Looking for a fresh start with your exercise routine?

‘Consistency will help you to progress in running,’ says Olympic athlete Thomas Barr

After the year we’ve all had, most of us will be keen to make a fresh start, draw a line under 2020 and look forward to a positive future. And given the nature of the recent global crisis, improved health and fitness is likely to be on the top of many people’s agendas.

But while making a plan to become stronger, fitter, leaner and healthier is very doable, sticking to an exercise routine isn’t always such a breeze.

To combat this, together with Athletics Ireland, Irish Life Health has developed a new campaign, entitled Runuary, to support runners of all levels to continue their routine, have a positive and healthy start to the year and get through the first few months without giving up their goal.

There are various programme options available which include training advice for three, four or five days a week, building up to completing a selected targeted distance on Sunday, January 31st. This will include either a 8km (5-mile) run, the classic 16km (10-mile) run for more experienced runners, and, for the endurance-based athlete, there is the challenge of training for a 31km (19-mile) run over two days.


Olympic athlete Thomas Barr also needs to get himself back on track (excuse the pun) this year as the pandemic put paid to his dreams of participating in the 2020 Olympic Games and also put a halt to his training schedule. "My biggest challenge of 2020 was not knowing if the Olympic Games would be cancelled or not and I had so many questions going around my head," he says. "This lack of direction was extremely frustrating and as well as not being able to train with our training group, tracks and gyms were also closed.

“It was becoming harder to train effectively, so when the news finally broke that the games were cancelled, I was so disappointed. But I also felt huge relief as there was finally a decision and I could develop a new plan with my coaching team instead of being in limbo.”

Barr, who won gold in the 400m hurdles at the 2015 World University Games in South Korea, says having something to aim for is very important. "If I do not have goals, whether sporting related or not, I become very unmotivated to do anything," he says. "When I am unmotivated, I am very unproductive, not making progress and not seeing results. This makes me become very frustrated, irritable, and down in myself. So, my top tip, for runners in 2021, would be to set yourself a challenging but realistic goal because you can't get to where you need to go if you don't know the final destination.

Training benefits really come in the cumulative effect of the miles you run

“It’s also important to take one hurdle at a time. On the track as a 400m hurdler, I can only focus on clearing one hurdle at time. I need to be very present and find that if I think too far ahead, I will make an error. That is my approach as an athlete, I am focused on what is in front of me, taking each training session and competition as it comes. I think runners will too often think of where they want to get to instead of being present and seeing the improvement they have been making from one week to the next. Similarly, they might overthink a bad session. On days when you feel bad and can’t finish a planned session remember some training is always better than no training.”

‘Running buddy’

The 28-year-old athlete is very well placed to offer advice on how we can stay motivated and focused on our fitness goals for the year ahead and says one of the simplest and most effective ways to do that, is to find a “running buddy”.

“As a track athlete, I compete as an individual but what keeps me motivated during tough sessions is working out with my training group,” says the Waterford man. “It is one of the things which keeps me going as sessions on my own are much tougher. On those days when you are not particularly in the mood for a workout, having a workout friend will mean you firstly feel obliged to turn up and then you also get more out of yourself than expected. Having company makes such a difference to the enjoyment levels too – the chats and laughs on the warm-up or in between sets can make it all go much quicker.

“Consistency will also help you to progress in running and it creates discipline in your routine. Training on the day you really did not feel like it, is as much a mental challenge to overcome as a physical one. But when you do it, it always rewards you by giving you a little mental pat on the back. Training benefits really come in the cumulative effect of the miles you run.”

Barr says it is also good to introduce some variety to your running by exploring a new run route or trying some hill training and adding some speed work.

“A ‘Fartlek’ sounds like a rude word but is it actually a Swedish term which means ‘speed play’,” he says. “This involves varying your running pace throughout your run, alternating between fast segments and slow jogs – picking various lampposts (to run to) can be a good way to do this. Training on hills is great too as it improves your leg-muscle strength and develops your cardiovascular system, so try to run some hills on your longer runs.

“And it’s also important to remember everyday movements because sitting all day can impact us physically. Most of us (including elite athletes) have less than perfect posture and when we are sitting with shoulders slumped and lower back rounded, it tightens up all our joints. So, it is important even on the days when you are not running to get some light exercise and stretch out those limbs. This will mean you feel better on the days when you do go out to run instead of tight and sluggish,” says Barr.

"To empower those who sign up for the programme, they will be supplied with a four-week training programme with videos and hints to help them along their journey," says Liz Rowen, head of marketing at Irish Life Health. "This will help them unlock their inner drive and keep them on track, not only in January, but beyond because running is a great activity for life, not just for lockdown."

So after all the uncertainty brought about by Covid, Barr feels the Runuary campaign (sign up at irishlifehealth.ie/runuary) will be "a fresh start to 2021".

“2020 was a unique and strange year – everyone has struggled with motivation, especially during the lockdowns, but it’s great to see people turning to running to relieve stress and clear the head and try to gain a little more structure in their days.

“And while we still can’t remove many of the unknowns from our lives, we can add some sense of certainty through our daily actions – so having a weekly running routine can provide stability and help us feel more at ease by enabling us to regain some control of our lives.”

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!