I came into 2021 having been an on-off casual runner for a few years, albeit one who had never strung together more than a few months of consistent running at a time. My running had been very haphazard and I’d certainly never followed anything like a structured, comprehensive training routine.
I’d be surprised to learn that I’d ever clocked up as much as a thousand kilometres in a single calendar year before, so to have logged the sort of numbers — as detailed below — that I did this year is quite the achievement (although not necessarily all that wise in hindsight).
In total, I ran 3566 kilometres in 2021, with a peak monthly mileage of 467 km, reached in October while preparing for the Hangzhou marathon—which was subsequently postponed and has since been provisionally rescheduled for sometime in March—and a peak weekly mileage of 116 km.
I completed two full marathons, four further 30+ km training runs, and yet another 22 runs of half-marathon distance or above (if I’ve counted correctly). To put that in perspective, before this year I think I’d managed a grand total of four runs of 20 km or more, ever.
During the last 12 months I significantly improved my personal bests for the 5 km, 10 km, and half-marathon distances, as well as setting a PB with my first ever marathon (obviously) before breaking it seven months later by almost 40 minutes.
The best times I achieved throughout the year for each distance are as follows:
5k: 20:21 (5 October)
10k: 41:08 (5 October)
Half-marathon: 1:33:32 (26 December)
Marathon: 3:37:17 (4 December)
Those are the fastest times I logged, yet for all but one of them I feel I was capable of better had I run them while at, or close, to peak fitness.
I only attempted one fast 5 km last year, back in early May, where I clocked 20:25 with a dodgy stomach. Later in the year, I went sub-20 on the treadmill, just to prove to myself that I could. I felt surprisingly comfortable doing it (easy wouldn’t be the right word, but neither was it a struggle).
My current 5 km best is the fastest 5 km split from my 10 km PB run, so it’s clear that I could have gone faster had I chosen to target the shorter distance on that day.
I ran my half-marathon PB three weeks after my marathon, suffering with the reduced fitness that comes from having begun to taper over a month earlier and the significant fatigue of a full marathon. After that marathon I took five days off to rest and have been slowly building back up at well below peak mileage since.
Finally, my marathon attempt itself was timed such that I had already started to lose fitness from my peak over a month before. The last-minute postponement of the Hangzhou and Shanghai marathons and the uncertainty of when I would be running meant I started to taper too soon. This wasn’t helped by me pushing the marathon back an extra week myself as I was suffering with a bad cold / mild flu.
Had I run the marathon in November, at either the Hangzhou or Shanghai events, I have no doubt I’d have been in a much stronger position to break 3:30. In the end it’s impossible to say what would have happened, but from the data I have and the way I felt as the training plan progressed, it’s pretty clear that my fitness peaked around early November and then started to drop off.
As a new runner, the last year has been a fairly steep learning curve; I’ve made a lot of beginner mistakes, and I’ve learnt a lot of valuable lessons and gained a number of helpful insights into running and fitness in general. Below are some of the key take-aways from 2021
Run slow to go fast. It’s a cliche, and it won’t be the only one I throw in here, but it’s an incredibly valuable lesson to learn, and to truly accept, all the same.
I was already aware of the concept of taking slow runs slow before I started running, but it took some time to learn a) what slow really means, and b) how to control my natural instincts and run with the discipline needed to maintain slow, steady miles.
It was only when I started running my slow miles based on heart rate that I really managed to reign myself in and started to see the benefits. Replacing the default max heart rate setting on my watch with a more accurate figure was the key to getting the full benefit from that particular bit of kit and having the information I needed to run at the right pace.
Volume is king. This very much goes hand in hand with running easy. There are a few caveats, but in general, the more you run, the fitter you get. Providing your muscles, joints, ligaments, nervous system, etc. can handle it, the higher your weekly mileage, the stronger your aerobic base will be.
I started off the year doing three key workouts per week—intervals, threshold runs, and long runs— with a single easy run thrown in on Sunday because I didn’t want to waste the day off. By the end of February I was up to three or even four easy runs per week, usually in the 6–9 kilometre range.
By the latter half of the year, those 6–9 kilometre easy runs were 10–12 kilometre easy runs and my total weekly mileage was up accordingly. The added slow, aerobic miles paid dividends when it came to my fitness.
You can have too much of a good thing. By a good thing, I mean mileage. I said above “Providing your muscles, joints, ligaments, nervous system, etc. can handle it,” and I think I got the balance wrong in the second half of the year.
