A coach’s simple plan on how to improve as a runner in 2021

Eufemia Didonato

‘Know thyself’ – it’s a phase that sits nicely on a meme with a misty mountain scene or an image of someone doing yoga on a deserted beach. As a coach, though, working with runners to help them better understand themselves, their lifestyle, body and mindset is at the heart […]

‘Know thyself’ – it’s a phase that sits nicely on a meme with a misty mountain scene or an image of someone doing yoga on a deserted beach. As a coach, though, working with runners to help them better understand themselves, their lifestyle, body and mindset is at the heart of establishing their path to progress. But how many of us spend the time considering our own strengths and areas for development? As we start a new running year, consider using some simple, practical tools and tests to give you the vital information you need to shape and tailor your training and lifestyle to make big strides in 2021.

Why do it?

As runners and coaches, we tend to look for a perfect training plan or system that will lead to predictable and repeatable results. We download a training plan that has worked for someone else, or replicate sessions others have done and wonder why it doesn’t work for us. Unfortunately, sport isn’t always simple. For your training to work properly, it must be realistic in terms of your current level of fitness and needs to be balanced with your lifestyle and ability to recover. Spending time assessing your strengths and areas for development can help in several ways:

A dose of realism

It’s hard to set challenging but realistic goals for your running year unless you know where you are now. Gunning for a sub-40-minute 10K or a four-hour marathon? We all love round numbers but is it achievable?

A tailored plan

A great training plan isn’t just about preparing you for the demands of your race. A plan that works is a bridge that guides you from where you are now to being able to meet those demands. The ‘checking-in’ process is essential to tailoring your training plan to make it work for you.

Focus on what counts

We live busy lives and with limited time to run, and work on strength training and recovery strategies, we can’t do everything. Taking time to assess where you are will allow you to make sound decisions about the areas you need to work at.

Growth mindset

A growth mindset is the ability to improve through self-reflection. This is more than just a meditative process – self-assessment and feedback tools allow you to turn self-reflection into measurable actions.

How to do it

First off, you need to set a baseline. Spend time considering a range of areas that affect performance, from physical fitness to psychology, nutrition to lifestyle. Score yourself from 0-10 in each of the areas and then separately score how important you feel each area is. When doing this, keep these guidelines in mind:

Validity and reliability

It is always best to rely on simple, repeatable and common-sense approaches to measuring and self-assessment. Anyone who has a GPS watch with a VO2 max or race-time predictor knows that they aren’t always the most reliable way to judge your fitness or progression.

Keep it real

There is no point focusing on the finer details if you don’t have the broad structure of common-sense training, enjoyment, good recovery and healthy diet in place, so focus your assessment on the ‘big’ areas.

Numbers and narrative

Runners now have data available instantly on the run and a full breakdown within seconds of finishing. While GPS and heart-rate data can be useful, it is just as important to look beyond the numbers. Consider how you feel as much as what your GPS says.

Use experts

Get the advice of experts who can help advise you of your current strengths and areas for development. A good sports physio can give you an MOT and advise on conditioning; a dietitian or nutritionist can assess your fuelling and recovery habits; and a sports psychologist can help you with mental skills training.

Here’s an example of a few areas to consider. The spreadsheet I use with athletes has over 65 areas but it’s often best to keep it simple and focus on those that make the biggest difference.


Once you have your baseline in place, pick four or five of areas where there is a big difference between where you are now and how important that factor is. For each area, develop an action plan outlining where you want to get to, how you are going to get there and how you’re going to measure your progress. Keep your goals SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Here’s an example: ‘I will improve the consistency of my sleep by the end of March. I will do this with a consistent pre-bed routine, getting to bed by 10pm, not using blue-light-emitting devices, or drinking alcohol or caffeine in the 90 minutes before sleep. I’ll measure my progress using a sleep-tracking app.’

There are many ways to monitor yourself (see below for some key ones). The feedback can help ensure you remain on track but progress is rarely linear; developing endurance, self-confidence or nutrition strategies can take time to bear fruit, so look for trends over time and try not to obsess over every change you notice. Every few months, reassess your baseline and set new plans and SMART goals.


Sleep is your most powerful recovery tool. But it’s important to not obsess over sleep data. If you know you’re sleeping well, with a good pattern of sleep and wake cycles, and you regularly wake feeling refreshed, that’s enough. If you feel your sleep is inconsistent, broken and you never feel you get enough, tracking how changes to your routine affect your sleep can be useful.

Try this: Sleep-tracking devices are increasingly accurate, but self-scoring the consistency and quality of sleep on a scale of 0-5 can be just as effective. How many hours did you sleep? How consistent was your sleep? How energised do you feel?

Training diary

A training diary is one of the most powerful self-assessment tools a runner has. It provides a snapshot of you on any given day and builds up a picture of your physical and psychological health over time.

Try this: Online tools such as Strava are great but a narrative training diary, which collects how you feel as well as the more conventional training metrics, is more powerful. A good training diary is your best self-reflection tool.


The best way to measure progress if you are racing is to race! No heart-rate monitor, lab test or self-scored chart can encompass all the physical and psychological stresses of racing.

Try this: Every three to four weeks, aim to run a time trial that is easy to repeat and that relates to the event you’re training for.

Heart-rate (HR) and perceived effort tests

Heart-rate monitors or self-assessed rates of perceived exertion can be a guide to the effort you are putting in on a training session and can be used to monitor trends in your fitness.

Try this: If you are training for a marathon, one option is to do a 60-minute run at goal marathon pace and see if your perceived effort or HR drops as the weeks go by. Measuring your effort on a scale of 0-10 is an effective way of judging performance and progression.

Heart-rate variability (HRV)

HRV measures the variation in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats. A healthy heart does not ‘tick’ evenly; in fact, an increased heart-rate variability is a sign of good health and a decrease in HRV over a sustained period can be a warning sign of overtraining or sickness.

Try this: Many newer GPS devices take HRV readings and there are apps you can download that provide similar data. Note your HRV each morning and monitor trends around your training to ensure that your recovery is progressing well.


Not all runners needs to increase their flexibility, but simple tests track changes and monitor warning signs.

Try this: The knee-to-wall test is simple. Stand facing a wall with the toes and knee of one leg in contact with it, foot flat on the floor. Gradually take your foot away from the wall but keep your knee in contact. Measure the furthest point you can get from the wall without your heel coming off the floor and with the knee still in line with your foot. Measure from your big toe to the wall to assess your calf flexibility.

• Less than 5cm: Poor
• 5-10cm: Fair
• >10cm: Good


There are many simple tests that can measure pure strength and strength endurance, to see if your conditioning work is paying dividends.

Try this: A hamstring-strength endurance test can measure one of the most important muscle groups in the running gait. Lie on your back with one heel resting on a chair and the other raised in the air. At a rate of roughly every two seconds, raise up into a bridge position and drop back to the mat. See how many you can do while keeping your form.

• <20: Needs work
• 20-30: Fair
• >30: Good

Resting heart rate (RHR)

As you get fitter, your heart gets bigger and stronger, so it can pump more blood, so, over time, your resting heart rate should drop.

Try this: Taking your pulse each morning can show long-term improvements in fitness but a short-term increase in RHR can be a sign of tiredness or illness.

Tom Craggs is an England national team coach and owner of Fast Running Coaching.

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