If you’re feeling stuck in a running rut or your initial gains are tapering off or maybe your marathon training is feeling rote and sluggish, you’re not alone. Plateaus are part of running. They happen to the best of us at various points in our training — and knowing how to break through separates the good runners from the great ones.
A plateau is a natural part of the run-training process — you can’t always be improving, sometimes your body simply needs to settle into a rhythm for a while. “Progress is essentially a series of peaks and valleys that hopefully trend in one direction,” says David Roche, running coach and author of “The Happy Runner.” “Plateauing or regression is common in training cycles, often ahead of setting some personal bests. Athletic progress is the non-linear interaction of thousands of variables, most of which we don’t even have identified.”
If your only indicator that you’ve plateaued is a pace that doesn’t seem to budge, keep doing what you’re doing for a few weeks. You’ll probably snap out of it. However, if you’re noticing one of these subtle signs, it’s time to take action:
“Positivity is a performance enhancer,” says Roche. “A plateau is a feeling before it’s a number. It’s an emotion a lot of the time.” If every run is leaving you feeling miserable and emotionally gutted, that might be an indicator of a plateau. Luckily, this one — when caught early — is one of the simplest to fix.
Remember a run that left you feeling amazing and grinning ear to ear. Maybe you had the perfect playlist, your running partner was solid, the weather was amazing or the views were unbeatable. Try to re-create those situations: Often, we get stuck in our training ruts, especially as we get more serious about running, and we forget what we loved about running in the first place. Reconnect with that, and you’ll likely start seeing some speed — and joy — return.
“What we perceive as a plateau is often noise, not signal,” says Roche. But that signal might be a warning shot. “Your training volume is higher, you’re coming back from injury. … All of that stimulus can make you slower in the short term,” he adds. Take a look at your past few months: If you’re getting sick more often or dealing with injuries that won’t heal, you might need to actually recover from an increasingly noisy problem before it becomes a full-blown signal of a plateau.
If you’re only stuck for a few weeks, that isn’t a plateau, that’s a normal training cycle. When you first start running, you make major gains right off the bat — every run feels better and faster than the one before. But once you get used to running, you start to not see those major results. Don’t panic if an interval this week felt slower than last week. That’s normal.
If you’ve been stuck at a 9:40 min/mile pace for the last eight months despite your best efforts, you’ve plateaued in a way that may need some expert intervention. Maybe you have a nagging injury that consistently slows you. Maybe your workouts aren’t challenging enough. Maybe you’re not fueling your runs properly. If you’re still feeling stuck after a few months, try finding an expert to help you get out of the rut.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Roche has advanced and beginner advice: Make sure you take the appropriate advice for you, because they’re the opposite of each other:
“For an advanced athlete, try the ‘Trial of Miles.’ Increase the amount of aerobic running that you’re doing. Increase that stress for a week,” he says.
“For a newer athlete, the best way to get over a plateau is to get fast. Become more biomechanically efficient with strides and fast efforts. So much of running is about economy. If you can make your running take less energy at a faster pace, you’ll get faster at the same moderate effort you got stuck at.