I set myself a peak weekly mileage goal of 132 km, having reached 100 km in the training block before. In addition, I was trying to build up to that target from a week one mileage of just 60 km. It was ambitious, and it was stupid.
That second training block is where my knee pain and Achilles soreness first manifested and I think it was in large part due to my prescribed weekly mileage increases far outstripping my body’s ability to adapt.
But hey, another mistake made, another lesson learnt; this time I’m starting out at 70 km and hoping to hit 105 km, which is only half the spread of last time and much closer to my peak mileage from training block one.
Running Gear 2021.
As a new runner who started the year with no pre-existing ideas as to what I want, and what I need, in terms of gear, 2021 saw me trying a lot of new things. Some of the running gear I purchased really worked for me, and some of it really, really didn’t. So below are my top picks, as well as my things to avoid.
Note: these are all products that I tried in 2021. The products themselves may have been released in 2020 or even earlier. I’m not always up-to-date, what can I say.
Garmin Forerunner 945 running watch: This one’s a no-brainer; it’s the one piece of kit that’s kept me from running in the dark all year long. It makes such a difference having accurate, reliable data being provided in real-time for metrics such as pace, heart rate, and distance.
While phone-based apps can give you pace and distance data, I’ve found them to be significantly less reliable than my Garmin, and they neither provide heart rate data, nor updates in relation to my overall fitness trends, optimum load, and estimated race times. This data is invaluable when trying to decide appropriate paces and workouts during a training plan.
I previously had a Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2 and I cannot stress enough how much of an improvement having a dedicated running watch from a legitimate, utility-driven manufacturer has been.
Whereas my Samsung would frequently clock my easy runs at world record marathon pace, or just report the same 5:30 per kilometre lap after lap after lap despite obvious, deliberate changes in pace, my Garmin has proven itself to be dependable and accurate all year long (except once or twice, briefly, immediately after a software update).
UA HeatGear Armour Mid compression shorts: I could equally have put my CEP calf compression sleeves here, which are also a wonderful piece of kit. Regardless how you feel about the effectiveness of wearing compression sleeves for recovery, you can’t deny that they are sublimely comfortable.
In the end, I’m plumping for my Under Armour compression shorts because they’re a great value item of clothing that makes running more comfortable, and have been a particular relief to me recently as I’ve been suffering from persistently aching glutes.
I tend to put these on for my key workouts, whether speed-based or for my weekly long run, and they make me feel faster, more efficient, and overall more comfortable. They also do a fantastic job of preventing chaffing. The improvements in performance may turn out to be entirely in my head, but it’s a nice feeling nevertheless, and for the price, I think they’re worth it on comfort alone.
UA Ansa fixed slides: I’ve gone for comfort again here. There are fancier, more expensive “recovery slides” on the market (here’s glaring at you HOKA), but I feel absolutely no need to try them out as long as these things are still going strong. They feel great underfoot (and over it, with the nicely padded strap) and give my feet room to breathe. Thanks to these bad-boys, my days of walking around the house barefoot are finally over.
Running Gear 2021, Worst Of.
Jaybird X4 wireless earphones: Hands down the worst product I tried in 2021, and an utter disgrace of a piece of kit. The FlipBelt bottles I’m going to talk about below may well serve absolutely no purpose, but at least they didn’t cost me much and aren’t sold to people in bad faith.
Before giving a brief overview of their actual performance when working, it’s important for me to give some background on build quality, as when you’re spending money on a piece of kit you want it to work and you want it to last.
I purchased the X4 earphones on 9 June and received them a few days later. After about a month I started experiencing charging issues whereby the headphones would sometimes charge, and they sometimes wouldn’t. The light on the charger would remain off whether they eventually charged or not.
More than once, this resulted in me getting ready to set off on a run only to find my wireless earphones had no battery and I then had to switch over to an old paired of wired earphones I have lying around. Consistency is important with these things. There’s not much point in having a pair of earphones you can only use on certain, random, days.
After just over two months, they stopped charging completely. I sent them back and received a replacement pair. The replacement pair had similar issues and stopped working after roughly two weeks, at which point I said **** it, cut my losses, and went back to using my wired earphones for a couple of weeks before eventually settling on a pair of JBL Sprint which I’ve been using issue-free now for approximately 3 months.
