Take your running to the next level

There are many interrelated factors that contribute to reaching that elusive next plateau with your training and racing. Breaking through to a new level isn't just a matter of increasing the intensity of your training; it involves analyzing and then finding a balance between the physical, nutritional and mental aspects of training.

The physical
If you're stuck at a certain plateau and yearn for faster times, start by looking at your training. You may be overtraining. Dr. Philip Maffetone, who practiced applied kinesiology for 20 years and is an authority on alternative medicine and human performance (especially as it relates to endurance athletes) cites overtraining as a major reason why athletes find it difficult to reach the next level. Early symptoms usually include fatigue and noticeable muscle or joint pain. Later symptoms can include insomnia and frequent waking in the middle of the night, frequent colds, the onset of allergies or asthma, chronic injury and worsening of performance.

The hardest thing about realizing you are overtrained is to admit it. And by admitting it, I mean to yourself. Runners can be funny about overtraining admitting it to others doesn't necessarily mean backing off. Convince yourself that if you don't back down, you'll continue overtraining and never reach your goals.

The most common causes of overtraining are too much volume, too much racing or, in most cases, both. Reducing your volume by 50 percent or more can be a lifesaver, Maffetone says. This gives the body a chance to recover and avoid more serious overtraining symptoms. For the die-hard running gladiators out there, this can be extremely hard, but at least backing off some can help the body recover. And once you've recovered, you'll feel better and be stronger when you step it up again and train like an animal!

Another side of the physical is your workouts. Take a long, hard look at the type of training youre doing. You may want to consult a coach for analysis and guidance in making changes to your training regimen. For instance, running long, slow distance is great, but if you run long, slow distance all the time, the result will be slow races. Make sure to include tempo runs and speed workouts in your training. Conversely, if you go out and jam every day, you need to take some easy days when you run long, slow distance. Track workouts, or doing speed workouts on the road, can help you drop time. Track workouts can take on many forms. Short stuff like 200s and 300s help with leg turnover while longer intervals like 1,000s and mile repeats increase speed as well as training your body for fast endurance.

In our hurry-up-and-go society that has become just like Jane Jetson's kitchen press a button and it's done so much of what America eats is overprocessed, overpreserved and full of fat. Carbo loading the night before a big event is great, but don't extend carbo loading to your entire diet. Pasta is great, but without protein and "good fats" your machine can't perform to its full potential.

There are numerous books about balancing nutrition, but finding what works best for you isn't written in any formula. Do a lot of experimenting with eating different foods before training runs, and try different rations of carbs, protein and good fats. Make sure to throw in fruits and vegetables. Its also very beneficial to take a good multivitamin for "nutritional insurance."

The mental
Stress: Too much of it can severely impact your running performance and health. Evaluating and balancing your physical, chemical and mental stress can improve your overall health and make you a better runner. Maffetone recommends making two lists: stressors you have some control over, and those you can't control. "In reality, almost any stress can be modified or eliminated, he says. It's a question of how far you're willing to go."

He suggests starting by working to eliminate some of the stress you can control. There's much less you can do about non-controllable stress. He suggests trying to put this sort of stress out of your mind as much as possible, as many people expend lots of energy on stresses they can't (or won't) do anything about. By regulating the stress that you can control, it becomes easier for your body to compensate and adapt to the stress that's beyond your command. The biggest problem with stress is that it interferes with rest. Try to control stress, because if you can't rest, you can't perform to your highest ability.

Of utmost importance is doing what you have to do to prepare yourself mentally to reach a new plateau or achieve a certain time or place goal at a race. Everyone has a few people they count on as their "wing men" to get them psyched. Try to keep a positive attitude about your running, and surround yourself with people who have positive attitudes about running. Do your best to become a pathological optimist about your training and racing. Say "I can" and "I'm going to" instead of "someday" or "I wish." Then hold your head high and go for that next plateau!

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