Training Plateaus - Why They Happen and How To Overcome Them

February 09, 2024

Plateaus affect runners of all abilities at some point in their training routines. For seasoned runners, plateaus may strike as a result of a lack of motivation towards training as the early weeks of the year sees less events for athletes to participate in. For novice runners, perhaps people who have taken up running as a New Year’s Resolution, many may be hitting that wall for the first time and not know how to break through it and keep going. There are many reasons as to why plateaus happen, and with the help of physio and running coach Enda Kilgallon, we aim to tackle this issue and offer advice as to how to break this cycle.

Firstly, both mental and physical factors can result in training plateaus for all runners. Physically, training may become too repetitive and cause a dip in performance. Enda shone some light on this from his coaching and physio standpoint saying ‘Training [may] not [be] providing a variety of stimulus, too much time in easy zone or too much time in higher zones, for example not regularly working in all heart rate zones’. Enda also explained that poor training plans can contribute to the above issues. Poor structure in your training and ‘not periodizing training to peak for a target race’ may lead to a plateau in your training.

Something I have learned through looking into the topic, and perhaps something some competitive runners may not realise, is that racing too often can have a negative impact and lead to plateaus. Enda explained to me that people who race every weekend would be better off bringing this down to one race per month and building a structured program around said race. ‘Constantly racing and tapering so there is no time to lay down fitness gains with solid training block.

‘Some people do 10-20 [marathons per year]. That’s great if they are doing it for the experience/fun day out/to add another medal to the collection but it is not possible to be in PB shape more than twice per year at marathon distance - so people end up racing too often and not having the time for full training blocks to improve their performance. If the goal is performance, they should set 1-2 "A" races per year and focus training on them. By all means do other races, but use them as a workout, an easy long run, or to trial new shoes, clothing, gels etc - don’t expect a PB in every one or you will be disappointed.’

As well as speaking to Enda, I reached out to many runners of widespread abilities to ask them about this subject and everyone had the same overlapping response within their feedback, SLEEP. Runners must prioritise sleep and almost treat it as an aspect of their training schedule. Rest and recovery are vital.

The aforementioned New Year’s Resolutions may fall down as people set themselves a short-term goal and if they begin to plateau and feel like they aren’t going to reach it, they give up. The key to avoiding this is to simply set long-term goals rather than short-term ones. This will drastically change your approach and mindset when it comes to training.

For more seasoned runners, Enda highlighted the reality of ‘post-marathon blues’ and the toll they can take on your mindset. He described it to me as a ‘mild form of grief’ as the marathon is ‘such a big part of life for 16+ weeks, now [there’s] nothing to build towards or structure [your] week around.’

This then ties in with a lack of motivation, causing another mental plateau. The time of year and the darkness and bad weather that comes with it, especially in Ireland, can cause people to lose all focus on their goals and plateau as a result.

So, how do we avoid training plateaus? Enda gave us his tips:

  • Training with a variety of paces - mostly easy work, some moderate work, and a sprinkle of hard efforts each week. Expose yourself to target race pace in training sessions to test whether these are realistic.
  • Clear training plan – long-term plan to peak 2-3 times per year with smaller periodized building blocks, training based on progressive overload principles, consistent training (no superman sessions that lead to injury – just consistent achievable work week after week, month after month, year after year – studies have shown elite marathoners reach their peak performance after 8-10 years – it takes time, have patience!), training at paces which are appropriate to your fitness levels.
  • Set goals – must be realistic but also challenging.
  • Think long-term – don’t expect immediate changes.
  • If in doubt, work with a coach to address these issues.

Enda was a massive help with this piece, offering valuable insight from a professional perspective. As the Clinical Lead of Running Solutions, a running studio in Premier Physiotherapy, Balinteer, these are issues he encounters regularly, and his advice is greatly appreciated.

Featured Image: coolbawncross - Michael Molamphy

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