The New Year often signals the start of fitness campaigns for many people, but in some respects it's the hardest time of year to do so being in the midst of winter with shorter days and poor weather. It does however present the opportunity for a big psychological win if you can conquer these challenging factors and jump on the fitness wagon towards your chosen goal.
And that brings me neatly on to the first of my five tips to help conquer those long winter months:
(1) Have a clear goal to work towards
Having a clear goal on the horizon is essential to act as a focus for your efforts. Your goal should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. We've all heard of the SMART acronym, right? Essentially the point here is that your goal should have detail to be of real value, so it's well worth taking the time to break it down a little and make it relevant to you, not just your average runner.
Identifying a race to train for is an obvious goal for a runner and certainly works for me. In reality I spend most of my time in racing 'cycles' whereby I have a target race on the horizon (even if it sits a long way off), with my training and efforts all geared towards that one particular goal.
It can also be useful to set intermediate goals to help break the headline goal down into smaller, more manageable chunks. On the same racing theme you can factor in preparatory or 'B' races to act as stepping stones to your main goal, or 'A' race. There are many benefits to racing in preparation for a race, not least gaining competitive experience, but also pushing yourself further than you might otherwise be able to do in training.
(2) Join a club or train with friends
Running clubs can sometimes seem like a daunting prospect, especially when you may be used to doing your own thing and running to your own agenda. There is also a big confidence factor, particularly as a beginner, when it's not always that appealing to join a bunch of seemingly well experienced runners who've know each other for years. You need to remember that the running community is one of the friendliest out there, and once the ice is broken, you are sure to be creating a whole new set of like-minded friends to share your experiences with. This whole process will help your running no end, and more importantly make you feel like a runner. You have to embrace it!
Of course, effort is required to get there at the right time, socialise and also to complete the club training session itself but the benefits are potentially significant. For example interval sessions are not easy sessions to complete on your own, but in a group they can actually be fun!
The equally beneficial alternative is to run with friends, or create your own group. Running with others doesn't have to be something you do all the time, but it will definitely add interest and another dimension, avoiding any sense of loneliness or self-pity which can sometimes come about through doing too much on your own.
(3) Build a routine
Running really isn't some dark art but a great example of a sport where you get out what you put in. The really important thing to aim for is consistency. I've always found that to achieve consistency a strong routine is important, and that means clearly ring-fencing your running time and building it into a daily routine so it actually happens. I spent many years run commuting to and from my workplace and it's an ideal way to get your miles in whilst making a purposeful journey. It is also efficient time wise, thereby making your running far more sustainable long term if it's not eating into other commitments such as family time. Contrary to what you may first think, a work routine can usefully support a training routine, simply because of the structure and discipline involved. The best tip for a post work run from home has to be getting straight out the door, rather than dwelling on the thought. Easier said than done after a long day at work, I know!
(4) Record your efforts
Confession; I'm still new to this concept too, but I've become quite a convert. I spent many years not properly logging my training mileage and races, and I desperately regret it now. The stats would be rather impressive! But thanks to a reliable Garmin GPS watch and Strava setup, the process is now so easy it's a no brainer. I not only benefit from all the data, but also the competitive element through the social media side of Strava.
There are various different smartphone apps and websites out there offering a similar function of recording your running data, so it's well worth looking into the digital option. I'm not saying you need to go all high-tech to record your runs, but I would strongly recommend you keep a diary of sorts. It helps in so many different ways, not least becoming a record of your achievements and milestones to feed your motivation even more.
(5) Get kitted up
Running through the winter months can be tough because of the weather and the long nights, but with the right clothing and equipment, you can get out there regardless, and stick to your training plan. Favourite items in my winter kit line up include a high powered LED head torch, lightweight waterproof running jacket (Feather Lite Storm Blocker Jacket by The North Face) and high-visibility vest. I typically find that the thought of heading out is often much worse than the reality, and actually just being out there and moving, even when the weather isn't that good, can be incredibly rewarding, especially with the right kit.
It's a good idea to stay one step ahead by keeping an eye on the weather forecast (the Met Office app is great for this) so you can plan your route and clothing in advance, and according to the forecast. That whole planning process before a run can also work brilliantly to strengthen your mind and give you even more determination to get out there regardless of the conditions, whenever that moment in your schedule arrives.
Jez Bragg is sponsored by The North Face.