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As runners, we expect to improve from year to year—much like a smartphone, or a new car. But unlike the products we buy, faster race times, increased fitness, and lower body-fat percentages don’t come to us if we simply wait for them. To be a better version of you in 2022 than you were in 2021, you have to make it happen.
This doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. Our four-week guide to making this your best year ever will get you started on the right foot, so to speak. We’ve assembled an international team of experts who will show you how to build a solid new running foundation after time off, incorporate cross-training into your routine to boost fitness and slash injury risk, and dial in your diet. All you have to do is, well, do it!
The Running Plan
There’s nothing wrong with taking a planned break from running. In fact, it just might be the best thing you can do now to set yourself up to run better. “I have all of my runners take at least a week and up to two weeks off after their last big race of the season,” says Ben Rosario, coach of HOKA One One Northern Arizona Elite, a professional running team based in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Both the body and the mind need a chance to regenerate periodically.”
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When you resume running, it’s important that you do so in the right way. Rosario advises getting back to your normal frequency of running right away, whether that’s four runs per week or six, but keeping your runs short initially. Although you might think it would be wise to avoid fast running for the first several weeks, Rosario recommends sprinkling in high-intensity work in small doses.
“You need to make it exciting,” he says. “Doing everything easy is boring.”
The following schedule presents Rosario’s four-week return-to-running plans for low-mileage (unshaded rows) and higher-mileage runners (shaded rows). Here’s a key to the four-zone intensity scale used:
Zone 1 (Z1): Easy. This is an effort level you feel you could sustain indefinitely.
Zone 2 (Z2): Comfortable. Just a bit faster than Zone 1, this is an effort level that still allows you to speak in full sentences without losing your breath.
Zone 3 (Z3): Moderate. This is an effort level you could sustain for 40 to 50 minutes if you’re a beginner or 50 to 60 minutes if you’re already reasonably fit.
Zone 4 (Z4): Hard. Tailor these efforts to the distance or duration of the intervals you’re running. A very short (20-second) Zone 4 effort should be run as a relaxed sprint, whereas a somewhat longer one (300 meters) should be run at the highest speed you could sustain for a mile or so.
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For low-mileage runners:
|WEEK 1||WEEK 2||WEEK 3||WEEK 4|
|Tuesday||Easy run: 15 min zone 2||Easy run + strides: 20 min zone 2 + 2 x 20 sec zone 4||Easy run + strides: 25 min zone 2 + 3 x 20 sec zone 4||Easy run + strides: 30 min zone 2 + 4 x 20 sec zone 4|
|Thursday||Fartlek run: 5 min zone 1 + 5 x (1 min at zone 3 pace/1 min zone 1) + 5 min zone 1||Fartlek run: 5 min zone 1 + 6 x (1 min at zone 3 pace/1 min zone 1) + 5 min zone 1||Hill repetitions run: 10 min zone 1 + 8 x (30 sec zone 4 uphill/90 sec zone 1) + 5 min zone 1||VO2 max intervals: 1 mile zone 1 + 6 x (300 meters zone 4/1 min rest) + 1 mile zone 1|
|Saturday||Easy run: 25 min zone 2||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 30 min zone 2|
|Sunday||Long run: 30 min zone 2||Long run: 35 min zone 2||Long run: 40 min zone 2||Long run: 40 min zone 2|
For high-mileage runners:
|WEEK 1||WEEK 2||WEEK 3||WEEK 4|
|Tuesday||Easy run: 20 min zone 2||Easy run + strides: 30 min zone 2 + 4 x 20 sec zone 4||Easy run + strides: 35 min zone 2 + 5 x 20 sec zone 4||45Easy run + strides: 30 min zone 2 + 6 x 20 sec zone 4|
|Wednesday||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 35 min zone 2||Easy run: 40 min zone 2|
|Thursday||Fartlek run: 5 min zone 1 + 8 x (1 min at zone 3 pace/1 min zone 1) + 5 min zone 1||Fartlek run: 5 min zone 1 + 10 x (1 min at zone 3 pace/1 min zone 1) + 5 min zone 1||Hill repetitions run: 10 min zone 1 + 10 x (30 sec zone 4 uphill/90 sec zone 1) + 10 min zone 1||VO2 max intervals: 1.5 mile zone 1 + 9 x (300 meters zone 4/1 min rest) + 1.5 mile zone 1|
|Friday||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 35 min zone 2||Easy run: 40 min zone 2|
|Saturday||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 35 min zone 2||Easy run: 40 min zone 2|
|Sunday||Long run: 45 min zone 2||Long run: 50 min zone 2||Long run: 55 min zone 2||Long run: 60 min zone 2|
The Nutrition Plan
A healthy diet is nothing more than a collection of healthy eating habits. If you want to elevate your running with better nutrition, you don’t have to “go on a diet.” You just need to take a systematic approach to building better habits. This is the approach that Georgie Fear, registered dietitian and co-author of Racing Weight Cookbook, takes with her clients—and it works.
