Ruts. Plateaus. Setbacks. They’re all part of the training process. No one gets out of the running life unscathed.
Whenever progress is eddying, it’s helpful to have strategies in our training tool shed, ready to get us unstuck. That’s why we asked five elite athletes and coaches what the biggest changes they’ve made to improve their training so that you can spend less time on the plateau and more time on the trails. Here’s what surfaced.
Mason Coppi, Elite Runner and Coach, Hello to Running
Mason Coppi, elite runner and coach at Hello to Running, says the biggest change he made was taking more consistent rest days.
“Throughout college while in competition season, if I didn’t run for a day, I would feel like I was losing fitness,” Coppi says. “Looking back on it I realize this constant need to run every day wasn’t based in science or training theory. It was likely based on some obsessive tendencies and lack of confidence on my part. I wanted to feel like I was in control and wanted a training log that would tell me that I was “enough.”
Rest days are the most important part of the training week for athletes. They’re when the adaptations from the stress of training actually happen. Here’s the basic arithmetic:
Stress + rest = adaptation. Stress – rest = stagnation, injury, burnout.
“Rest days have allowed my body to get a chance to reset during training cycles. Now, I can now train harder and race more all while feeling healthier than I have in years!” says Coppi.
When you’re putting in the work in training, give your body the space it needs to adapt. Don’t let your ego call the shots when resting feels hard.
Action Plan: Many athletes have success with one or two full rest days a week, or once every 10 to 14 days. For injury-prone athletes or those with high life stress, shoot for two full rest days a week.
Jessica Riojas Schnier, Coach, Smile and Miles Coaching
More intentional fueling can make a huge difference for many athletes.
“Being more deliberate about pre-, during, and post-run fueling has helped me make strides in my race performances,” says Jessica Riojas Schnier of Smiles and Miles Coaching. She recommends that her athletes, particularly female athletes, avoid running fasted, and properly fuel each run and workout.
Riojas Schnier has been working on her own race day and in-run fueling to level up in competition and training. “Really nailing that aspect down has made race-day nutrition easy and natural, which is so key for performance. A huge plus of during-run fueling is that my necessary recovery time after each run has decreased dramatically, too!”
The only way to get better at fueling is practice. We recommend starting on every run over 90 minutes with 200 to 300 calories an hour, and adjusting for your body’s needs, goals and background. Try starting with a gel every 30 minutes, with some electrolyte drink mixed in.
“Finally, post-run fueling has been a huge help, particularly protein intake,” says Riojas Schnier. “I was never great about my protein intake in the past, and being more intentional with that has helped with reducing injury rate, decreasing recovery time, and even having higher energy levels throughout the day.”
How much protein you need depends on your body weight, but the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends 1.4-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound runner, that’s between 95-136 grams of protein per day, an amount that’s hard to reach without being fairly intentional.
Action Plan: Try spreading your protein intake throughout the day for best absorption, shooting for 20-30 grams at meals and 15-20 grams in snacks.
Prioritize That Warm-Up Routine.
Jason Fitzgerald, Coach at Strength Running
Don’t sleep on mobility. Even busy runners need to prioritize a dynamic warm-up routine if they want to run healthy. Warm-ups can help athletes transition from being inactive to getting out the door primed and ready to go.
“The most dramatic change I made to my personal training was to surround every run with a dynamic warm-up and a post-run strength or core workout,” says Jason Fitzgerald, coach at Strength Running. “By “sandwiching” my runs with a warm-up and strength routine, I’ve gotten stronger, reduced my injury risk, and just feel better overall with my running.”
Dynamic stretching is better than static stretching. You don’t need to bang out a yoga pose, but a few leg swings, our favorite “Wake up Legs,” or Fitzgerald’s Standard Warm-Up routine will do nicely.
Action Plan: Most research recommends about 5-10 minutes of light jogging, bounding, or walking at around 55%-65% percent of your maximum heart rate. The goal is to increase your core temperature, open up your capillaries, and loosen up your muscles.
Slow Down Your Easy Days.
Matt Daniels, Nike elite runner and coach at Matt Daniels Run Club
Learning to run slow is the key to running faster and healthier for many athletes. It takes practice to make “easy” running genuinely easy.
“The biggest change I’ve made is slowing down on my easy days,” says Matt Daniels, elite runner for Nike and coach at Matt Daniels Run Club. “This has allowed me to recover better and soak up the harder work I put in on workout days. I’ve stayed healthy and avoided burnout.”
Easy running helps build capillary beds in your muscles through a process called angiogenesis. These tiny but mighty vessels help transport blood more efficiently, and their growth is spurred primarily through easy, aerobic running. Easy running can also increase the recruitment of slow-twitch muscle fibers, another ideal adaptation for endurance athletes.
Too much fast and hard running adds chronic stress to your body, which can contribute to injury and hinder aerobic adaptations. It also increases injury risk because of the increased power output. Plus, it’s harder mentally to push day after day, and can lead to burnout.
Action Plan: Chill out, slow down, and let your body do its adaptation thing. Make sure 80-95% of your volume is purely easy. Try the talk test to ensure you’re keeping it easy, or run with a heart rate monitor.
Get Your Hike On.
Tabor and Eli Hemming, coaches, Aerobic Monsters
Tabor and Eli Hemming, co-coaches at Aerobic Monsters, have become dominant forces in the short and steep mountain running scene. Their best recommendation for leveling up in training?
Take a hike.
“It started as a way to tire out our puppy (best name ever: Muffins) and we found that we really enjoyed it as an afternoon activity, to take a break from staring at a computer screen,” says Tabor Hemming. “We noticed that it translated over into our running. We were climbing better, faster, and stronger (plus setting Strava PRs, which always feels nice). We attribute that to hiking, and now it’s become a staple that we include two to three times per week.”
Try adding in focused hikes to your training. Purposeful hiking helps with neuromuscular efficiency and adds aerobic work. Think of it like cross-training, most helpful when it’s done in addition to run-specific training rather than in place of it.
Most runners have the fitness they need to rapidly improve at hiking, so don’t overemphasize it to the detriment of running. Have fun, and get your hike on.
Action Plan: We recommend starting at two to three miles per hour, or setting the treadmill to 15% grade. Start by adding a 10-minute treadhill to your training session, or as a 20-30 minute treadhill double.
These five recommendations are profoundly simple, tried-and-true methods to level up your training, particularly when stuck in a training rut. As elite coaches and athletes that work with hundreds of clients, the advice comes from patterned success, from many years of exposure to what works and what doesn’t. In summary: rest is where adaptation happens; don’t underestimate fueling as critical to performance and recovery; make time to warm up; slow down on easy days; and hike more often.
Even a few simple changes can make a huge difference in your training, whether it’s prioritizing that five-minute warm-up, practicing your power hike or tracking your protein intake. Let’s do it!