Jumping Off The S-Curve to Avoid a Running Plateau

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Finish Line as a New Beginning

Every finish line should also be a new starting line. Photo Credit: Runners Den / Fiesta Bowl Half Marathon 5K Finish Line from Flickr user Dru Bloomfield, used under a Creative Commons license.

For most pursuits, your growth in the required skills for success can be viewed as an S-curve, as shown below. The pattern is:

  • Development occurs slowly at the beginning, as you struggle to develop the specialized skills and knowledge needed.
  • Growth accelerates once you establish a foundation of skills and the confidence to employ them.
  • Advancement slows again as you master the practice, and there are diminishing returns to your further efforts to build skills.
  • Unless new challenges are sought, your growth stagnates, and frustration or boredom may set in.

Experience S-CurveIt is easy to see how this applies to one’s career, and it is way the better companies work to develop career paths to continually present new growth opportunities to employees who need them, and perform annual performance reviews to assess which employees are ready for the next step (or are at risk of leaving if they aren’t challenged).

The same process applies to your growth as a runner. As you begin your “career”, gains may seem slow- you are developing the cardiovascular and structural foundation on which your future success will be built, as well as the habits and routines that will serve you well. This takes time.

You then begin to see personal records (PR’s) fall on regular basis, nearly every season. You begin to incorporate more advanced training techniques – higher mileage, better strength training, tougher workouts. The aerobic gains accumulate from one season to the next, and confidence grows, allowing you to train and race smarter. You learn when to push and when to step back in order to develop without injury or burnout.

However, if you continue to pursue improvements on an incremental basis with a similar goal (such as improving your marathon time), using similar training approaches, you eventually reach a plateau. The gains in the PR’s slow, despite the fact that you are working harder than ever. Injuries may begin to mount as you try to push harder, and a bit of frustration may set in.

How can you avoid dwelling on such a plateau for too long? The first key is early identification of the issue. Some signs to watch for include:

  • Getting bored more easily with your training, or frequently feeling like you are “in a rut.”
  • Your performance gains are slowing (but hopefully aren’t yet flat).
  • Your training is becoming “ritualistic” (i.e., thou must run a spring and fall marathon and train with a Pfitzinger-like plan).
  • Injuries become recurring and are difficult to avoid.

There are then several approaches you can use to start on a new S-curve and reinvigorate your training.

  • Take on a different race distance as your “A” race for a season or two. This could be a step up in distance to an ultra or down to anything from the mile to a half-marathon, if a marathon is your normal “A” race. Marathon training does not optimize your preparations for shorter races, so you may have much more room to develop your PRs at a different distance, and you will also develop a broader array of your key physical attributes (such as VO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy), which can serve your marathon performance better in the long run.
  • Build off of a new training plan – if you always base your training off of, say, a Higdon plan, then look into a Pfitzinger or Hanson-type plan. This will provide variety and may challenge you in different ways.
  • Upgrade your strength training regimen – this can improve your running and injury resistance and maybe even help you build a body that you are even prouder of.
  • And to help with any of the above changes, consider hiring a coach – a good one can provide anything from a one-time consultation to help steer you in a new direction to ongoing support to even help in selecting goals that will maximize your development.

As an example, I feel that I’m at risk of hitting a plateau in my marathon times soon. Last season was probably the maximum amount of time I could put into training (pursuing roughly a Pfitzinger 18 week, 85 mile per week plan), and while I still put in a decent marathon PR, it took a lot of work for a smaller gain than previous seasons. My fear is to continue such a program (which I’ve only been able to manage once per year due to injuries – another cause for concern) will lead to less of a gain next season, and my motivation may begin to wane.

Thus, my plan for the winter and spring of 2013 is to focus on a shorter race distance with an aggressive PR goal – perhaps breaking 1 hour at the Cleveland 10-Miler in April. This will force me to focus on different elements of my training, such as speed development and tougher interval workouts, that are often sacrificed in marathon training. The extra time that comes from reduced mileage will provide the opportunity to invest in strength training and mobility work while reducing the risk of another winter injury.

Marathons are still my ultimate goal, and I plan to return to Akron to take a shot at a new PR on a tough course in the fall, which may serve as a stepping stone for another PR shot at Boston in the spring. But the marathon training will be different as well, incorporating more pace-specific workouts without a further increase in mileage.

Just as in your career, taking on a new challenge as a runner can position you better for a future growth path. You can become a better marathoner by trying to be better at something else occasionally.

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