When they were working, the sound quality was quite good, but that’s about all I can say for them. The fit was bad—even after trying all the different insert sizes they would still regularly fall out — and they had performance issues that made them next to unusable.
The main performance issue was the connectivity. No exaggeration, they would start skipping on roughly nine out of every 10 songs, and usually quite severely. I found the experience reminiscent of walking to school with a cheap Tesco-bought portable CD player that lacked anti-skip when I was a kid. In 2021, and for 400 RMB, I expect a lot better.
I tried pairing the earphones with a different phone and the problems persisted, so I’m pretty certain it was an issue with the Bluetooth receiver in the earphones themselves. If I kept my phone in the pocket on the same side as the receiver then it was better, although still bad, but if I kept it in the pocket I’m used to keeping my phone in it was completely untenable.
One of the main benefits of listening to music is that it helps a runner to zone out, to relax into a groove and ignore the passage of time and miles. Having a pair of headphones that repeatedly skip, song after song, mile after mile, run after run, is the sort of thing that can have a serious negative impact on your ability to enjoy running.
The fact that I experienced these issues consistently across both the original earphones I bought and the replacement pair, as well as across different phones (the same phones I use to pair with my JBL earphones without ever having experienced any skipping at all), leads me to be convinced that the Jaybird X4s are just an inherently shoddy product, with poor build-quality and little to no quality control.
It’s inconceivable to me that Jaybird put this product on the market without testing it first, and the consistency and regularity of product-breaking problems I experienced is why I labeled this product a disgrace above and will readily accuse the company of bad faith by selling it as they do.
FlipBelt bottles: I bought two of these during the summer to go with my FlipBelt—which is an okay, if not outstanding, piece of kit—and help me carry more fluid (it gets humid as all hell in southern China and I can never seem to get enough to drink). The problem I have with them is mostly just that they don’t really serve the purpose they’re designed for.
The bottles themselves are curved, to match the shape of the belt as it molds to your waist, and are supposed to fit inside the belt pockets and slide easily in and out. They don’t, that’s the first issue; they’re not the same size as the pockets so they end up taking up about one and a half pocket-lengths and kind of invariably stick out of one opening or another. Also, they really aren’t all that easy to get in and out.
Additionally, they don’t hold much liquid, and the lids take quite a bit of force to pull up and then push down again once you’re finished drinking. Each one holds about 300 ml of liquid (I can’t check the bottles themselves because I already threw them away).
The curvature of the bottles is such that you’d have to be quite portly indeed for them to actually match the curvature of your waist, and I was unable to find a configuration whereby I could fit them both in the belt at the same time without at least one of them rubbing uncomfortably against my hip bone.
In my experience, then, not only does one single bottle of Gatorade hold more liquid than the two FlipBelt bottles combined, but it takes up less space, is easier to get in and out of the belt’s pockets, easier to open and close (and therefore drink from), and feels less uncomfortable when stored in the belt itself; because there’s only one bottle you can just rotate it to the back or front where there’s no hip bone irritation.
The upshot of all this, is that there isn’t a single area in which the FlipBelt bottles outperform a classic drinking bottle with more volume. Their existence fails to solve any of the problems of storing and carrying liquid that a runner might face. I find it a bit of a pity to have to say this, but as far as I can see, they’re an entirely pointless product.
SiS GO gels: This is more of a preference thing. Food, and by extension fuelling, is a very subjective experience, and tastes can vary massively from person to person. That’s why most runners will recommend you try a few different things and decide on what you like.
The first gel I tried was GU, both caffeinated and non-caffeinated varieties, and they work pretty well for me. I like the viscous, concentrated consistency, which I think makes it easy for me to get the entire packet of gel into my mouth and down my throat with the minimum of fuss. I also quite like the flavours.
As I’m still learning and exploring the variety of options out there, I also picked up some SiS gels, which I know are popular. I’ve used SiS electrolyte tablets before and enjoy the flavours, so I thought I’d try the gels too.
While my stomach hasn’t had any problems with them, I’ve found the general experience of getting them open, in, and down, to be far less smooth and far less enjoyable than with GU.
Firstly, they’re very watery. This does two things that I’m really not fond of: it dilutes the flavour, and it means there’s a lot more volume that you have to squeeze out of the packet. It also means you have to be slightly more careful not to spill any when fiddling around with the packet while running, but this hasn’t proven to be much of a problem for me thus far so I’ll let it slide.
