2011: Your Best Running Year Yet

I've ticked most of the 'must-do' boxes in my 20 years of running, from 5Ks to marathons, a multi-day event and even a night run. But I've never raced a mile, attempted cross-country or donned fancy dress. Nor have I run a European city marathon or braved a fell race.

"Many of us get stuck in a pattern of doing the same training and the same races, year after year," says Keith Anderson, running coach at Full Potential (fullpotential.co.uk). And while this may give you a very accurate performance record, it is unlikely to yield the best results - or the most enjoyment - from your running. "If you don't mix up the distance and type of event you're working towards, your training can become stale," says Anderson.

So this year, why not let your running take you on a journey of exploration? Our slideshow contains a whole year's worth of races to aim for, challenging your speed, stamina, strength and skill. Whether you pick and mix or take on the whole challenge, the chances are that 2011 will be your fittest year yet. Look out for me at the Amsterdam Marathon - I'll be the one in the big fluffy bear suit.

January: Cross-country

Why now? Cross-country can help lay the foundation for the year ahead, according to Urban Bettag, a UK Athletics Level 3 endurance coach (runurban.com). "It is a great way to develop strength endurance, good technique, muscular strength and the ability to change pace, making you a more versatile runner," he says.

Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Liz Yelling agrees, and will be factoring in some cross-country races in her build-up to the 2011 Virgin London Marathon. "I have a real passion for the mud and the hills," she says. "I believe cross-country makes you strong and really teaches you to race - because for once, you're not chasing times."
Training: It is essential to find your "off-road feet" if you plan to take on cross-country races, but Yelling advises easing yourself in gently. "If you aren't confident about running off-road, start with grass and a firm trail before heading to less well-trodden paths," she advises. And don't do all your off-road work at a slow pace - introduce faster bursts through fartlek training, or run intervals on grass instead of track.

Race strategy:
Choose your first race carefully, advises Tim Wright, captain of Orion Harriers, a cross-country running club (orionharriers.co.uk). "If you have time, it is worth looking at the course to pick out obstacles such as stiles, choose the best route through a boggy patch or prepare for difficult climbs or descents," he says. At the very least, check how many laps there are and where the finish is. "If you are not ready for spikes, trail or fell shoes will give you plenty of grip, but make sure your laces are tight so you don't lose a shoe in the deep mud!"

February: Hilly Race

Why now? To develop the strength, endurance and mental toughness that will fortify you for the year ahead. "When you're running uphill, there's no respite - your heart and lungs are working much harder than on a comparable run on the flat," says W40 world mountain running champion Angela Mudge. On an incline of five per cent, energy expenditure is about 20 per cent higher than it would be at the same speed on flat ground. "It makes you stronger, both physically and mentally," says Mudge. "You also learn skills such as how to survive the elements."

Training: "To succeed in hill racing, you must be able to break your rhythm - varied terrain and gradient means always having to adjust your stride length and pace," says Mudge. That's why you need to get some practice in on the kind of terrain you'll be encountering in a race. "On the descents, learn to disengage your brain and let yourself go."

Not tempted to take on a fell race? "Hill training is a valuable component of any training schedule," believes British athlete and RW contributing editor Jo Pavey. "Hilly runs or structured hill sessions build leg strength and speed, and improve aerobic capacity." And what goes up must come down: "A gentle descent is a great place to work on increasing your leg turnover, which will carry over into your road running later in the year," says Anderson.

Race strategy: For your debut race, choose a user-friendly course - something that resembles a hilly trail race rather than a fell race and lasts 30-40 minutes, advises Mudge. Hill and fell races are classified into three categories, denoting the steepness of the climbs and the proportion of the course that is off-road. "Novices should look for B or C category races," she says.

March: 10-miler

Why now? After building a strong aerobic base over the winter, it's time to test yourself on the roads. The 10-miler is far less frequently raced than the 10K or half-marathon, but it's a great challenge of your ability to maintain a fast pace (your 'lactate threshold' pace) for a prolonged period. "Newer runners often find there's a big gap between a 10K and a half-marathon, so a 10-mile race offers a great interim distance to aim for," says Stella Bandu, a UK Athletics Level 3 coach.

Training: You'll need endurance to cover the miles comfortably, so aim to include at least a couple of overdistance runs (runs over 10 miles) in your build-up. "Threshold or tempo training will help to teach your body to resist fatigue and prevent you slowing down as the miles pass," explains Bandu.

Alternate weekly between a continuous tempo run for 20-40 minutes and intervals of five to 15 minutes with a recovery jog equal to 20 per cent of the length of the effort. The pace should feel 'comfortably hard', which usually equates to around 25-30 seconds slower than your 5K pace.

