2011: Your Best Running Year Yet (Preview)

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.

This year, why not let your running take you on a journey of exploration? Our slideshow provides 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.

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