Overcoming Performance Plateaus

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

If you’ve been a distance runner long enough you know that improvement rarely follows a linear trajectory. You’ve likely learned this lesson the hard way: through injury, mental or physical burnout, or a myriad of other things that can derail the improvement train. Despite the near inevitability of having a setback or reaching a performance plateau at some point those times are still difficult to deal with and overcome. But worry not, while the speed bumps along the way come in many forms, so too, do the solutions.

Overcoming Plateaus

Our head coach Pete Rea often says it’s not how you deal with the good times that make you a great athlete; it’s how you deal with difficult times. If you’re in the sport for the length of time it takes to see your best running then you’ll have some setbacks or plateaus along the way. For reassurance, look no further than two of the best marathoners in US history. This fall at the Chicago Marathon Deena Kastor broke the US Master’s Record with a blistering 2:27 and put herself in the discussion as one of the favorites for the Olympic Team next year. It was the first time she had run under 2:30 in six years, and the fastest time she had run since setting the still-standing American record of 2:19 in 2006.

Her compatriot on the men’s side, Meb Keflezighi, also broke the US Master’s Record this fall with his 2:13 at New York and is certainly one of the favorites to make the 2016 Olympic Team. In 2008, Meb, the 2004 silver medalist in the marathon, suffered a fractured hip that kept him off the Olympic Team. At age 33, many wrote him off, but the next year Meb became the first American to win the New York City Marathon since 1982. He followed that up with a 4th place finish at the 2012 Olympic Games and then his historic win at the 2014 Boston Marathon.

Taking Rest

While none of us will ever be Meb or Deena, it is powerful to know that some of the best runners in history have some of the same ups and downs as the rest of us. Some of the most common causes of performance plateaus are self-inflicted, which means we also have the power to change them. The example I see the most is of athletes running themselves into the ground trying to get better. It’s a common notion that if you aren’t getting the results you want then you simply must work harder. This is true for many things in life, but it’s not always the case with running. I’ve seen numerous runners take a rest break a hard training cycle, sometimes without seeing the improvement they wanted, and that break be the source of a breakthrough. Those runners come back from a break with fresh legs and renewed vigor that takes their performance to the next level.

Taking rest can sometimes be just the change of stimulus the body is looking for. We all know that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. In this case, distance running is no different. Many people get stuck in the same routine every day of running the same run at the same pace and expecting different results. The best thing you can do when you hit a performance plateau is to add variety to your routine, or change the stimulus. For many, that can simply mean making sure that you are running your easy days easy so you are recovering between harder workout days. For others it may mean adding a mile here and there to increase their overall training volume. For many athletes I’ve worked with adding a few miles to their weekly volume has been the most effective way of changing their training stimulus to see improvement.

Vary Your Training

There are many ways to add variety to your training routine and break through to the next level of performance. Adding volume and taking adequate rest are just two examples. Varying the distance you run on a day-to-day basis by adding a medium long run to the middle of the week is a good way to add volume and additional aerobic development. Varying the terrain that you run on day-to-day is another great change in stimulus. There are many others, but choose 1 or 2 and do them consistently for a training cycle to take advantage of the benefits.

Try a New Race

Struggling with overcoming a performance plateau feels like getting stuck in a rut. Those ruts can affect not just our performance, but also our entire attitude toward running. If you are searching for that 5k PR by racing every 5k in town or are going from racing one marathon right after another you likely would benefit by changing gears. Try switching up your race focus for a few months. If you’re always focusing on short distances, pick a longer distance race to work on your strength. If you race long races, pick a shorter distance to work on your speed. This is a great way to work your way out of a rut, both physically and mentally. Changing the racing stimulus keeps your body from getting stale and it can give you a mental break to try something new and exciting.

All runners go through ups and downs, even the very best, but we all have the opportunity to make some simple changes to take our performance to the next level.

*This Article Originally Appeared in the December 2015 Issue of Running Journal