friends and family, or even telling us on Facebook — that accountability takes your goal from dreaming to doing.
Print This Out. Tell Your Friends. Get Started.
This is a lot, I know.
12 challenges, each with their own set of difficulties, feels overwhelming just reading it. But by breaking them into mini monthly challenges, you’re creating a sustainable plan that makes each one achievable.
And if you stick with this plan through the next 12 months, you will be a better runner because of it. More importantly, you’ll be a better person. You will find strength you didn’t know you had, and you will come out with a new idea of what’s possible.
So print this out. Hang it on the wall or write it into your calendar. Begin spreading the word and building accountability.
And most importantly, get started. It’s time to launch your best year yet.