“Building up consistent, healthy habits is what makes excellent nutrition a sustainable thing,” Fear says. “You know a single run won’t make you fit because it’s the regular running on many days that makes you an athlete. Same with healthy eating. If you take a week (or longer) to consistently work on improving one area of nutrition, it makes a more lasting impact than shooting for random different aims each day.”
Fear’s four-week diet cleanup plan focuses on four eating habits that are especially important for runners:
- Eating high-quality carbs. Instead of forgetting your carbs or using refined, sugary sources, in the first week you’ll get in the groove of eating a variety of high-fiber, complex carbohydrates every day.
- Include more veggies and fruits. Fruits and vegetables help with recovery, inflammation, disease prevention, circulation, and weight management.
- Eating high-quality snacks. The gaps between meals or planned snacks is often where problems lie. The solution may be to practice avoiding impulse bites and/or bringing higher-quality food with you for fueling on the go.
- Eating out less. Saving money doesn’t hurt, but the big payoff here is that you end up with more nutrients and more balanced calories.
You’ll work on one habit per week, doing something new to instill it each day. “Without counting anything, you’ll end up with more nutrient intake, less empty calories and a consistent flow of energy into your body to support your workouts,” Fear says.
|WEEK 1 FOCUS: INCLUDE HIGH-QUALITY CARBS AT EVERY MEAL.||WEEK 2 FOCUS: EAT MORE FRUITS AND VEGGIES.||WEEK 3 FOCUS: IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF YOUR SNACKS.||WEEK 4 FOCUS: COOK AT HOME MORE.|
|Monday||Eat oatmeal (or another whole-grain hot cereal) today.||Boost your breakfast plate with berries, which are packed with fiber, phytonutrients, and vitamins. Stick to one kind or mix them up—get at least 1 cup.||Check your coffee and tea: Keep track of how much sugar, creamer, or other add-ins you’re drinking, and see if you can dial it back.||Skip the bagel from the coffee shop and make something for breakfast this morning. It can be as easy as a smoothie or cereal or as complicated as a breakfast sandwich.|
|Tuesday||Make a sandwich or wrap on whole-wheat bread or a whole-wheat tortilla.||Make a sandwich and see how many veggies you can get in there: Spinach? Tomato slices? Avocado? Roasted red peppers?||Focus on the time between breakfast and lunch. If you’re hungry, try to eat something healthy from home, like Greek yogurt and fruit, instead of packaged snacks at the office.||Try setting up your breakfast the night before. Think overnight oats, muesli, or a frittata.|
|Wednesday||Eat quinoa or whole-wheat couscous—fast-cooking options goos to remember for busy days.||Have fruit for dessert tonight. Enjoy plain, or try broiled or poached for something a little different.||Try to only eat sitting down today. You might be surprised by how much “mindless eating” you avoid.||Pack your own lunch today. An easy formula: A veggie-packed sandwich on whole-grain bread, a piece of fruit, and some nuts.|
|Thursday||Incorporate 1/2 cup of beans into a meal today (try black beans as a side, or add chickpeas to a salad.)||Have raw veggies with hummus as an app or snack today. Baby carrots are easy, but you can also try radishes, peppers, fennel, or cucumbers.||Focus on the time between lunch and dinner. Ensure you’re hydrated by drinking lots of water in the afternoon, and ensure your lunch has a good amount of protein. If you need a snack, choose something homemade or some fruit.||Put together two days of lunches at the same time by getting as assembly line going. You’ll thank yourself later for the extra time.|
|Friday||Cook a pot of brown rice or wheat berries (both can take about 45 minutes) on the weekend and portion out for the week ahead. You can freeze them, too.||Toss a handful of baby spinach into your scrambled eggs, smoothie, or tomato sauce. It’s so easy, it almost seems like it’s cheating.||Try dark chocolate, which has polyphenols and and a lower sugar content than most sweets, for dessert.||Find a recipe you can make for dinner in less than 30 minutes. Bonus points if you can make dinner faster than your 5K time.|
|Saturday||Get your potato on. Maximize your fiber and iron intake (and save time) by eating the skin and all. Bake it, mash it, slice, or roast it—it’s up to you.||Make a salad with both vegetables and fruit. Try chopped apple with romaine, or strawberries and avocado on spinach.||When grocery shopping this weekend, choose different snacks: apples, dried apricots, string cheese, or yogurts.||Next time you make dinner, make sure there’s enough for the next night’s dinner, too (try recipes made for four to six people).|
|Sunday||Buy and cook a plaintain. Get one that’s yellow to brown, slice into discs, and cook in a pan with a little oil or butter. Sprinkle with salt and cinnamon for an amazing side dish.||Make a homemade soup with vegetables, or add some veggies of your own to a premade soup.||Focus today on the after-dinner time chunk. Put down in writing how you want to fill your time after dinner.||Make sure you have shelf-stable basics on hand to make cooking at home as easy as possible: whole-wheat pasta, canned beans, frozen fruit and veggies. Replace each week when they run out, and supplement with fresh proteins, dairy, and produce.|
The Cross Training Plan
Many runners don’t cross-train until an injury prevents them from running. But a proactive approach to cross-training that incorporates one or more nonimpact activities (such as bicycling and climbing) can help you avoid getting injured in the first place, while also giving your aerobic fitness a boost. Make 2022 the year you put cross-training to work for you with one of these two cross-training plans for runners designed by Tom Craggs, a coach for RunningWithUs and the UK head coach for Polar and Medichecks.
