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At some point in every runner’s career, they stop improving. Their race performances begin to stagnate, and it becomes more difficult to set a new personal record (PR).
These performance plateaus are common. They often happen after three to four races without improvement, despite great training. While all indications point to improvement, it simply doesn’t occur.
Thankfully, a performance plateau isn’t a good reason to quit the sport. If you can identify the “red flags” in your training (best by reviewing your running log) that often lead to flatlining finish times, you’ll know how to correct your running and start thriving again.
But before we begin, it’s important to quickly cover many common training errors that generally slow progress. Whenever you’re training hard, or prioritizing a PR, it’s ideal to avoid these mistakes so that your fitness will keep growing:
– Lack of sleep (thereby reducing recovery and adaptation to your workouts)
– High levels of stress (work, family, or relationship stress can release stress hormones that reduce your ability to recover from hard training sessions)
– Low energy availability (not eating enough calories can predispose you to RED-S, bone injuries, a lack of energy, and poor recovery)
If you’re sleeping well, not overly stressed, and eating enough, you’re ready to train hard. So then, our next question becomes: How do I keep the ball rolling and prevent a performance plateau?
1. Your Mileage Isn’t Progressing
If you want to keep improving in races, your training must keep progressing over time.
One of the major red flags I see in my coaching practice is a lack of mileage progression. Runners will spend years running about the same mileage level, with only modest increases for a few weeks during peak training. Too often, they’re afraid of “junk miles.”
That means every training cycle looks almost the same: very low starting mileage that increases gradually over the course of a 16- to 20-week season and ends at about the same level that they did the prior cycle.
If runners want to finish races faster than they ever have before, they must train like they never have before. That usually means running more, so that you have increased capacity for endurance. As long as increases are gradual and you’re healthy, it’s safe to assume that more mileage is a good thing.
2. Injuries Are Preventing Your Consistency
Unfortunately, injuries are a common and inescapable part of this sport we all love. In fact, about 50-75 percent of runners will experience an injury this year, depending on the study.
If you’re the type of runner who seems to be managing an injury every season, this is a major factor in your inability to continue progressing. Solving this injury problem will unlock new levels of fitness when you’re able to train more consistently.
That’s because there’s no “secret ingredient” to being a successful runner. If there were, it would be consistency over time. No other training goal can be completed without consistency.
3. Speed Training Isn’t Your Priority
Speed training—which I’ll define loosely as any type of structured, faster workout—has many more benefits than simply helping you race faster. Faster workouts can:
– Improve your running economy (so you can run the same effort with less energy)
– Increase the pace of your maximum aerobic pace (so you can run faster without going into oxygen debt)
– Improve your ability to produce force (so you can literally sprint faster)
Even ultramarathoners will benefit from strategic, well-dosed speed training. A great example is Jack Daniels-inspired “R” or repetition-training. These workouts include short repetitions at a very fast speed with full recovery that build cardiac output, improve stride mechanics, and increase running economy.
No runner will achieve their potential without completing faster workouts. They help runners sharpen their fitness while providing a strong stimulus for improvement.
4. Your Long Runs Aren’t Consistent
Every endurance runner presumably wants more endurance. It’s one of our most prized physical skills. That means we should prioritize the one training session that builds the most endurance: the long run.
Long runs form the cornerstone of our endurance training because they provide us so many benefits:
– Denser capillaries (better for transporting oxygen to hard-working muscles)
– Stronger muscles (yes, running for a very long time does increase strength!)
– Better mechanics (your brain learns through practice how to subtly improve the efficiency of your stride)
– Mental toughness (get psychologically comfortable running for two to three hours and races will seem short in comparison)
– Improved fuel efficiency (you’ll get better at sparing muscle glycogen and burning more fat as a percentage of overall calories burned)
Let’s also consider that middle-distance races are still fueled primarily by the aerobic system. So if you’re targeting a 5K goal race—where 90 percent or more of the energy needed is supplied aerobically—long runs are a key staple of your training program.
5. You’re Not Racing Enough
Racing is a skill, one that can be developed, refined, and perfected with practice. If you’re not racing regularly, this is your call to action!
My bias as a coach is to encourage more racing at shorter distances. Perhaps it’s because I have a cross country and track and field background, and that I personally prefer events at the half-marathon or shorter distance.
Now that my bias is on full display, I also want to note that races at the marathon distance or longer take more out of your body. They require additional recovery time, and you simply can’t race as frequently when your attention is on these distances. That means racing is necessarily more infrequent. Marathoners and ultra runners have to put more eggs in fewer baskets if they want to race well and avoid injury. It’s a necessary compromise for these incredible feats of endurance.
But if you want to keep improving, we have to keep improving across the board in all events. Speed begets speed, and you’ll be in a better position to improve if you’re already improving in other events.
You’ll also speed up the learning curve. More frequent racing will teach you about your limits and capabilities as a runner. It’s easier to “go to the well” and run at 100 percent effort during a shorter race, making it a better learning tool.
So while plateaus in performance happen to every runner, there are usually a variety of training “red flags” that we can identify to change course. Analyze your training journal, see if you’re making any of these mistakes, and you can break through your own plateau soon.
Jason Fitzgerald is the host of the Strength Running Podcast and the founder of Strength Running. A 2:39 marathoner, he’s coached thousands of runners to faster finishing times and fewer injuries with his results-oriented coaching philosophy. He produces regular training videos and podcasts. He writes The Performance Corner column for Trail Runner.