Race strategy: Set off at half-marathon pace (or a little quicker, if you're a speedier runner), and if you're able to pick it up a bit, then great, says Bandu. A 10-mile race can work well as part of your marathon build-up. "It's not so far that you'll be too fatigued to tag a few more miles on at the end, or do another run later in the day," says Bandu.

April: Marathon

Why now? A spring marathon gives you something to focus on through the long winter months - and there are lots of races to choose from, both home and away.

Training: While most budding marathoners faithfully put in the long easy runs, many neglect to train at the pace they plan to race at. "Introducing running at marathon pace is very important, especially for those who have a specific target time in mind," says Bettag. "Getting the body accustomed to the target pace - and rehearsing it - is key."

Bettag recommends running the bulk of your long runs 20 per cent slower than target marathon pace, but with a fast finish (for example, the last 20 minutes of a two-hour run). "This teaches you to pick up the pace towards the very end of the run, when you might normally be fading," he says. Yelling recommends scheduling in some faster-than-marathon-pace work. "Tempo training and interval work will  help make your marathon pace feel easier on the day," she explains.

Race strategy: So you've made it to the start line, injury-free and raring to go. "Regardless of whether it's three and a half hours or six hours, you need to have an idea of how long the race is likely to take, so you can pace it accordingly," says Yelling.

Research shows that when marathon runners begin the race at a pace that is just two per cent faster than their practised race pace, they flounder later on. "Steady pacing is the best strategy," says Yelling. And what if you're feeling remarkably good mid race? "If you have the energy, you could try increasing your pace at 20-22 miles," says Yelling. "But don't risk doing it earlier."

May: Tri/ Duathlon

Why now? "Entering a triathlon or duathlon gives you a new goal to work towards and challenges you to learn new skills," says triathlete and coach Richard Allen, who has a 10K PB of 30:30 (richardallenfitness.com). If you're recovering from the rigours of a marathon, swimming and cycling give your joints a break from the constant pounding of running without letting those hard-earned fitness levels slip.  

Training: Long bike rides can replace long runs if you are in a post-marathon phase. You'll already have a great endurance base and the running component of your event is likely to be 5K (sprint distance) or 10K (Olympic distance) tops.

Swim little and often to improve your 'feel' for the water and hone technique, and as the event draws nearer, try a couple of 'brick' sessions, where you tag a run on to a bike ride to get your legs accustomed to the strange sensation of moving from cycling to running.

Race strategy: When you are choosing your race, find out how challenging the leg of your weakest discipline is to give yourself the best chance of a good experience. The great thing about triathlons when you're a runner is that the best bit comes last. That is, if you pace yourself properly. Keep your effort level steady during the bike and swim, and leave something in the tank for the run.

June: One-mile Race

Why now? With the curtain up on the outdoor athletics season, now is the time to up the pace and cut the distance. "Training for a miler breaks up the monotony of distance training as well as keeping you connected with good form and improving running economy," says US running coach Greg McMillan (mcmillanrunning.com).  

Training: The bread and butter for mile training - or at least, the type that you probably don't already do - is short reps, around 200-400m. "Short intervals at mile race pace are a key component in enhancing your VO2 max development, leg speed and functional strength," says McMillan. But you don't have to hit the track. "A sports field is fine, and don't get too hung up on the distance being exact," says Bandu. "The important thing is that you're running faster than you're accustomed to." Make your recovery jog twice as long, time-wise, as your effort - but gradually reduce it as you get fitter.

Race strategy: Racing over such a short distance, it's essential that you are warmed up beforehand - you don't want to spend half the race trying to get into your stride. "Do a 10-15-minute warm-up jog, and then perform four to six strides to remind your legs to move faster," advises Bandu.

July: 5K

Why now? Revving up your pace with mile training will have had a significant effect on your PB potential over 5K - and three miles isn't too much to tackle, even if it's a scorching summer.

Training: "The 5K and 10K (next month's challenge) have many similarities, but there are also differences," says Pavey. "Both distances require good speed endurance, but repetitions for 5K training may be faster, with slightly longer recoveries than for the 10K".

Your VO2 max (maximal aerobic uptake) is the most important determinant of your 5K performance, so schedule in some sessions designed to raise it. According to French scientists, the optimal way to develop VO2 max is with intervals of three minutes with a two-minute recovery jog between. Aim for four to six efforts at current 3-5K race pace. Pavey recommends speedwork amounting to 3000m in volume for 5K training.

Race strategy: Good pacing is vital, says Bettag. "Many inexperienced runners tend to set out too quickly and accumulate lactate, which forces them to slow down during the later stages," he explains. "For the best outcome, try to go for even pace, or set off a bit slower in the early stages and progress through the race midway with a final push over the last 800m."

