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Loving Your Sport Volume 1: Performance Plateaus

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

A Guide to Longevity in Endurance Training

Three trail runners at Lake Sonoma

We give a lot of attention to optimization in endurance running. 

“How can I take the most time off of my marathon personal best over these next four months?”

“What’s the fastest way for me to get fit enough to run a 50 mile race?”

“How do I get the most from myself in my biggest events?”

We all want “The Most”. We focus on finish lines, asking what is possible a few months down the road, with less consideration for what it’ll mean for tomorrow or next week. As a coach, I get these questions a lot– and they’re fair questions. After all, most athletes are hiring coaches for exactly this purpose: to achieve “The Most” in whatever goals they are pursuing! I give a lot of time and energy to answering these questions and implementing strategies for athletes to help net them the results they’re after, but there’s another question we should be considering when setting goals:

“How can I have The Most fun training for a big goal?”

With all the attention given to optimization, many athletes never consider this question. Yet, we spend months training, and spend only minutes or hours in our goal events. Ultimately, the key to optimal results months or years down the road, is loving the process, and the steps along the way, that will get us to those goals. After all, few of us are running towards a single objective off in the distance. Most of us run simply because we love to run, and want to keep loving running for decades to come.

This idea is the origin of our “Loving Your Sport” series. With all the attention given to how athletes can achieve “the most”, this series will instead cover the topics that often stand in the way of athletes getting the most enjoyment, fulfillment, and satisfaction from their sports.

In keeping with our mission at Treeline Endurance, the topics discussed in the series are not unique to running or endurance sports. A lot of what we learn and do in sport can be translated to, and thus potentially improve, many other parts of our lives. With that, this week’s topic is Performance Plateaus.

Performance Plateaus

Anatomy of a Plateau

Plateau Peak Performances chart

Plateauing in training is synonymous with no longer seeing improvement in spite of continuous training. “Stagnation” or feeling “stuck” in a particular spot within your sport, whether that be a particular race time, race distance, or other metric of progress. If not a metric, it may just be an inner feeling of “I’m not getting any better”.

If you suspect a plateau for you or someone you know, the first step is to zoom out. Oftentimes we feel stuck only because we are an inch away from a canvas that’s a hundred feet wide. We need to step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment, reviewing our training over the course of months or even years. Are we actually stuck, or just getting impatient with the rate of improvement?

The answer might not be easy to discern, because the bigger picture is complex and requires the right frame of mind. You might be looking at your 5K time over the last 6 months and seeing it hasn’t improved by more than a couple seconds (maybe it’s even worsened by a few seconds) and think you’re stuck, but the critical context is that you’re training for a rocky, technical trail marathon. You may still only be able to hold an eight minute pace for 3 miles, but you can hold a nine minute mile for twice as long as you could 4 months ago, and you can practically skip over fields of rocks that previously brought you to a cautious hike. The fitnesses are different, and it’s important that you are looking at the right markers of progress.

The second consideration when asking “the plateau question” is that progress often slows down considerably, once we develop a basic proficiency for things.  This change in the rate of progress can give athletes a false sense of having plateaued, when in fact, they are just progressing at a different rate than they once did. In sport, this often occurs after 1-2 years of consistent training. Part of this change in rate is physiological, but a lot more has to do with the rapid skill development that occurs over the first year or two.

Making The Change

Plateauing isn’t a perfectly understood science. A training regimen that works for a couple years for one athlete may only work for six months for another athlete. However, the chances of a plateau can be greatly reduced, or at least delayed for a while, with attention to two key factors: progression and variety.

Progression and variety can be combined in all sorts of ratios to work. That said, they are typically at odds with one another. The more significantly we vary the training protocol, the slower we will need to progress it in order to keep injury risk at a minimum; the more rapidly we wish to progress training, the less we’ll be able to vary it.

Most training schedules contain a degree of progression, where workouts are gradually becoming more demanding week over week, or month over month. This is essential to consistently prompting physiological adaptation (fitness). If you only ever run the same distance at the same pace in a workout, for months on end, eventually that workout becomes too easy to yield any change in fitness. This isn’t revolutionary, and most of us will naturally do the things necessary to avoid it (e.g. run faster in the same workout the next time you do it), but it’s still important to keep in mind.

Phased Annual Training Plan to Avoid Training Plateaus
Phased training with rotating emphases to stave off performance plateaus

The second consideration is training variety, and it’s this component of successful training that’s often ignored or abandoned in training for our goals. The emphasis of training must change from time to time throughout the year. At Treeline Endurance, we rotate athletes through periods of training with emphasis on aerobic volume (base), strength, Vo2 max, fatigue resistance (long run emphasis), and Lactate Threshold (tempo) to keep them well-rounded in their skills and capabilities. An athlete will rarely go wrong, if they build a base of training that contains all of these different aspects. 

This sort of skill rotation needs to be done strategically, which is why it can fall by the wayside. Doing 200m sprint workouts for the final six weeks of marathon training is not going to be the best way to prepare for the race. More often than not, athletes know to avoid this sort of training mismatch before a big goal event. The problem is, they never go back to address the neglected skill type once the event-specific training comes to an end.

It’s when an athlete isn’t building to a specific event in the near future that we’re best off varying the training focuses to keep an athlete well rounded. By varying the training when we’re not focusing on a high priority goal, we allow ourselves to focus training more specifically in the final eight to twelve weeks before the event without as much risk for plateauing.

In short, it’s risky to follow any single type of training protocol for too long, and it’s better to change things up more frequently than is necessary to avoid a plateau, rather than wait too long to make a shift. We can’t hope to continually progress if we ignore the aspects of fitness we don’t like and hold onto only those we do enjoy. Ignored for too long, the conditions that lead to a plateau could very well lead to declining performance or even injury. Consider what aspects of training you may have neglected, and take the first small steps towards rebuilding those aspects, today.

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