An elite runner asked me for help. He experienced a nice progression to the elite level after leaving college, but his performances had reached a plateau over the last three years. He trained hard, but the race results were not what he wanted or what his training predicted. As we talked and reviewed his training, I saw the same mistakes I see when reviewing the training of new online coaching clients. Here are the top five reasons runners, like this elite athlete, get stuck at a performance level, and simple fixes to keep your running career moving forward.
1) LACK OF VARIETY
FAULT: The quickest way to reach a plateau in your performances is to do the same training week after week after week. Yet in reviewing the training logs of new coaching clients, I often see a training pattern that varies little across the year. Does this sound familiar? Tuesday — meet with running club at track for speed work. Thursday — tempo run with training partner. Sunday — long run. Winter, spring, summer and fall, it stays pretty much the same. The result? A performance plateau. Same was true for my new elite runner. His training looked very similar from week to week.
FIX: Our bodies and minds like variety. With variety, we keep adapting to greater abilities. Without variety, we plateau. As you develop your next training plan, build in a lot of variety. While it’s good to repeat the same workout every so often to track your fitness improvements, include many different types of workouts within each training zone (endurance, stamina, speed and sprint) across your training plan.
Read more about progression runs and how these three progression runs can boost your fitness while having fun.
2) TOO MUCH RACE-SPECIFIC TRAINING
FAULT: Over 50 years ago, coaches and athletes learned that the correct way to plan your training was to include a generous preparatory training phase ahead of your race-specific training phase. We know that good race-specific training leads to breakthrough performances, so our goal is to have more and better-quality race-specific workouts as our key races approach. This requires the body and mind to be optimally prepared to begin race-specific training.
FIX: Focus on the preparatory training so that you can have more and better race-specific workouts. We call this general conditioning, and it includes the base and hill phase, which should constitute 70-75 percent of the training phase, with the remaining 25-30 percent used for race-specific workouts. It’s a good idea to “touch” race-specific workouts throughout the general conditioning phases but delay hitting them hard until the last six to seven weeks before your big race.
Read more about this training method, specifically for marathoners.
3) TOO MANY MARATHONS (AND HALF-MARATHONS)
FAULT: What I’ve seen lately is an addiction to the half and full marathon, both training for and running them. Many runners are quick to finish one and move to the next one. This constant half and full marathon training eventually leaves you stuck at around your same performance level. Instead of endless half and full marathon training, you need to spend at least some time each year focusing on non-marathon training and racing.
FIX: Summer is usually the best time to do non-marathon training, as the heat makes half/marathon training unbearable. Use the summer as a time to do lots of 5K and 10K races and the workouts that go along with them. Building your speed in the summer not only helps fix this fault, but helps you run better long workouts once you start your training for a fall half or full marathon.
4) WORKOUT KING
FAULT: I coached the King of Workout Kings a few years ago. This runner could dominate workouts, running times that made even the best coaches and runners let out a low whistle. His races, however, were complete disappointments. His drive to do incredible training harmed his race performances. Training exists to help your racing. Period. Always “winning” a workout or running faster than you should in a workout is a great way to be disappointed in your racing.
FIX: The easiest test of overtraining is when your training results are better than your race results. When this happens, it’s best to back off your training intensity a little. Your races will usually improve. Find your sweet spot in training by working hard but within yourself for a few weeks; I bet you’ll see your race performances jump up a notch when you do put it all out there.
Learn more about the two rates of adaptation so you can perform at your best.
5) NO RECOVERY PHASE
FAULT: We all need to take one to two recovery phases each year. Without them, the body slowly becomes dull, and a performance plateau will follow. For many runners, the thought of “getting out of shape” by taking a two-week down period in training is just too much. But the rewards are worth it.
FIX: When done correctly, you can rest the body and mind for two weeks but lose only race sharpness, not your base fitness. For most runners, two weeks of low-level running is plenty to recharge the body and mind. Try running one or two days less in these recovery weeks and reduce your running volume by 40-50 percent on each run. You can add cross-training to feed your need for exercise, but limit it so that you fully recover. The lost art of recovering between training cycles.