August: 10K

Why now? The recent speedwork and VO2 max training will help set you up for a fast 10K, which in turn lays the foundations for a good half-marathon next month.

Training: "There definitely needs to be more of a focus on endurance when preparing for a 10K, compared with a 5K," says Pavey. "To work on specific 10K endurance, I would use longer repetitions at a slower pace and with a shorter recovery."

Physiologically, a high aerobic capacity and lactate threshold are equally important determinants of your performance in a 10K race - demanding a balance of VO2 max sessions and tempo runs. And, says McMillan, don't neglect race pace training. His favoured 10K training session is three lots of two miles at goal pace with five-minute jogs in between - but you need to work up to it. Start with six one-mile reps with three- to four-minute recoveries, eight to 10 weeks away from your race.

Race strategy:
Don't underestimate the distance and go off too fast, like a number of those around you will. Yes, it's only 6.2 miles, but setting off at your 3K pace is sure to backfire. To get an idea of your potential performance, double your 5K time and add one minute.

September: Half-Marathon

Why now? Instead of always using it as a stepping stone or measuring stick for a full marathon, give the half-marathon the attention it deserves, and race it in its own right. With a year of varied training behind you, you should have the perfect combination of speed and endurance to run well over 13.1 miles.

Training: "When training for a half-marathon, sessions should be focused on achieving staying power, but also have the aim of making race pace feel comfortable," says Pavey. Malcolm Balk, running coach and author of Master the Art of Running (£9.99, Collins & Brown), likes to include some race pace work.

"Race pace intervals, starting with 1K and working up to 5K per repeat work well, as do long runs with up to 5K at race pace at the end." Balk is also a firm believer in including short, hard efforts. "Even marathoners and half-marathon runners should use strides and short hill efforts (under 10 seconds) to build power and prevent injury," he says.

Race strategy: If you're going to be running for 90 minutes or more, opt for sports drink instead of water to top up fuel stores. Start further back in the pack if you know you'll be tempted to set off too fast. "Even pacing is probably the smartest way to a good time," says Balk, who recently achieved a half-marathon PB of 1:20 at the age of 56 

October: Trail Race

Why now? It's nice to get off the roads again and see autumn in all its glory...plus your legs will welcome the change of terrain. "Running off-road boosts fitness while reducing impact, cutting down on the risk of injury," says Pavey. While it's kinder on the joints, the uneven surface and undulations make you work harder than when you're on firm terrain, challenging your balance and core stability as well as building knee strength.

Training: Forget about trying to maintain the same speed on off-road terrain as you do on the road. "It's all about effort level rather than pace," says Anderson. "So throttle back where necessary. And relax; you won't run naturally if you're tense."

You may need to tweak your technique, according to Yelling. "Pick your knees up a bit higher and shorten your stride," she advises. If you are going to be hitting the trails regularly, invest in some trail shoes. "They offer extra support, cushioning and grip on the trails," says Natalie White, a member of the Salomon Trail Team.

Race strategy:
With such a variety of routes and race distances, you can forget about chasing PBs on the trails and enjoy the scenery instead. "You have to approach trail races differently," says White. "Don't worry about your minutes-per-mile-pace. If you're a first-timer, start with something manageable that will give you a feel for the trails."

November: Pace Someone

Why now? So far, all your training has been geared towards improving your own fitness and achieving new goals. Now it's time to help someone else achieve theirs. "It's so rewarding to share the passion you have about running," says Pauline Beare, chief executive of the Women's Running Network, which runs nationwide female-only groups for all abilities. "If you can get someone out of the door, you will help them take a step towards doing their first event - and that first medal is precious."

Training: Share your knowledge about training to help your protégé progress,   but try to remember what it felt like to be a beginner, and make sure the goal you are working towards is theirs, not what you think they are capable of.

Race strategy: "Pacing someone is not easy," warns Beare, who recently paced a member of her training group through the Goofy Challenge - a 39.3-miler consisting of a half-marathon and full marathon on two consecutive days. "It's easy to think you're following when actually you're setting the pace. Hold a step back so that they genuinely have the lead."

December: Adventure Race

Why now? You've got a solid base of miles in the bank, but perhaps you're getting a little weary of road racing. Or maybe you just need to take your eye off the clock for a while. "A non-standard race distance or novel event can be refreshing," says Balk. "You have no preconceived ideas of how you should perform."

Do your research about your chosen event or race and make sure you are prepared for its unique challenges. In training for the Marathon des Sables, 34-year-old stockbroker Andrew Kocen hit the gym as well as the roads. "I'm sure the core training and free weights work I did left me with fewer injuries than I would have had otherwise," he says.

Race strategy: Whether you are dressed as a banana, racing a train or battling your way through an obstacle-filled adventure race, enjoy it. This is all about reminding yourself what fun running can be.