The beginner plan (first, unshaded rows in PDF) is for runners who currently train about four times a week and feel stuck in a rut with their fitness. “This plan might actually see you running less but training more and with higher quality,” Craggs says. The advanced plan (second, shaded boxes in PDF) is, according to Craggs, “for competitive runners who might be training five, six or even seven days a week but who struggle with niggles or injuries.”
Both plans use the same intensity scale used with the running plan, above. Feel free to do cross-training (“XT”) workouts in any legs-dominant aerobic exercise modality.
Beginner cross-training plan:
|WEEK 1||WEEK 2||WEEK 3||WEEK 4|
|Tuesday||Easy run: 30–40 min zone 1||Easy run: 30–40 min zone 1||Easy run: 40 min zone 1||Interval XT: 50 min with 10 x (2 min zone 4/1 min zone 1)|
|Wednesday||Optional: Zone 1 XT: 40 min zone 1||Optional: Progression XT: 15 min zone 1, 15 min zone 2, 15 min zone 3||Optional: Progression XT: 15 min zone 1, 15 min zone 2, 15 min zone 3||Optional: Easy run: 40 min zone 1|
|Thursday||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 30 min zone 2||Easy run: 30–40 min zone 2|
|Saturday||Threshold XT: 40 min with 4 x (5 min zone 3/1:15 min zone 1)||Threshold XT: 40 min with 8 x (3 min zone 3/1 min zone 1)||Threshold XT: 45 min with 5 x (5 min zone 3/1:15 zone 1)||Threshold XT: 40 min with 4 x (3 min zone 3/1 min zone 1/3 min zone 4/1 min zone 1)|
|Sunday||Long run: 60–75 min zone 1–2||Long run: 60–75 min zone 1–2||Long run: 70–80 min zone 1–2||Long run: 70–80 min zone 1–2|
Competitive runner cross-training plan:
|WEEK 1||WEEK 2||WEEK 3||WEEK 4|
|Monday||Optional: XT or Run: 40–50 min zone 1||Optional: XT or Run: 40–50 min zone 1||Optional: XT or Run: 40–50 min zone 1||Optional: XT or Run: 40–50 min zone 1|
|Tuesday||Tempo run: 45 min with 5 x (5 min zone 3/90 sec zone 1)||Tempo run: 45 min with 6 x (5 min zone 3/90 sec zone 1)||Tempo run: 50–60 min with 3 x (10 min zone 3/2 min zone 1)||Tempo run: 50 min with 25 min zone 3|
|Wednesday||Easy run: 45–60 min zone 1||Easy run: 45–60 min zone 1||Easy run: 45–60 min zone 1||Easy run: 45–60 min zone 1|
|Thursday||Progression run: 10 min zone 1, 10 min zone 2, 10 min zone 3||Progression run: 10 min zone 1, 10 min zone 2, 10 min zone 3||Fartlek run: 40–50 min with 15 x (1 min zone 3–4/1 min zone 1–2)||Fartlek run: 40–50 min with 10 x (2 min zone 3/30 sec zone 1/1 min zone 4/1 min zone 1)|
|Saturday||Threshold XT: 40 min with 8 x (3 min zone 3/1 min zone 1)||Threshold XT: 40 min with 4 x (3 min zone 3/1 min zone 1/3 min zone 4/1 min zone 1)||Pyramid XT: 45 min with 1 min, 2 min, 3 min, 4 min, 5 min, 4 min, 3 min, 2 min, 1 min zone 4 (1 min zone 1 after each)||Interval XT: 45 min with 6 x (4 min zone 4/1 min zone 1)|
|Sunday||Easy run: 1:20 to 2 hours zone 1–2||Easy run: 1:20 to 2 hours zone 1–2||Easy run: 1:20 to 2 hours zone 1–2||Easy run: 1:20 to 2 hours zone 1–2|