Stuck in a rut, caught in a slump, stalled out—whatever you want to call it, every runner eventually reaches a period in their training where their progress levels off. "There's no way around it, plateaus are inevitable and part of the training process," says Jeffrey L. Brown, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of The Winner's Brain. That's because it's impossible for an athletic career to climb only in a straight trajectory. Over the course of a running life, there are natural peaks and valleys—and flat lines in between.
Plateaus get a bad rap, but they aren't always detrimental. When you're facing a demanding period at work or experiencing a major life change like moving or expanding your family, why not happily let your training idle in neutral? If you don't have extra time for long runs or energy for speedwork, keeping your running in status-quo mode can keep you from overextending yourself. "A plateau is rarely permanent, and it doesn't define you as a runner," Brown says. "It just indicates what's going on with your training—and perhaps your life—at a particular point in time."
Of course, sometimes a plateau isn't a welcome break. If you really want to tackle a new distance, set a personal record, or drop a few pounds, the struggle to make headway toward that goal can be frustrating. Brown says that barring illness or injury—two major physical causes of stalled progress—a psychological barrier could be in your way. Here are ways your brain can stall your progress and how to fight back.
Sure, overtraining is a physical condition, but it can also be mental. It can happen when your head ODs on running. Suppose, for instance, you become so fixated on a race goal that when you're not running you're stretching, icing, foam rolling, blending recovery smoothies, charting your mileage, Tweeting about your runs, and plotting out new routes. "The mind needs downtime from running, just like the body does," says Chris Janzen, a mental conditioning coach and founder of TriathleteMind.com. "It's hard to sustain that level of motivation for long. When your life revolves around running, you risk burnout."