Tips To Go From ‘Casual Runner’ To Successful Athlete

Feeling like you’re not a “real” runner yet?

Many runners start running to shed some pounds (I was in this category!), gain fitness, reduce stress, or get healthier. If (also like me) you’ve gone above and beyond that “phase”, you may be looking towards performing in races and accomplishing bigger running-specific goals.

Maybe you have a race distance or a pace goal in mind and want to get more serious as an “athlete”. Or you want to feel like a “real runner” (note: if you run any distance or pace, you ARE a real runner!) but you don’t know how to take your current plan and make it work for you and your goals.

Here are some general tips on how to take your healthy weekend hobby and start achieving your running goals.

Work Backwards

Take that running goal and reverse-engineer it. Put a plan in place that incrementally lets you work towards it. And make sure it’s realistic. If you’re a 30-minute 5k runner, don’t make your next, immediate goal a 20-minute 5K!

Create a schedule that allows you to work towards your goals in a steady, consistent manner.

Cut The Junk

Cut out the junk! Meaning – JUNK MILES. My #1 tip for being a runner for life is to keep easy days easy. You shouldn’t be trying to get faster on every single run that you do. This causes too much stress on the body, which can lead to overtraining and injuries.

This isn’t a specific pace – it’s based on your individual circumstances for your run that day. A recovery pace on any given day could vary by minutes per mile. Heart rate is a much better gauge for how easy your runs are. If you don’t have an HR monitor, use your breathing as a guide. Can you breathe in and out through your nose only? Can you sing a song? If not, slow down on easy days!

Make Your Hard Days HARD

Your training should be very polarized. As my last point stated, easy days should be easy, and should make up about 80% of your training volume. This helps you to recover so that your hard days can be very hard! That other 20% of your volume should be intense, and pushing your limits. This does take a fine balance, though – you should be stressing your body *just enough* to elicit change without overtraining.

10% Rule

Every runner has heard of this rule – do not increase mileage by more than 10% per week.

While this is a general rule, make sure you’re paying attention to “niggles”, injuries, or other negative changes that may be occurring when you’re adding mileage. That may mean you’ve maxed out your mileage and need some maintenance or cut-back weeks. Consider changing how quickly you’re increasing miles per week to adjust for your body’s comfort zone.

On the other side of the coin, if you’re not progressing in your running at your current mileage, you should be increasing your load more to create adaptations and positive fitness gains. (However, it’s usually better to be safe than sorry – so try to keep your increases to around 10%!)

Cut Back Weeks

Most people forget the old adage: your body doesn’t change WHILE you’re running (or doing any exercise). It makes important adaptations and progress while you’re recovering. So taking a week of lower mileage or intensity will lead to increasing fitness.

Depending on how quickly you recover, you should be reducing your mileage and/or intensity load every 2-5 weeks to give your body a chance to recover. It can also prevent physical and mental burnout. If you’re attempting to increase consistently over time, “down” or “cut back” weeks are an essential part of any good running or training plan.

Tweak One Variable At A Time

Stress is stress – and if you add too much at one time, it can lead to some negative consequences. So if you’re increasing mileage, you generally shouldn’t also be increasing speedwork and intensity, and vice versa.

While you’re training, try to only change one variable at a time. Not only does this help prevent overtraining and injury, but it also allows you to assess what kinds of variables your body responds to. Maybe you can progress but just fitting in harder speedwork days, but your body prefers low-mileage weeks. Or perhaps you get better and faster by simply increasing your mileage by 10% each week. You’ll never know unless you stick to a variable and assess progress.

This also means that if there is other stress going on in your life (work, family, etc.), attempting to increase your training load at this time may do more harm than good for your body. Consider all of your life stresses and be cognizant of what your body can handle. Which takes me to my next point…

Look Beyond Training

Many people look exclusively to their running performance to show them why they are or are not progress in running. They think their training plan is the only gauge or change-maker for progress.  However, nutrition and proper fueling, recovery, stress levels (like I mentioned in my previous point), sleep quality, injury prevention, cross-training, and strength ALL factor into your running.

If you’re having a bad running day (or week, month, year, etc.) and you’re not seeing progress, keep what you do the other 23 hours in the day outside of running in mind. It may be causing a much bigger impact than you realize.

There are many different ways to become a more serious athlete with exciting goals. These are just a few of the many “rules of thumb” that go in to a good, long-term running plan. Apply these principles for yourself and watch yourself progress consistently over time!

If you already know these rules but don’t know how to (or don’t want to) apply it to yourself properly to see the progress they want to be seeing. Often times finding the right methods for yourself can be difficult and daunting – that’s where a running coach comes in. 

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