For beginners: Have I Reached a Training Plateau?

Training plateaus are not bad, they are a sign you need to change your plan.


by Susan Paul

Q: I have been running for about six months now and loving it. However, recently I feel stuck, like I'm going nowhere. I am not getting faster or any more fit. In fact, I almost feel like I'm going backwards. What's going on? - Steve

A: When we begin running, we experience dramatic physical improvements. Within a relatively short period of time, we are able to run faster and longer, lose weight and feel great. Success comes easily. We follow a training plan, run several days a week, same pace, same time, same place. But then one day, all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem to work anymore. Improvements flatten out. We don’t get faster, we can’t run longer, a few pounds creep back on, and our enthusiasm dwindles. Welcome to the dreaded training plateau.

The good news is that you have hit a training plateau and the bad news is that you have hit a training plateau. Good news, because it means your training plan worked. When fitness gains level out, it’s simply an indication that the existing routine is no longer challenging enough to stimulate further physical changes. Congratulations! Your body has met the bar that you set. Bad news, because, if you wish to continue improving, it means you need to change your routine and up the ante.

Understanding the training process helps one appreciate the plateau. The physical exertion or physical stress of running triggers a cascade of physiological responses at the cellular level, affecting all of the body’s systems. Once stimulated, the adaptation process to meet the demands of this new stress begins and continues until the demand is met. Some of these adaptations take 4 to 6 weeks, while others may take 4 to 6 months. As adaptations occur, the body is better equipped to handle training and running becomes easier.

Training plans incorporate frequency, intensity, and duration to elicit specific physiological responses. From the elite runner to the novice, all plans incorporate these same three fitness components. How we manipulate them is the key to a successful training plan. Frequency refers to how often or how many days a week to run; intensity refers to the pace of the run or the level of difficulty; and, duration refers to the length of the run, whether measured by time or miles.

Training increases are applied in gradual increments, also known as Progressive Overload. Progressive Overload means the physical load of training gradually increases over time in a controlled manner. As training physically stresses the body, it responds by becoming stronger. The amount of applied overload must be just right; too much and we breakdown, not enough and no physical response is elicited. It’s a bit like our feet developing calluses or blisters. Too much overload, and we develop blisters or an injury; the right amount of overload and we develop calluses or strength.

Naturally, once the body has adapted to the training load, we reach a plateau. If improvement is still desired, a training plan designed to stimulate the body at this new fitness level is required; and, we begin adapting again to achieve an even higher level of fitness. 

If you have reached a plateau, review the three fitness components of your training plan and begin by manipulating one variable at a time.

Increase Frequency - Are you ready to add another day or two of running? Then consider increasing the frequency component by adding another run day. Don’t increase your mileage more than 10-20 percent of your weekly volume to avoid too much overload too quickly.

Increase Intensity - This is a great option if you don’t have more time to invest in your training, if you enjoy racing, or if you tend to train at the same pace most of the time. Increase intensity by adding a speed day or a hill run into your weekly routine. Hills naturally increase the intensity of a run.

Increase Duration - If you prefer longer runs, increase the duration component by adding some miles to your weekly long run; just how long depends upon your running goals. For example, when training for 5K’s & 10K’s, gradually build up to 10 miles for a long run. If training for a Half Marathon, build a long run up to 14 or 16 miles three to four weeks before a race. When marathon training, it’s usually not advisable to go beyond 26.2 miles, so instead, build to 22 or 24 miles as your longest run and then include several 14 to 18 mile runs during the training cycle.

Keep a log to track your training and the changes you make so you can continue adjusting and fine-tuning your training as needed.

Susan S. Paul, MS 


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