Set the right goals and you'll run faster, train smarter, and have more fun hitting the pavement in the new year

By Karla Bruning
December 29, 2014

If you're reading this, we're betting you're a runner-no matter how skilled you are, or how long you've been doing it. This year, revamp your New Year's resolutions with goals meant to make you a more well-rounded runner. Resolutions that merely focus on going faster may set you up for frustration down the road. Sure, speed is something every runner wants to improve, and it can be part of your New Year planning, but goals that also focus on training, friends, and having fun will make your 2015 more successful-and enjoyable. (Want to set a few non-running goals too? Check out our Top 25 Easy-to-Accomplish New Year's Resolutions.)

Ease Into the New Year


"Running is a sport of incremental improvement, not leaps and bounds," says Pete Magill, a five-time national age-group record holder and author of Build Your Running Body: A Total-Body Fitness Plan for All Distance Runners, from Milers to Ultramarathoners-Run Farther, Faster, and Injury-Free. "Resolutions should focus on months of gradual improvement, and reject the boot camp mentality of frenzied weeks or even days." Especially if you're new to the sport, think of the year as a 12-mile run and resolve to treat January as your warm-up mile. Aim to run every other day for 15 to 30 minutes, with plenty of walk breaks. Once 30 minutes is comfortable, add another 5 minutes every month or so to your longest run.

Run More Than You Did Last Year


If you're a seasoned runner, the best way to improve is to keep pounding the pavement. "Running more is the simplest and most effective way to become a better runner," says Jason Karp, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and author of Running a Marathon For Dummies. "But saying, ‘I'll run more' isn't effective as a resolution." Karp suggests aiming for 10 to 20 percent more miles than you covered last year, and resolving to run at least three days a week. Choosing a specific number of days and sticking to it will help you meet those mileage goals. (Hey marathoners: Want A Real Fitness Challenge? Try Running 3 Races In One Weekend.)

Work Hard, Play Hard


Many runners set a goal to beat their best time at a certain distance. But you could be setting yourself up for failure if that's your only focus. "A lot is outside of our control, both on race day and throughout training, and it's a shame to chalk the year up as a loss if you don't achieve that one goal," say Chris Heuisler, a running coach who works as Westin Hotels & Resorts' RunWESTIN concierge. Does that mean you shouldn't reach for a bold goal like a personal best? "Not at all. Clear, ambitious goals can be very motivating. But couple it with at least one other resolution that is more attainable." Pair a black-and-white time goal with something more lighthearted like running a race in costume or taking a runcation.

Prioritize Injury Prevention


"Injury prevention is an after-thought for most runners, which is a big mistake," says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field certified coach and the founder of Strength Running. "It should be built into the training itself." Resolve to be proactive about injury prevention instead of reactive when aches and pains come along. This includes getting enough sleep and using a foam roller for any tight or sore muscles, Fitzgerald says. More importantly, he recommends "sandwiching" runs between a dynamic warm-up-that includes knee hugs, mountain climbers, and leg swings-and 10 to 30 minutes of core exercises like planks, bridges, bird dogs, and other movements. "If you think you have no time for prevention work, you'll sooner or later have to find time for injuries," Fitzgerald cautions. (See more of The Best Ways to Avoid Injury While Training for a Marathon.)

Register for a Goal Race


Having a date on the calendar to work toward can be incredibly motivating. Sign up for a race that excites you and will inspire you to keep training, whether it's the lure of a new distance, a bucket-list event, or a race in a destination you've always wanted to visit. If you're used to tackling half-marathons, why not target a mile race and work on speed? If you've never raced before, sign up for a 5K in a few months, or even just one of The Best Mile Races In the U.S. But you can't just sign up; you have to train too. "Experienced runners often target a challenging race as incentive for the new year of training," Magill says. "Only problem is that they often forget to create a body capable of tackling the new race." That's where our next resolution comes in.

Build a Racing Body


Signed up for that race? "For experienced runners, the goal shouldn't be completing a race distance; it should be mastering it by building a fit body that can easily handle race distance and race pace," Magill says. If you're an advanced runner hitting the pavement four to six days a week, resolve to build your racing body this year by adding one or two days per week of strides and dynamic drills like skipping, bounding, and butt kicks to your regular workouts. Include one day a week of short, but steep hill repeats. For example, Magill suggests six 50-meter surges at 90 percent of your max effort with two or three minutes of recovery. And plan for one day of speed intervals, like six rounds of two minutes at 5K race pace with three minutes of jogging between repeats. (Plus it can make you faster! Find out how to Shave a Minute Off Your Mile.)

Volunteer at a Race


If you've ever run a race, you've gotten a cup of water or finisher's medal from a volunteer. They're the backbone of the race day workforce. But they do so much more than that, including setting up, cleaning up, marshaling the course, handling baggage, passing out food and water, cheering, and aiding runners from the corrals to the finish. At a major event like a marathon, they'll put in 8-hour shifts and sometimes longer. Joining their ranks is one of the most satisfying things you can do as a runner. "You're giving back to the running community that supports and drives you," says Heuisler. You'll experience and appreciate the hard work that goes into volunteering. Plus, lending a hand to other folks while they race just might inspire your own training.

Call Yourself a Runner


Nearly 50 million people ran at least 50 days-roughly once a week- in 2013, but many don't think of themselves as runners. Resolve to change that this year by taking stock of who you are and what you do, instead of who you're not and what you can't do. "Creating positive self talk and celebrating one positive outcome after every workout will set you up for fitness success," says Jenny Hadfield, coach, columnist, and author of Running For Mortals. If hitting the pavement is a regular and important part of your fitness routine-no matter how fast or far you go, and whether or not you sign-up for races-then it's time to start claiming the title. Simply, if you run, you're a runner. Embrace it.

Find a Running Buddy


If you always run alone, resolve to find a running buddy or join a group or team. You can still run some of your workouts solo, but studies show that training with other folks actually improves performance. One study in the Journal of Social Sciences found that people who cycled with someone they perceived to be fit exercised harder than when working out alone. And research published in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology discovered that the slowest runners and swimmers in individual events showed the most improvement when competing with a team. So find a running partner or offer to pace a friend in an upcoming race. You just might become a better runner.

Refresh Your Playlist


Listening to music before, during, and after your run can improve your performance and speed recovery, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Researchers found that listening to motivational songs before a 5K time trail helped pump up runners up for faster times. Calming music afterward also helped them recover more quickly. But listening to music during the workout had the largest impact. Want to go your fastest? Cue up slow, but motivating songs, which produced the speediest results. So resolve to add some inspiration to your routine, either before, during, or after you run with a fresh playlist. And don't forget the slow jams! (Check out the The 10 Most Popular Workout Songs of 2014.)