If you don’t enjoy the strong flavour of some gels and find that makes them harder to swallow then you may well love the SiS GO gels, but for me I quite like most of the flavours I’ve encountered so far and these SiS ones end up tasting like overly diluted squash, or watered down fruit juice, it’s just not something I find pleasant.
My instant reaction the first time I tried one was that it reminded me somewhat of cucumber-flavoured water. There’s something about that consistency and watered-down flavour that I find makes it less palatable and harder to swallow.
Secondly, according to the packaging, they don’t contain any sodium, or any other electrolytes for that matter. This isn’t a major issue as I tend to take electrolyte drinks with me on my runs, but I sweat a lot and have generally low blood pressure and any extra sodium I can get, at the very least, helps assuage my mental concern that I’m not getting enough salt.
Shoes of 2021.
Upon getting into running more seriously, I developed a bit of a shoe obsession and ended up buying far more shoes than was necessary throughout the year. Some of these were good, some of them were great, some of them were disappointing, and at least one of them was just downright bad. Below I’m going to mention a few of my highlights, and a couple of shoes that really didn’t hit the spot for me.
Hits: The EvoRide 2, Novablast, Endorphin Speed, and Vaporfly Next% 2.
I’ll skip over the Vaporfly, because by this stage everyone and their dog knows how good it is. I’ll also mostly skip over the Endorphin Speed because it gets all the praise it quite rightly deserves. I will just stop to say, my second run in the Speed left the sides of my lower legs, around the ankle to shin region, feeling highly strained, and I do wonder if it’s not a little too soft underfoot to take out on battered legs.
The Novablast has been a joy to run in ever since my wonderful wife bought me my pair as a Valentine’s Day gift. ASICS came out with a new-style upper on at least two later models of the Novablast, including the French Blue/Black version which was the only one available at the time in a size 46. People complain about the original upper on that shoe, but the material they used on the version I had is truly terrible.
Other than that, it’s an absolutely fantastic shoe. Lively, bouncy, and incredibly fun to run in, it can go the long miles while also being soft and forgiving for easy and recovery runs. I love my pair, and will definitely be trying out the Novablast 2 or 3 as a replacement depending on how long this pair lasts me (it feels like it’s going to last a long time).
I also want to give a special shout out to the EvoRide 2, which is a shoe that definitely does not get as much love as it deserves.
That’s not to say people trash it. They don’t; I’ve generally seen favourable reviews for it. I just think it’s right up there as a running experience with some other shoes that get a lot more attention and praise.
The EvoRide 2 is fantastic value and incredibly versatile. It excels at faster paces where the mix of a not-soft-but-not-firm mid-sole and rockered geometry keep your stride flowing effortlessly, but it also feels cushioned and comfortable at slower paces.
It’s lightweight, has just enough padding in the upper, just enough cushioning in the mid-sole, and that rocker approach is something that I love in both this shoe and the Endorphin Speed. It’s another cliche, but if I was looking for just one shoe to do everything in, this would be my choice.
Misses: The HOVR Machina and Boston 9.
I’ll start by getting the Boston 9 out of the way. It’s not a bad shoe; on its day it’s maybe even a slightly above average daily trainer, but it’s been hyped up so much by a sub-section of the online running community that you’d think it was a contender for shoe of the year. In reality, I found it light and comfortable at easy run paces and a little sluggish at anything else.
It looks good and it works for me on shortish recovery runs if my legs aren’t feeling too beat-up, but that’s about it. I’ve tried it at tempo, threshold, and interval paces and I always felt like I was stretching to keep up and that the shoe wasn’t really giving me any bounce or roll to work with.
The HOVR Machina, on the other hand, is a bad shoe. It hurts me to say that because it was one of the earliest shoes I got and I was so excited to try it out. It’s incredibly firm; it’s unresponsive; it’s heavy; it soaks up sweat and moisture like a sponge; the out-sole, despite being covered in rubber, is slippery and lacks grip; and the upper is about as breathable as a plastic bag.
Harsh? Yes, but this shoe let me down badly after I so, so wanted to love it. I took it out for a 25 km long run yesterday and in truth it’s certainly a better experience running in it in the winter, when you can’t literally hear the squelch of retained sweat with every footfall as you can in the summer, but all that means is that maybe 10% of the time, this shoe will just feel average if firm. The other 90% it takes a not-insignificant chunk of the enjoyment out of running.
