When you first start running, it’s a real milestone to reach a comfort zone, where you feel at ease when you’re on the road and can easily get into a rhythm that feels like you could sustain it forever. But if you stay in that comfort zone for too long, your fitness and speed could stall—or worse, decline. Many runners get in the habit of running the same route at the same pace every day. And not only does their body suffer, but burnout beckons.
Here are six ways you can bust out of a rut, avoid a fitness plateau, and get faster.
Work out with purpose. When you’re trying to improve, it’s tempting to just go out and try to run farther and faster every single day. That’s a good way to get stuck in the “medium hard” zone, where you run your easy miles too fast, so you don’t get the recovery benefits, and you steal the energy you need to really give your all to quality workouts like long runs and speed sessions. Those quality workouts are your opportunities to take your fitness to the next level. In order to make the most out of them, you must take your easy miles at a truly easy pace that is easy enough for you to hold a conversation while you’re run. Designate another day of the week to run long, and another day of the week for a faster workout. Make sure to reserve one to two days per week for rest. And avoid doing quality workouts back to back—that could lead to injury.
Hit the track. In order to run fast, you do have to run fast, with some bouts of faster running. So hit the track or the treadmill for speedwork once a week or once every two weeks. You may have bad memories from grade school gym class, but group track workouts organized by running clubs and training programs are entirely different. At these workouts runners and coaches make an effort to create a supportive vibe where you have the opportunity to push yourself faster than you might go on your own. If track doesn’t work for you, you can do speedwork on a treadmill or a flat stretch of road. If you do head out on your own, don’t just go run as fast as you can. Try structured interval workouts where you alternate between fast bouts of running and recovery.
Sign up for a race. Even if you don’t have a competitive temperament, racing can help you stay motivated to keep up a regular routine, and to push yourself farther or faster than you would otherwise go. Plus, the race itself will break up your routine, give you an opportunity to meet other runners, and explore a new running route that you might not find on your own.
Set a non-race goal. Embark on a running streak where you set out to run every day for a certain period of time—say for one month or between national holidays. Set a minimum distance or time that qualifies for a run—say 2 miles or 20 minutes. No matter how busy your day is, or how sore or unmotivated you feel, you can make room to get out for such short time and distance. And that will allow just enough time to warm up, get the blood flowing to sore muscles, and get energized by the feel of the fresh air. Seeing the miles and minutes add up in your log will help you stay motivated. Every additional minute or mile will make the streak larger, and you’ll be less motivated to break it.
Create your own running adventure. Use the fitness you’ve worked so hard to develop to take an adventure. Have a friend or family member drop you a certain distance away from home and run back. Organize a point-to-point trail run in an area that you haven’t explored, and have a friend pick you up. Pick a beautiful wilderness, waterside venue, or mountainous that you’ve always wanted to explore and do your next long run there. And your adventure doesn’t have to be exotic. You might just run your errands around the neighborhood and reap the satisfaction of getting many things done at once!
Be a mentor. Training programs for runners of all abilities abound, and there is always a need for seasoned runners to inspire, encourage, and help newer runners come along. Connecting with someone who is just becoming a runner can help you reconnect with everything that helped you fall in love with the sport.