There are a few common causes of stagnation in training. Often it is an indication that you have peaked -- that your body has reached the short-term limit of its adaptive potential. This is likely to be the case if you have been increasing your training steadily for many weeks, or increasing it a little too rapidly. The only solution here is to take a short break from running, maybe do some enjoyable cross-training for two or three weeks, and then begin a fresh training program.
That's the worst-case scenario. Other times a plateau is merely an indication that you need a brief recovery period to absorb recent training before you resume your build-up. In fact, whenever you encounter a plateau, the first thing you should do is cut back on your training mileage by 20-30% for a week and see if that doesn't bring you around.
Factors in your life outside of training can also cause a plateau by sapping precious energy. These factors can include job stress, inadequate sleep, fatigue from travel, and poor diet. Such things are not always avoidable. However, always bear in mind that as your general well-being goes, so goes your running. So do the best you can to maintain a balanced and healthy overall lifestyle at all times.
Perhaps the most correctable cause of stagnating fitness is inadequate variation in your training. You have to continually challenge your body in new ways if you want it to keep getting faster and stronger. As a rule, no two consecutive weeks of training should be exactly the same.
So, if the first thing you should do when you encounter a plateau is to take a recovery week, the second thing you should do is to vary your training. Exactly how you should vary it depends to some degree on what you've been doing up to this point. However, generally speaking, any sort of variation is good as long as it remains specific to the demands of your races and it represents an appropriate challenge.
Try some of these plateau-busting training variations and you'll enjoy that getting-fitter feeling again soon!
1. Power drills
To increase your running-specific power, do the following sequence of power drills twice a week after completing an easy run:
- Bound for 50 meters (run with the longest strides you can take, like a triple jumper's first two jumps).
- Run with high knees (as high as you can lift them) for 50m.
- Do 50 meters of skipping, getting as high off the ground as possible.
- Run a 100m relaxed sprint.
Jog 50m between drills.
2. Tougher long runs
If your habit in long runs has been to just slog the distance, make them more challenging by ratcheting up the intensity in one or more of these ways:
- Run the same distance or duration on a hilly off-road course.
- Start at your normal pace, but increase it slightly every 10 to 20 minutes. Run the last 10 minutes at about half-marathon race pace.
- Throw several 5-minute surges at half-marathon race pace into a 60-90-minute run.
- Run one hour at a pace that is 30 seconds per mile faster than your normal long run pace.
3. Billat's 30-30s
The French exercise physiologist Veronique Billat designed this workout to provide the maximum VO2 max boost in the least amount of time. On a track, run 30 seconds hard -- at about the fastest pace you could maintain for six minutes in race conditions. Then jog for 30 seconds. Repeat this process 16 to 20 times, or until you can no longer maintain the original pace in the hard segments.
4. Easier easy runs
Many runners make the mistake of routinely running a little too fast or far on their supposed easy days. Try making your easy runs really easy. You will probably find that doing this allows you to run stronger in your harder workouts, and these are the ones that take your fitness to the next level.
5. Climb ladders
So-called ladder workouts are a great way to get a good dose of several high-intensity running paces in a single session, and they also provide a nice break from the routine of multiple intervals at a fixed distance. Go to the track, warm up, and do one of these interval sets.
- Intermediate ladder: 1600m, 1200m, 800m, 400m
- Advanced ladder: 1600m, 1200m, 1000m, 800m, 600m, 400m, 200m
Matt Fitzgerald is editor of PoweringMuscles.com (www.poweringmuscles.com) and author of Runner's World Guide to Cross-Training. Download his pace-based, interactive 5K and 10K training plans from www.trainingpeaks.com/cuttingedge.