Never have I wanted to like a shoe more. Never have I enjoyed running in one less.
Looking Forwards to 2022.
I achieved quite a bit in 2021, and broke a lot of new ground. Now it’s time to keep that momentum going and to push on to the next level. There are a few tweaks I want to make to my running form, training regimen, and, most importantly my strength and conditioning, a few of which I’ll explain below.
As I said above, my glutes hurt, my left knee and my left Achilles have also, at one point of the year or another, caused me some pain and discomfort. I don’t feel like any of these issues is at a stage where I need to worry too much or take a major step back from running, but I do think they would all benefit from some proactive strength work.
During the first two or three months of the year I managed to do a fairly good job of getting in regular trips to the gym, but that dies out quickly enough and this year I need to be both more consistent, and smarter in what I do. As part of that I’m going to switch my focus to unilateral exercises, as well as adding in more quad and hip-flexor work.
By adding in more quad work, which is a muscle I’ve always overlooked when weight training, I’m hoping to strengthen up the muscles around the knee and help alleviate some of the pain I’ve been dealing with in that region, as well as combat my tight hamstrings (and oh boy are they tight).
By adding in hip-flexor work I’m hoping to help counteract my tight glutes. I also hope that by strengthening my hip-flexors, it will passively increase my knee drive (in conjunction with the drills below) and lead to improved heel lift. I’m not entirely sure if that’s actually how these things work, but I do know I have a very lazy heel lift at pretty much all paces and it’s something I would like to work on if possible.
The next thing I mean to work into my running this year is pre-run drills, mainly in the form of A-skips, B-skips, bounds, single-leg bounds, butt kicks, high knees, quick feet, and cariocas. How much these will actually help, I have no idea, but I want to try them out for at least the next six months and see if I can detect any improvements in my mobility and form.
There’s also a post-run exercise that I’d like to fit in where possible, and that is strides. I didn’t do any strides at all last year and I’d like to try working them in on a weekly basis in 2022.
One of my biggest issues toward the end of last year was how much I was struggling with interval sessions and my top-end speed, so I’m hoping that regular strides (along with strength work) can help me solve this problem.
Prehab. This is a big one, and the term itself incorporates weight training as mentioned above but here I’m specifically talking about stretching and foam-rolling. I am probably the least flexible human being on the planet, and that’s something I want to change. If nothing else, by the end of 2022 I would at least like to be able to touch my toes without having to bend my knees.
No Less Than 10 km, No Less Than One Hour.
Finally, I’m going to be trying out a new philosophy when it comes to planning my runs for the week, which is my new “no less than 10 km, no less than one hour” rule. Basically I’m forbidding myself from programming in any runs that last less than an hour or last less than 10 km in total length.
This is going to do a few things, including forcing me to increase my warm-ups for interval sessions and shorter threshold runs, as well as incorporate proper cool-downs at a slower pace. By cutting out six or eight kilometre “recovery runs” it’s also going to force me to go longer on my easy runs, which I’m hoping will help me to increase my endurance.
By concentrating my mileage into longer sessions, it should also allow me to take an extra day off on most weeks, especially in the earlier part of my training block, which I’m hoping will help with my recovery and allow my training to have a greater overall impact.
Taking rest days is something that I haven’t been good enough at so far in my running journey — in 64 days from 19 July to 20 September there were only three days where I didn’t run at least once, and only six in the 67 days between 27 September and 2 December (two of which I took off because I was ill)—and I’m hoping that by taking at least one, if not two, per week, then I might reap greater benefits by the end of my current training block.
With regards to that training block, I was hoping to rest a week or two more after my Boxing Day half-marathon effort, but the rescheduled Hangzhou marathon is now only three months away (at most), so I ended up starting week one on the 27th (day one was a rest day, you’ll be glad to hear).
Obviously Hangzhou, should it go ahead as planned, will be my next chance to go under 3:30 for the 42.195 km distance, but whatever happens I’d still like to fit in another full marathon by the end of the year. With that, here are my goals over each distance for 2022, the first one’s quite conservative, but I’m not going to set my sights any lower until I finally get it on the board:
5k: Sub-20 minutes
10k: Sub-40 minutes
Half-marathon: Sub-90 minutes
Marathon: Sub-3 hours 20 minutes
Oh, and may everyone out there have a wonderful (and productive) 2022!