No matter how much we love running or how consistently we train, it is inevitable that we will hit a running plateau at some point during training.
What is a running plateau?
Running plateaus often occur at the most inconvenient times during training. They often occur when we’re working hard, building endurance, getting faster… and then suddenly the progress stops.
As progress stalls we start to feel a little stale, unmotivated; until suddenly, we’re cycling between a slump in motivation and frustration that our efforts seem fruitless.
It seems that no matter how hard we work, our running progress has plateaued.
There is nothing more discouraging than continuously putting in the work, yet finding yourself unable to make any progress. Regardless of whether you run for fun or are a serious athlete, seeing progress provides key motivation as we work towards accomplishing our goals.
Why has my running progress plateaued?
Although every runner is different, most runners experience a similar journey as their bodies adapt to the sport. In the beginning of training, each day feels a little easier, your body shape changes, mental strength improves, and it seems as if you are accomplishing goals right and left.
Each week you run further than before, and you’re excited and motivated to continue.
Until suddenly, the progress slows. You keep running, but the weight isn’t coming off as quickly, adding an extra mile feels way more challenging, and despite your best efforts – you just can’t increase your pace.
If you’re stuck in a running slump, here are some of the most common reasons why your progress has slowed.
Common reasons for a running plateau:
- Physical and/or mental stress
- Pushing too hard, i.e. overtraining
- Not challenging yourself enough
- Poor sleep and/or recovery
- Paces are too consistent – no variety
- Poor diet and fueling
If your progress suddenly feels as if it’s come to a halt – that doesn’t mean it won’t ever return. Facing a running plateau is an obstacle that just about every runner experiences.
Learning a few strategies to push past that running plateau and regain momentum is key to surviving this challenging time. When each run feels stale and frustrating, there are a few ways to overcome the lull.
Related: How to Break Out of a Running Slump
Try any or all of these 5 strategies to quickly break through that running plateau and start achieving your goals.
5 Strategies to Break Through a Running Plateau
Whether you’re trying to lose weight, increase mileage or get faster, it’s natural for your progress to plateau. Try these 5 strategies to quickly push past that running plateau and gain momentum, motivation and make progress in your training.
Add a rest day or reduce mileage.
It seems a little contradictory, right? You’re trying to get faster, stronger, and run farther – but now you’re hearing that in order to do so you need to run less? Sometimes, yes.
If you have been increasing your mileage and are suddenly finding yourself feeling worn out, unmotivated, or needing more effort to complete your easy runs, it might be your body’s way of telling you that it needs a break.
Try swapping one run each week for a cross training or strength training workout to give your body time to recover. Not only will the fewer miles provide more recovery time, but the extra workouts will help you get stronger.
>> A short break may help push past your running plateau.
Cutting out a few junk miles each week gives your body some extra time to regain momentum, and helps you focus on making the runs you do have count.
If you’ve scaled back your runs by swapping in cross training and are still facing a running plateau, try making this day a complete rest day. After just a week or two with an extra rest day, your body and mind will likely be itching to get back to some hard, long runs.
Try this: Incorporate regular cut back weeks into your training. Every 3-4 weeks, shorten your long run mileage by 20-50%. During the cut back week, focus on recovering and giving your legs a break without actually interrupting your training.
Incorporate some extra strength training.
If you find yourself struggling to get faster or facing a wall when trying to increase your long run mileage, you might actually be lacking strength.
Taking the time to strengthen muscles throughout your entire body (not just your legs) will keep you strong on the run. Strengthening all of your muscles helps avoid imbalances when running, which can lead to pain and various injuries.
Not to mention, strong muscles help us continue to improve each week. When you’ve hit a running plateau, it’s likely because your muscles have adapted to your regular activity and already reached their peak.
Adding in some weekly strength training exercises will increase your power on the runs, helping you gain the strength you need to improve each week.
Try this: Use this 30 Day Strength Training Challenge to stay accountable and improve your strength on the run.
