Navigating Plateaus

Photo Credit: Kate Dodds

I briefly posted an invitation for blog topics a little while ago and here is a question I received from one of my clients who has worked tirelessly over the last 3 years. Although she has seen big improvements in her consistency and health, she is not achieving PRs.

Her question was very also apropos to my own current personal dilemma:

I have a suggestion – something that I’m experiencing and many other recreational runners also do: the plateau phase. Lots of folks float between highs, PRs, lows, injuries, slower times, and rise again repeating this cycle. Any thoughts, comments or experience with a super long plateau – like maybe even years of running a bit slower than your prior best and just hanging there “plateaued” despite consistent, solid training? Thoughts on how long to keep moving forward, keeping the dream of getting faster than we are now, returning to prior best or surpassing it? How does one know when to move on and start looking for other goals (new distances, terrain, or even other sports or hobbies) or transition away from goals and run solely for health and fitness.

This question sits pretty heavy with me right now. Especially the last part.

The truth is that everybody hits plateaus. It’s an integral part of the human experience. If you want to avoid plateaus, you have two options: quit while you’re ahead or die young.


It’s like the refrain of that children’s song Going on a Bear Hunt:

Can’t go over it,
Can’t go under it,
Can’t go around it,
Got to go through it!

So how do we get through it to see the other side?

I received this question last night and happened to get a phone call from my college coach, Kathy Lanese, this morning. I passed the question on to her, and she reminded me of what we did together the first time I hit a plateau around age 20. And upon reflection I realized that it mirrored all of the other plateaus, setbacks, and breakthroughs I’ve experience since then.

Here are the elements that each of my plateau breakthroughs have entailed:

1) A Break

A break can mean a lot of different things for different people. For some people it can be cross training. For others it’s total rest. For others it’s focusing on rest and recovery. But no matter what, it requires loosening our grip on numbers and attachment to our performance for anywhere from 2 weeks to a year, depending on how far gone we are.

I find that this is the hardest thing to do for a lot of recreational runners. For those of us who were lucky enough to compete in school, we mostly understand the concept of seasons. The school year presented this lovely cycle of focus on cross country distance running and its emphasis on the rawest form of racing, then transitioning to the shorter, more time-focused events in indoor and outdoor track.

But equally integral to that year was the summer – some of us would rest. Some would run every day and do no workouts. Some of us would run hard every day but not with specific goals in mind. Some would have more time-based workouts instead of having specific intervals to hit all summer.

Even this isn’t enough for a lot of high school and college athletes. But that depends on our individual levels of emotional and physical dedication and how much our bodies and minds can handle. However, especially for recreational or post-collegiate runners, there will always be another race to run – that race we do EVERY YEAR and can’t possibly miss. Or a local road race where you just HAVE to defend your title from last year.

Part of taking a break is removing ourselves from the competition equation. Heck, you might even have to call it quitting and focus on another hobby or discipline for a while, just to trick yourself into taking a break.


The longest break I took was in my first year after finishing my college career. I ran my first marathon in September of 2008 and then I knew I wanted to try again to qualify for the Trials once the window opened up, but I had 15 months to burn until then. And honestly, I wasn’t 100% sure if my love for running would make it that far.

So I just ran easy for about 5 months. Looking through my log, I see that I ran 3 races during that time, but didn’t do any workouts until the end of February. I was running mileage ranging from 50-90 miles per week – similar to what I had done previously in college and during my first marathon cycle. But I wasn’t doing any workouts. I still knew how far I was running and approximately what pace, but I didn’t have any structure to my training. To my surprise, it was actually super fun!

And wouldn’t you know, in April of 2009 I ran the slowest marathon of my life. Haha! But in the following summer I found a coach I trusted, started following his training, and by October of 2009, I had made a jump so enormous that I stopped believing that my Timex was keeping real time. So that brings me to step two:


2) A Change

Change can come in many forms. Maybe it’s finding a good specialist to analyze your form and help you iron out any inefficiencies you have. Maybe it’s finding a coach to help you change up your routine. Maybe it’s adding a specialized strength routine to your training.

Aside from finding the right coach, two of my most impactful changes have actually been taking a step back. In college, I had a tendency to run too hard all the time. I was so stubborn and convinced that this was the only thing keeping me good that my coach eventually had to take me off the roads one day a week. So I was in the pool swimming for an hour one day a week instead of pounding the pavement. This is what took me from being a mid-17-minute 5k runner to running 17-flat and eventually sub-17.

Once I returned to peak form in 2009, it was an issue again, but now that I was focused on the marathon, so I wanted to get in more mileage, so I found a new training partner who was an awesome conversation partner, but his pace maxed out around 7:40. That was perfect because he became my post-workout running buddy. This is what took me from 2:46 in my debut marathon to 2:39 in my next serious attempt.

Finding a new rhythm can come in many forms – it could even be just changing what you listen to on your runs! For hard days, I like to listen to groovy music, but on recovery days that gets me too pumped up, so I prefer to listen to podcasts or chat with a friend.

The good news is that everyone has been through a plateau, so every runner you know has something different that has worked for them to pull them out of it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the people around you for new ideas!


3) Trusting the Process

Whatever it is that you choose to do, you also need to stick with it and believe in it. Two days off does not count as a break. Slowing down your runs by 10 seconds per mile does not do anything. Trying a strength routine for just 2 weeks is pointless. Finding a coach and then not trusting them is a waste of time and money.

As in my 2009 example, sometimes the immediate result will be a big step backwards. But that’s only half way through the process. The next step for me was to accept where I was at that point (23 minutes slower than my debut marathon and 2 minutes slower in the 5k) – and enjoy the process again.

I learned how to enjoy working out with people whose PRs were slower than mine. I learned how to enjoy the act of having a workout and achieving it, regardless of the fitness that it indicated. Because it is a beautiful thing to tell your body to do something and have it be able to execute.

Photo Cred: Tim Meigs


As I said in the beginning, plateaus are a major part of the human experience. The lucky ones among us will all get to a point in our lives where we cannot achieve the heights that we once were capable of achieving. Each plateau we experience in running or any other pursuit serves to acclimate us to this reality and prepares us to tackle each one when the time comes.

In response to the last portion of the question – when is it time to move on – I want to remind us all of the impermanence of everything in life. Just because you decide to step away now doesn’t mean that it’s a permanent decision. Maybe focusing on another hobby for a while is exactly what we need to realize that we do love running. Or maybe it’s exactly what we need to realize that we love something else more!

Running was that distraction for me in high school. I was decidedly on the path of becoming a musician. Music had been the major focus of my life for over 15 years before I started running seriously. And while I used running to compliment to my music at first, it eventually became apparent that my drive and desire for running was significantly stronger than for music. And that was not just okay. It was awesome!

But whatever it is that you decide to do, don’t “should” yourself. You either want to do it and you do it. Or you don’t want to do it and you don’t. When it comes to your passion, that’s how it should be. Obviously there are other areas of your life where there will be things we have to do – jobs, parenting, care taking, but let’s save “shoulding” for those parts of our lives, okay?

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