How To Break Through A Running Plateau

How To Break Through A Running Plateau

It happens to all of us at some point in our running: our improvements stop. Our race times flat-line. And we wonder, “Is this all I’m capable of accomplishing?” Performance plateaus in running are common — but thankfully, almost all runners can reach new levels of performance if they work hard and smart.

Image adapted from maximmmmum and Brian Erickson (Shutterstock).

Before we get into the details of how to break through a running plateau, let’s first discuss the best way to continue improving: avoiding mistakes.

Earlier we talked about some reasons why you might be running slow. They are:

  • You’re not sleeping enough (negatively impacting recovery and how well you’re adapting to your training)
  • Your overall stress level is too high
  • Your diet isn’t helping your running (learn how to fuel right here)
  • The weather is poor for running fast
  • You’re not doing a regular long run
  • There’s no pace variation in your training
  • You don’t run enough — see how to increase mileage here

Once you get these things right, running becomes a lot easier! You’ll feel better, run faster, have more energy, and won’t get injured nearly as often. Sounds great, right?

I know I’m pumped just thinking about it! But even if your lifestyle promotes running success and your training is already structured well, you could still stagnate. You might still find yourself stuck on that dreaded running plateau. So what should you do?

Simple: take the “next logical step.”

The Concept of The Next Logical Step

This idea is from University of Colorado Head Cross Country Coach Mark Wetmore. If you’ve read Running with the Buffaloes (highly recommended!), you’ll get even more insights into one of the best distance coaches in the country.

The idea is straight-forward: you must take the next logical step with one or more elements of your training. Those elements are:

  • Weekly mileage
  • Strength
  • Workouts
  • Long runs
  • Cross-training
  • Long-term consistency

Improvement isn’t necessarily doing more — you could simply do something different. After all, what got you here won’t get you there. And to do something you’ve never done before, you have to do something you’ve never done before (thanks for the insight, Jay).

Essentially, we’re discussing progression. The idea that training must progress from here to there. From position A to position B. If your 5k is currently 27 minutes and you’d like it to be 25 minutes, you must progress to that fitness level. Accordingly, your training must progress to get you there.

Let’s talk about each one of these elements and show you step-by-step how to progress to the next level.

Run More to Break Through Your Running Plateau

This one is simple: run more per week! When it comes to mileage, the general rule is that more is more (provided you can safely run more miles).

Higher mileage increases endurance, improves economy by making your running form more efficient, and increases your ability to tolerate longer and faster workouts.

Years ago, I wrote:

New runners are most limited by their lack of aerobic capacity. They lack endurance and staying power.
Beginners need to run more and patiently develop their body’s ability to run a little more this month than they did last month.
Once you understand that, your race times will improve dramatically from season to season.

A good goal is to increase your average weekly mileage by about 5-10 miles per year. So if you can consistently run 20 miles per week, try to run 25-30 next year and 35-40 the year after that.

Here’s how I used mileage to my advantage during the first 8 years of my running career:

  • 1999: 20 miles / week
  • 2000: 25 miles / week
  • 2001: 30 miles / week
  • 2002: 40 miles / week
  • 2003: 50 miles / week
  • 2004: 55 miles / week
  • 2005: 60 miles / week
  • 2006: 70 miles / week

Guess what happened? I got a helluva lot faster in three distinct years: 2002 (my senior year in high school), 2003 (my freshman year of college), and 2006 (my senior year of college) because I made bigger jumps in mileage.

If you’re struggling with running the same race times over and over again, dedicate yourself to running more miles. You will get faster.

Get Stronger to Race Faster

Unlike some loonies, I think strength work can make you a faster runner. It will:

  • Reduce your injury risk (helping you run more and stay more consistent)
  • Improve your finishing kick (if you lift heavy)
  • Increase your running economy by improving your brain’s ability to recruit more muscle fibres

To me, it’s a no-brainer: strength training has tangible, real benefits to runners. So if you’ve hit a performance plateau, it’s time to evaluate your strength work. I recently wrote on Competitor about how strength work needs progression — just like everything else in your training.

If you haven’t yet begun any strength exercises, start with these routines 3-4 times per week:

Once bodyweight exercises are comfortable, you can transition to medicine ball exercises like the Tomahawk Workout. After this transition, you can start lifting heavier weights in the gym.

This simple progression allows you to adapt to strength work to reduce your injury risk and establish the habit before you need expensive equipment or a gym membership.

Do You Run Long?

Remember earlier in this article when I quoted myself (haha who does that?!)? I said new runners are most limited by their lack of aerobic capacity. In other words, beginners lack endurance. Besides running higher weekly mileage, the best thing a new runner can do to see continued progress is to run a regular long run.