Narrow your focus.
Have you been trying to increase your mileage and get faster? Or maybe you’re training for a marathon while trying to race 5ks along the way.
Whatever the case, you might be spreading your focus too wide and your resources too thin. Trying to improve your speed, gain strength and increase your weekly mileage is a lot for your body to take in at once.
Before your legs have time to recover from that long run, you’re running a speed workout and then hitting it hard at the gym.
>> Focus your energy to break the running plateau.
Runners are known for their ambitious nature, but this can sometimes be the cause of our running plateau.
While setting lofty goals is an excellent way to stay motivated, it’s important not to stretch yourself too thin. If you’ve hit a running plateau, now might be the time to focus on a single goal. Try running long, easy miles while training for your first marathon or working towards a 5k PR while the weather is still cool.
Make a list of your goals and prioritize them to help narrow your focus for this training season. Remember that there is a season for everything, and just because you can’t train for that PR right now doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.
Setting your focus on one specific goal may be just what you need to break through that running plateau.
Try this: Use this 10 Step Method to break down your running goal to help you stay focused and avoid adding anything extra.
Try out some new workouts.
It won’t take long before you settle into a groove and find comfortable running pace for your body. Whenever you head out for a mindless run, you’ll probably find that your body automatically finds its pace.
However, running every single run at the same pace will likely leave you facing a running plateau when it comes to increasing your speed. And while this pace may feel comfortable and easy, incorporating a few different paces into your training may yield better results.
Try incorporating short, bursts of speed, such as fartleks or intervals. Experiments with Yasso 800s, tempo runs, ladder runs and hill runs. Mixing things up each week is a great way to break through that running plateau and start to see some results.
Every runner is different, so take some time experimenting with different speed workouts, interval lengths and paces to figure out what works best for your body.
>> Use this Mile Pace Chart to find times for different intervals during speed workouts.
Focus on recovery and warm up.
There’s nothing worse that noticing that your legs feel heavy and stale when you’re just a few steps into your run. After you’ve been running for a while, you might start to notice tired, heavy legs on some of your runs.
While heavy legs are common after a long run or tough workout, dealing with tired legs on a consistent basis can really bring your progress to a halt. And before long, you might end up facing the dreaded running plateau.
Luckily, dull, heavy legs might have nothing to do with your actual time on the run. Instead, they’re like caused by something you are doing (or failing to do) before or after your run.
>> Spend a little extra time preparing to run.
Many runners settle into a groove once they get comfortable with a regular training plan – and discover how easy it is to fall into the trap of neglecting a warm up and cool down. When training ramps up, it’s tempting to skip the extra five minutes before and after a run to minimize your workout time.
However, failing to warm up and cool down properly during training might lead to heavy, tired legs on each run. Taking even just five minutes to prepare for a run and five minutes to unwind after a run might make all the difference.
If you don’t already have a warm up routine, try incorporating dynamic warm up exercises before your next run. Once you’re finished, spend some time stretching or foam rolling to help reduce lactic acid.
If you’re facing a running plateau: be patient.
All runners battle slow progress at some point, even elite athletes. Experiencing a running plateau is your body’s way of signaling that something isn’t quite right.
Whether it’s your training plan, mental game, goal setting, or running routine, it’s important to mix things up. Challenge yourself to new workouts, increase your cross training, take a break, or begin stretching on a regular basis.
Remember that there is a season for everything, and this season of slow progress is bound to come to an end eventually. Listen to your body and respond to its signals each and every day – and before long, you might be back on track for your next PR.
Tuesday 12th of July 2022
I had the plateau problem and after reading your article implemented some of the items you suggested to fix that. I took a few days off, then started by cross training, and mixing up my runs, shorter & easier, fartleks, mtbiking, pushing weights on my off days, then "out of the blue" (no specific training added) ran double the length with tons of elevation yesterday and felt great!
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