Runners: how do you survive the silly season and keep your training intact?

The 'silly season' we've just entered provides many excuses for your running routine to be sabotaged. Late nights pile up and training gets put in the too-hard or just-impossible basket. Sound familiar?

My training squad had our Christmas drinks on the weekend, and around 8pm I asked a friend if she was planning on cycling the next morning, as we usually do. She looked at me as if I was barking mad. Sure enough, at 2am as I got home with sore feet from dancing in ridiculous heels, I realised she had been right. It was time to devise a 'silly season survival' program.

Survival for the fittest

It's common in January for everyone to get fired up to embark on an eight-week 'New Year New You' program. I'd argue you could head off that need with a November/December "survival" program, for the runners who don't want to lose all their hard-won training gains.

There are two key factors here, and they form the basis for any such program: First, don't act surprised about the arrival of silly season and, secondly, actually be prepared for it.

If you're not surprised when it happens, then you're less likely to beat yourself up about missing sessions. There's nothing to be gained by giving yourself a hard time, because it's only likely to make you resentful about running and the perceived pressure it puts you under.

You shouldn't expect that every week of the year is going to - or should - play out the same way. Running, for us amateurs at least, is supposed to be an embedded part of our regular lives. That's the ultimate goal. The challenge is to allow it to be so; to let it ebb and flow along with everything else that goes on. If you can do this, then you will be a runner for a lot longer than if you can't. Years and years, not just a few months.

Plan to go off the rails

Not being surprised also is the prerequisite for being prepared. Come mid-November, I can look at my diary and see that in the weeks ahead, for example, something is going to have to give and more than likely it's going to be some training sessions.

When work functions, school functions and pre-Christmas deadlines combine in a 'perfect storm' scenario, it's madness to try to keep training at your usual intensity. Add to that mix the simple fact that it's the end of the year and you are just plain tired. It's normal. So the best you can do for your mental and physical wellbeing is to sign up to a survival program.

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Such a program is great for people who are very goal oriented; it can be incorporated into a broader program, like a subset, and therefore be used for active recovery and doing a few stretching or yoga sessions. Or scheduling in a massage instead of an after-work run. The benefits become mutual; you're doing something good for yourself at that point in time when your life schedule wouldn't accommodate your usual routine. Plus you're not compromising your long-term fitness goals - in fact, you're helping them by investing in some low-intensity, quality workouts.

Dancing shoes v running shoes; guess which wins?

A survival program is also ideal for people for whom running is not, shall we say, an addiction. These folks very easily fall off the wagon in silly season. If you're a reluctant exerciser in the first place, life at this time of year can easily be seen through a prism of dancing shoes versus running shoes. And there's no prizes for guessing which pair is going to be on your feet every step of the way.

However, if you're a reluctant runner who has prepared for the silly season, you likely won't see it as an either/or situation. You'll have taken the pressure off yourself completely, and you'll be able to do both (though likely not at the same time).

So how should your survival program work? I'd propose it to be a scaled-down version of your usual weekly training program, with flexibility factored in to add or take away sessions as the opportunity comes or goes. Fall-back options are good, too.

For example, I'd do eight or nine sessions a week at my maximum. Come November/December, I'll look at my diary for the coming week and work out what's realistically achievable. I might scale it back to five sessions, and mark in what they will be and on what days. If you routinely do four sessions a week, you could scale it back to two. Two is the minimum number of sessions required per week to get any real fitness benefits. But at the very least it's keeping you in a bit of a routine.

By consulting your diary before committing, you can work out pretty quickly the likelihood of getting up early to train after a function the night before - it may be doable once, but perhaps not consecutively. So you factor that in.

Be a friend to yourself

The beauty of doing this is that you will have a clear picture of how your week is going to play out. And you can tell yourself that it'll still be a solid achievement if you can carry it off, given everything else that's going on. The whole process is a positive one rather than negative. You're in control, and you're being a friend to yourself.

The other reason it's good to take this approach is that it allows you to communicate your goals to your family. A bit of notice about your training intentions helps everyone plan their lives; you're not likely to be the only busy person in the house. It's just courteous.

A word of advice: leave room for the fall-back position. During 'silly season survival', I think it should be a prerequisite to swear some sort of oath to yourself at the beginning along the lines of "stuff happens, it's not the end of the world if my plan fails."

And besides, there's always that "New Year, New You" program in January to fall back on.

Do you have a survival plan for your silly season training? Do you need one?

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