Here are a few guidelines for the minimum long run distance for those who want to see lots of progress:

  • Training for a 5k? Your long run should be at least 7 miles.
  • Training for a 10k? Your long run should be at least 10 miles.
  • Training for a half marathon? Your long run should be at least 15 miles.
  • Training for a marathon? Your long run should be at least 18-20 miles.

Remember, these minimums are for those who want to break a performance plateau. You can certainly run a 5k with a long run of only 2 miles! But that’s not the purpose of this article.

OK, we’ve talked about increasing your long run — is there anything else you can do?

Yes! Once you consistently run long, you can do more fun things within a long run:

  • Finish the last 2+ miles uphill
  • Run a fartlek during the last 2-4 miles that consists of 1-2 minute repetitions
  • Finish the last 2-6 miles at your goal race pace (this type of long run is best for those training to run a half marathon or longer race)

There are nearly limitless options for how you structure and execute long runs. For more ideas, check out my short book 52 Workouts, 52 Weeks: A Workout a Week for the Next Year .

To Run Fast, You Have to… Run Fast

Since 2011, I’ve written thousands of training plans. And many runners aren’t running fast at least once per week. But if you don’t ever run fast, you might ever run fast.

If you’re not yet running any fast workouts, here’s how to get started:

  1. Start with strides (you can also run hill sprints if you have a steep hill nearby)
  2. Run simple fartlek workouts based on time. For example, 6 reps of 1-minute at a hard effort, followed by 2 minutes of easy running
  3. Focus on “bread and butter” workouts like tempo runs (about 85-90% of max heart rate or a “comfortably hard” pace)

Only when you are comfortable with these types of workouts can you progress to more race-specific workouts. What exactly is a “race-specific” workout? It’s simply a workout that looks similar to the race itself.

  • Training for a 5k? Try 3 x mile @ 5k Goal Pace with a 1-minute recovery jog.
  • Training for a 10k? Run 5 x 2k @ 10k Goal Pace with a 1-minute recovery jog.
  • Training for a half marathon? Try 4 miles at tempo pace + 4 x 1000m @ 10k Pace with 1-minute recovery jog.
  • Training for a marathon? Run the last 10 miles of an 18-mile long run at Goal Marathon Pace.

Do you see how these workouts mimic the specific demands of the goal race? That’s how you get specific. Just make sure you’re ready for workouts like these. They’re not easy!

Cross Train for A Boost in Fitness

I know, I know… cross-training sucks. Pool running, cycling, and the elliptical are all forms of torture for running purists. Why do something silly like swimming when you can run?! But for as much as we dislike cross-training, it has enormous benefits and the potential to completely transform your running.

It can add endurance with very little injury downside. It can even help prevent injuries as you develop strength and different movement patterns.

My two favourite forms of aerobic cross-training are pool running and cycling because they’re similar to running and much of the fitness gains you develop will carry over to your running. Plus, they’re zero impact with a tiny injury risk.

It’s best to add them to your training like you would mileage: keep it easy and stack it on top of what you’re already doing (don’t replace running with cycling, for example, or you’ll defeat the purpose).

During your next training cycle, try adding 2+ hours of easy cross-training to your weekly plan. Here are some guidelines:

  • Most runners should maintain at least one day of pure rest, so while you can cross-train on an off day, you can also double up with a run in the morning and cross-training in the evening
  • The effort should be easy or moderate, not “hard” — save that for your race-specific workouts!
  • Be sure to use good form no matter what exercise you’re doing

Even though cross-training can increase your fitness and lower your injury risk, most runners simply won’t do it. In fact, when I interviewed Matt Fitzgerald for the Injury Prevention for Runners program, he told me his book on cross-training didn’t do well because runners simply don’t like it! Nevertheless, it’s another tool at your disposal for breaking through a performance plateau.

Putting it All Together

Now you’ve learned how to break through a performance plateau. You now know exactly what’s necessary to run your next personal best. But there’s a catch: to keep improving, you have to keep progressing.

If you run a new PR by increasing your mileage and running more race-specific workouts, you can’t go back to training the way you used to before the PR.

Here’s an example from my own life: my personal best for 8km cross country (26:19) required months of 80+ mile weeks, hours of weekly cross-training, workouts that made me vomit (literally), and a coach and team to push me every single day.

With two kids and growing responsibilities, I don’t have:

  • The time to exercise for two hours (plus strength work, dynamic stretching, and recovery work) every day
  • Teammates to push me beyond what I think is possible
  • Trainers to fix me when I break
  • The drive to run workouts that make me see God

I’m confident I’ll never run a personal best in the 8km distance. There’s nowhere else for me to progress to — I already reached the highest level for me. But for most runners who haven’t been training for nearly two decades and who never ran in college or professionally, there’s so much potential!

I’m so excited for you because of that reason. You have enormous potential to run faster than you ever have before. If you train smart, always think long-term, and focus on progression, you’ll get there.

This post originally appeared on Strength Running.

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