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Thinking beyond the numbers of running can help you fall more in love with the sport in 2022.
In a sport that comes down to mile splits and average paces, time-based goals are the obvious choice. But running is about so much more than what your watch or the race clock says, and setting goals that reflect that can actually help you achieve a PR—without obsessing over time.
“Time-based goals come with a healthy amount of uncertainty,” says Nika Kabiri, a former competitive athlete and a decision-making expert who consults, coaches, and teaches decision science at the University of Washington. “We can do all the right things in training but still not hit our goal because too much is out of our control: We might get an unexpected leg cramp on race day or come down with a cold. It could rain. We could oversleep. Though our goal is clear, whether or not we’ll accomplish it isn’t.” And that kind of uncertainty breeds anxiety, which can make training less enjoyable and make people more likely to give up, Kabiri adds.
When you focus on a goal that isn’t based on time, there’s a lot less uncertainty about whether or not you can accomplish it. “It’s harder to imagine that you can’t just join a run club or run for 60 minutes,” says Kabiri. “And because there’s less uncertainty, you’re more likely to make the choices that can make those things happen—and enjoy yourself along the way.”
The best part: Goals that go beyond time—like the ones below—also help you become a stronger, more well-rounded runner. And that’s what will ultimately help you reach those bigger time goals.
So, as you think about 2022 and what you want to accomplish, let these non-PR-related goals help you achieve a year of wins.
Most runners focus on overall distance—how many miles you run in a day, week, month—rather than total minutes. Races are measured in miles, after all. But running (especially distance running) is really about time on feet, and there are lots of variables at play: The faster you are, the less time it’ll take you to cover a specific distance; the more varied your terrain, the longer a run might take you to complete.
Incorporating a couple runs per week based on minutes instead of miles allows you to run by effort level, not what your watch says. And that also allows you to listen to your body and run by feel, so you learn how to pace yourself appropriately (whether you are or aren’t wearing a watch)—a skill that benefits every runner on race day.
It’s easy to lock into a pace on a flat road, but at some point, the benefits of that plateau. Adding elevation gain (read: hills) to your runs provides similar benefits to speed work, like improved running economy (meaning you’ll use less energy over the course of a certain distance), muscle strengthening, and a better stride.
The proof: Running at an incline twice a week for six weeks improved runners’ top speeds—and enabled them to hold if for 32 percent longer—in a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. It’s like adding resistance, which increases your power output with every step. And that will translate to faster speeds on the flats. So make one of your fitness goals all about tackling inclines once a week or so.
Exercise of any kind is better with friends and it’s easier to achieve a fitness goal if you have someone by your side. In fact, people are more likely to stay committed to and excited about aerobic exercise (like running!) if they’re doing it with a buddy, older research published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found.
And don’t be shy about running with the fast crowd: Those who exercised with someone they thought was “better than them” worked out up to 200 percent harder and longer than others, according to a separate study from the same journal. And, FYI, group exercise improves mental, physical, and emotional health, a 2017 study in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association reported—it actually led to a 26.2 (!) percent reduction in perceived stress levels.
Resistance training helps runners prevent injuries by strengthening muscles and connective tissues so they can withstand the repetitive nature of the sport. And it doesn’t require seriously heavy lifting: When researchers compared data from 24 studies, they found that people made similar strength gains whether they lifted light, moderate, or heavy, a 2021 meta-analysis published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reported. All you need are two to three strength sessions per week to boost performance in middle-distance races (i.e. the mile) by three to five percent and longer distance (like the 10K) races by two to four percent according to a 2017 systematic review published in the journal Sports Medicine. Those are pretty solid reasons to make a regular strength training routine one of your goals for 2022.
It’s awesome how much data running watches can collect these days. And that data can definitely inform your training, especially if you’re trying to hit certain paces or heart rate zones during workouts. But if you’re so focused on what your watch says, it can actually suck the joy out of running.
In fact, quantifying activities you do for fun can make them feel more like work, which reduces enjoyment and decreases subjective wellbeing and engagement in that activity, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found. Plus, relying too much on data could cause you to stop listening to your physical cues, which can lead to overtraining or injury. A once-a-week watch-less run helps you stay in tune with your body and maintain your love of running—win-win.
It’s the kind of thing your coach always tells you but you conveniently forget to tack on before or after workouts. But foam rolling may reduce muscle stiffness and increase range of motion before training and can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and potentially optimize recovery from training, a 2020 review published in the The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found.
Stretching, on the other hand, improves flexibility, which translates to improved performance and a reduced risk for injuries. Prerun, focus on dynamic stretches that wake up the muscles you’ll be using; postrun, hold stretches for 15 to 30 seconds to release muscular tension, increase range of motion around your joints, and allow your heart rate to come back down to normal.
At this point, you know the saying: “You can only train as hard as you recover.” Running is a stressor, and recovery is the time when your body adapts to that stress so you can come back stronger in your next workout. If you skip that part, you’re just adding fatigue to fatigue—a recipe for overtraining and injury.
Recovery can look different for every runner, but implementing a routine that includes things like stretching, massage, compression, and/or hot and cold therapy can help you stay healthy in the long run. And don’t forget about incorporating recovery/easy runs—where the intensity is a 3 to 6 out of 10—which should make up about 80 percent of your total running volume.
This might be one of the hardest goals to achieve, but it’s also one of the best for you. Sleep may be the single most important factor in exercise recovery, according to 2019 research published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, and even one night of partial sleep deprivation may have an effect on your running performance the next day, a 2020 study in the journal Physiology & Behavior found. Prioritize good sleep hygiene—i.e. set consistent sleep and wake times, keep your bedroom dark and quiet, and avoid alcohol, caffeine, and electronic devices before bed—to make sure you get the most out of every workout.
Fact: Not every run is a good run. But when you judge your runs solely on pace or distance, it can be easy to beat yourself up when you don’t meet a certain benchmark. Instead of limiting yourself to those two standards, find different metrics of success: Can you run without stopping? Can you employ positive self-talk? Can you focus on dialing in your form? Can you have a great conversation with your run buddy? These process goals keep you in the moment instead of stressing about the outcome, which puts your miles in perspective (there’s no prize money on the line here!) and can help you enjoy the act of running even more.
Okay so this one is kind of based on time, but it’s also about simply running smarter. Ask any runner and they’ll probably tell you their race strategy is to negative split. But running the latter part of a race faster than the beginning doesn’t happen without practice. Just like you have to train your body to cover a certain distance, you need to train it to exert extra effort once it gets fatigued.
For half marathoners and marathoners, fast finish workouts teach you to pick up the pace on tired legs, and get your brain used to the idea that, yes, it can go faster even when it doesn’t feel like it. Even an easy progression run—where every mile is slightly faster than the previous run—will help you approach the finish line feeling strong instead of totally gassed.