"To get faster, avoid plateaus, and prevent injury, you need a structured program with different types of workouts," says Kelly Wissolik, a coach at Energy Fitness Coaching in Ohio. Follow these guidelines for plotting your year, and put on your coach hat periodically to chart your progress. (For a detailed monthly training plan, chart your progress with our Guide to Your Fittest Year, Ever.)
Even if you're not racing, you need a schedule to stay accountable and make progress, says Shelly Florence-Glover, coauthor of The Competitive Runner's Handbook. "Running the same four-mile course over and over will make you faster only on that type of course—and only to a point," she says.
The plan: Schedule two to three runs and two to three cross-training sessions a week to challenge different energy systems, make gains, and avoid burnout, says Jeff Gaudette, owner and head coach of RunnersConnect in Boston. Push back your fatigue point with one 20- to 40-minute comfortably hard run (you can speak in phrases); increase the duration by five percent every week.
Boost your aerobic fitness with a speedwork session: Do six to 10 hard efforts (you can utter just a word or two) lasting 10 to 30 seconds, with 30 seconds to two minutes of rest between each. Every other week, add a repeat or lengthen each effort by five to 10 seconds. Each month, aim to lengthen your repeats by 20 percent or decrease your recovery time. Maintain your aerobic base with a long run that's twice the length of your comfortably hard run. (Evaluate your strengths with the 10 Tests of Overall Fitness and find out how to work on your weaknesses.)
Race a New Distance
Whether you're plotting your first 5K or stepping up to the marathon, following a structured training plan ensures that your workouts are targeted and spaced appropriately so you get to the start in peak shape and free of injuries. Ticking off planned runs will also boost your confidence and inspire calm come race morning—both keys to a strong performance and fun experience, says Brad Hudson, coach and author of Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon.