We all run with the purpose of improving something: whether that's to improve our health, improve fitness, lose weight or to improve our race times. Yet, achieving consistent improvements in our running isn't easy.
The problem is training progression is never constant. Sometimes we improve. sometimes we don’t. And, often it it can feel like our running performance stalls. The good news is there are proven methods to achieving more consistent improvements in your running speed and race performances.
So how can we achieve a more consistent level of improvement? In this article we’ll take a look at running plateaus and why they happen. We'll look at how we can reduce the likelihood of them occurring. Look at the way elite runners achieve long term improvements. And look at how we can all consistently improve our running when we follow the correct approach to our running training.
What’s the biggest obstacle to you accomplishing your running goals?
Whilst there are many factors that affect the likelihood of achieving our running goals, one of the biggest problems we face is that running training progression is never constant. There are many times when it feels like our running performance plateaus. We’ve all been there - those periods where you’ve been training well, seen a steady progression, then improvements start to slow, and race/training performance stalls, or may even fall backwards. Unfortunately, these plateaus are an unavoidable part of running. Regardless of your performance level or training experience, and no matter how carefully you plan and execute your training plan, at some stage you’ll reach a point where your running progression stalls.
Whilst performance plateaus can’t be avoided altogether, there are a number of ways to reduce their occurrence and bring about a more consistent performance improvement.
In fact, some runners are able to achieve a much more consistent progression and often see improvements over a number of years. So, what are these athletes doing differently? How do they achieve more consistent long-term improvements? We’ll take a look at this later in this article. First, let’s look at what a training plateau is and why they occur.
What is a running training Plateau?
A training plateau is simply a point in your training, where you’re not seeing any significant improvement in training or racing performance. Sound familiar? If so then you’re not alone. A large proportion of runners/endurance athletes spend a significant amount of time in this state. In fact, apart from the initial improvement we often see over the first 6-12months of taking up endurance running, many runners don’t see much further improvement. In most cases this is not due to any physiological reasons, it’s purely a symptom of the approach taken to training.
This is in contrast to what we see with athletes who follow a much more purposeful approach to training. These athletes train deliberately in ways that bring about a much more consistent training progression. Often they achieve consistent improvements over many years. Sure, there are still periods where their training progressions slows, or even stalls. But, if you were to view their running performances over a period of years, you would see a gradual improvement year on year.
Before taking a deeper look at how we can consistently improve our running performance, let’s quickly consider the factors that can influence performance progression. The image below illustrated some of the differences between Overtraining, Under training and Optimum Performance Progression:
So, we can see that to avoid plateaus and achieve more consistent improvement in running and other endurance sports, is more complex than just increasing training volume or intensity. Many factors influence how well we adapt (both in the short and long term) to training.
We often focus too much attention on one area (normally mileage!) and forget that progression in running is more than just accumulating mileage! It requires consistently working on improving many different areas: strength, aerobic fitness, endurance, coordination, agility, balance and proprioception, flexibility, and mental strength are all vital for achieving our full potential.
Before looking at the different training approaches we can use to achieve consistent improvement, let’s take a look at training volume. Let's look at how our running volume influences running performance. And, what's the best way to increase training volume.
Training volume and running performance
As runners we focus a lot of attention on hitting a specific weekly mileage. Often too much attention. Therefore, one of the most common approaches to improving running performance is to focus on increasing our weekly mileage or training volume. Increasing your weekly mileage/volume has a number of key benefits, primarily it leads to improved cardiovascular fitness, enhanced efficiency (lower heart rates and reduced oxygen consumption at a given speed/intensity) and leads to improved rates of recovery. It also improves your ability to cope with more intense training sessions, meaning that you should see benefits during more intense training sessions.
However, to see a consistent improvement in running performance, we need to be able to increase training volume incrementally over a number of years.
A common running mileage mistake
A mistake many people make is to ramp up their mileage too quickly. This can have a negative effect on long term progression. It’s far better to consistently increase training volume over a number of years, rather than increasing it too quickly in the first year of training. When we do this it limits our scope to increase running volume in future years. If you consider how a typical elite athlete will have gradually increased their training volume over may be 15+ years. Starting as low as just 6-8miles/week at the age of 10/11 and gradually increasing this over many years until they are eventually running 90+ miles/week as an elite runner. There's a reason why they follow this gradual consistent approach....it's highly effective. As with many things, consistency and patience can really pay off in the long run.
Don't look to ramp it up too quickly. Not only will this increase your risk of injury and illness, but it may reduce long term progression. Aim to gradually and consistently increase your mileage year on year. This allows your body more chance to adapt, reduces injury risk and leads to more consistent long term progression.
What about the 10% training volume rule?
A common approach in running is to follow the 10% rule, whereby training volume is increased by up to 10% per week. It’s important to remember that this is a very general rule. It doesn’t account for individual differences in adaptation rates and progression. In fact, whilst it doesn’t sound like a particularly significant increase; if a 30mile a week runner decided to follow this rule for 20 weeks, they would end up running 200miles/week at week 20! Therefore, if you’re going to use the 10% rule, don’t apply it week upon week – allow time for adaptation! The 10% rule should be viewed as an upper limit for mileage increases.
As mentioned above, the best approach is to increase your training volume in gradual incremental stages. Once you have adapted to your current training volume and are no longer seeing training benefits from it, then you can look to carefully increase your training volume/mileage again. However, be careful to allow yourself adequate time to adapt and gain the training benefits from any new training volume, before you look to increase it to a new level.
"If you’re still seeing improvements from your current training volume, then there’s probably not a need to increase the volume significantly further at that point."
Increasing training volume in a progressive incremental manner, is a good way to bring about consistent improvements. However, increasing your training volume is only part of the equation. Taken on its own, it doesn’t tell us how hard, or how effective (how productive) our training actually is. Ultimately, we need to move beyond just focusing on training volume. We need look to incorporate different training intensities and sessions into our training schedule.
So why is it important to use a variety of different training methods? And, how can this help us to maximise the training benefit?
Training progression is never one dimensional
It’s important to remember that training progression is never one dimensional. Improvements occur in many different areas (cardiovascular, muscular, neuromuscular, and psychological) and it’s only natural that the rate of progression will be different for each, with improvements occurring at different times and rates in each of these areas. We also need to consider that each of these components can be broken in to further components (e.g. muscular strength, muscular endurance, muscular power). So, clearly there are many different factors that contribute to endurance running performance. All of these respond to training in different ways and progress at different speeds.
In order for progression to occur, we need to see an improvement in one or more of these areas. In some instances, there will be improvements in more than one area. When this happens we often see big improvements. At other times there may be improvements in just one area (e.g. cardiovascular fitness) and we may see a small improvement in race times. Often the improvements may only be small and not always obvious.
As we know, a performance plateau occurs when there is no progression, or improvement, in the areas that contribute to performance (cardiovascular, muscular, neuromuscular, and psychological). It’s important to consider that even if we see an improvement in one area (e.g. muscular endurance), we may also see a decline in another area (e.g. muscular strength). So, if we want to achieve long term progression we need to consistently train all the trainable areas that contribute to running performance.
From this we can see that many areas contribute to performance. In many cases we limit our ability to improve by focussing too much attention on improving in just one area. A more consistent progression can be achieved by making sure we train purposefully, in ways that target all the key areas that contribute to performance.
So how can you gain a more consistent improvement?
“The two most important factors in any long term training plan are consistency and purpose.”
When we talk about consistency we’re talking about completing the correct amount of each type of training session (speed, endurance, strength, mobility etc). We need consistency both in the short term (weekly) and throughout longer term training blocks.
So, why is consistency so important? Without a consistent approach to training we limit our long term progression. With all things being equal, an athlete that trains more consistently will always outperform a less consistent athlete. This is not always in our control – work, holidays, family, injuries, illnesses all have an impact – however, there are always ways to maintain a level of consistency even when things get in the way.
Whilst consistency is a key factor, training must be purposeful – there’s no point being consistent if we're doing the wrong training. Or, consistently just doing one type of session, or always training at just one intensity. To maximise training we need every session to have a specific purpose. That purpose might be to improve efficiency at race pace, develop maximum velocity, lactate threshold, VO2max, strength, or might just be to improve recovery. Often as runners, we neglect our training purpose in favour of achieving our mileage targets. If we're truly being honest, how many of our running sessions are focussed more on mileage than having a purpose? Make sure there is always a purpose to every training session.
Training to achieve consistent long term improvements in your running
In order to achieve more consistent long-term improvements, we need to maximise training. To do this we need to find a variety of purposeful ways to train. In essence we are looking to find ways that continuously challenge and stress our body. This leads to a more progressive level of training adaptation. And, when this happens we see longer term improvements. To work effectively this needs to be combined with consistency, adequate rest, and recovery periods - we often forget that rest and recovery is equally important for training adaptation.
Often, we focus too much attention on one area of training; this might be hitting a specific weekly mileage total, always doing our favourite interval sessions, or maintaining a minimum running speed during all of our running sessions, so they all end up at one pace. However, more consistent long-term training progression occurs when we identify and work on improving, many small areas that contribute to performance.
By consistently working on improving a number of trainable areas, you will see more consistent longer-term improvements. After all, the more areas that you are working on improving during a training phase, the greater the chance that you will see some improvement in one or more of those areas.
We should always be looking for areas that can be improved, and then finding ways to achieve that improvement.
The key point to take away is:
“greater long-term progression can be achieved by looking at the bigger training picture and considering all the different areas that contribute to performance, rather than focusing on just one or two areas”
Looking beyond the obvious…
As with most things there’s normally obvious areas to work on. Areas that bring about big performance gains. And, it can be very easy to focus too much training time around these areas. Whether it’s an over emphasis on long endurance runs, steady/tempo intensity runs, or running too many interval sessions. The problem is, after a while your body will just get used to that type of training stress, and the rate of adaptation (fitness/performance gain) will start to slow, and eventually plateau.
A good example is the fixation with high intensity interval training – yes, it’s a great way to improve running performance in a relatively short period. And, it’s one workout that will normally always feature within my weekly training schedule. However, just because interval training gives you the best return for your training time, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be looking to work on other important areas. There are many other areas we can train that will lift your running performance to the next level.
The main point here, is that for most runners, intervals should already form a big part of their training, so the key is to optimise the time spent on interval training. We can do this by finding the point of diminishing return, and then look to add in additional training types into the schedule. This is far more effective than trying to squeeze in more and more interval sessions.
The point of diminishing return
With any training type, there is always a point of diminishing return. The point of diminishing return is the point where the training benefit decreases significantly. This is a certain point (in this case a specific training volume, or the amount of weekly sessions) where the training benefit from that session becomes less. In other words, with each additional session that you try to squeeze into your weekly schedule, the performance benefit that you gain from each additional session will become less and less.
Optimising interval training frequency
In the case of interval training, research has generally found that the point of diminishing return occurs at around two weekly high intensity interval training sessions. Often referred to as HIIT sessions, these intervals are run at intensities near to VO2max intensity, or maximal aerobic capacity. Most research has shown that if you go beyond two weekly HITT sessions, then you can expect to get significantly less return for your training time. You also increase the risk of overreaching/overtraining, or injury. It’s important to note that the above mentioned recommended upper limit for HIIT sessions is in relation to running interval sessions (e.g. sessions like 10-16 x 400m, 6-8 x 1km intervals, or 4-6 x 1600m etc), rather than the sessions recently popularised as HITT sessions by fitness bloggers and celebrities. There’s a big difference between the two! For the purposes of this article HIIT refers to running intervals.
For me, the optimum performance benefit occurs with around 2x weekly HITT running sessions. This works particularly well when the remaining ~80% of my weekly running training volume is generally kept at low intensities. The lower intensity training allows sufficient recovery to occur between training sessions. And allows me to really focus on maintaining the quality of the interval sessions. I also include additional strength training, as well as strides and maximum velocity training (normally combined with the interval session) and a threshold or tempo run.
There are some occasions where it’s beneficial to do more than two weekly HIIT sessions – normally referred to as block training. These periods of increased HIIT frequency are only used intermittently amongst an advanced training block. And, normally only used by highly experienced athletes. Even then they do not work for everyone and in some cases this approach can be counter productive.
Optimising strength training frequency
Similarly, optimum strength training benefits occur at around 1-2 training sessions per week. However, doing two interval sessions along with two strength sessions per week, would likely be too much for most athletes. There are ways around this such as double training, by doing intervals and strength training on the same day. This has the advantage of reducing the total number of weekly hard training days. However, this is quite physically demanding, and certainly not advisable without a significant amount of training experience. It requires careful monitoring of training adaptation along with good coaching advice.
Therefore, the best approach involves maximising the amount of quality training, by finding the optimum number of weekly sessions and the optimum volume within each of those sessions. We can then look to include additional training methods like strength training, plyometrics, or speed training to further ramp up performance gains. Again, we should be trying to find the optimum 'individual' level to achieve optimum performance gains.
“It’s important to remember that the optimum volume and frequency of running intervals and strength sessions, will change over time, in relation to your training history, training experience and your level of adaptation to the training. In addition to these intense sessions, it's important that you include sufficient amounts of lower intensity training.”
Optimizing volume within training sessions
As well as finding the optimum frequency of weekly training sessions, such as intervals and strength sessions, it’s also important to establish the optimum volume within that session itself. This is highly individual and heavily dependent on training experience. A less experienced runner might see an optimum training response from a lower volume interval session like 5 x 1km (5km of intervals), whereas a more experienced runner might see greater benefits from a higher volume session like 8 x 1km (8km of intervals). An elite runner might also include tempo efforts within the same session e.g. 3km tempo + 6 x 1km + 3km tempo (6km of tempo running + 6km of intervals). In each case the training volume should be determined by training experience. We also need to consider the individual training response – not all athletes respond the same way to the same type of training session, or, even the same volume of training.
The other consideration is the actual intensity of the interval sessions: some athletes respond better to intensities nearer to their VO2max, whereas other’s respond better to slightly lower intensities. The race distance that you’re targeting will also be a key factor in determining the optimum intensity for your interval sessions. You can read more about high intensity interval training (HITT) here.
Using a multitude of different training sessions
The key to achieving a more consistent rate of progression, is to find a multitude of different training approaches, that each place a slightly different stress on the body. Examples include working at different intensities, including training that emphasises neuromuscular co-ordination, and training in ways that place different emphasis on the major muscles worked. The main aim being to stimulate as many areas of improvement as possible. And, in turn achieve a more consistent improvement in running. In many cases you can work on several areas within the same training session. Below, I’ve included some training ideas and approaches, that could be incorporated into your existing training schedule to help to maximise training gains.
An important note: don’t introduce too many changes at any one time!
Ideally, you should only make small changes, or additions, to your training at any one time. Look to make one, or possibly two changes. And, allow time to see how you respond to these changes. Don’t try to rush things and introduce too many new training types at once. Sometimes the benefits may take a while to show (see additional notes below), so it’s important to be patient when you make a change. If following a change, you see good improvements in your performance, then stick with that training and don’t look to make further significant changes until performance gains begin to slow down. Look to gain the most from the training change, before looking to make further changes, and always ensure that you are able to physically cope with your current training before you make any significant changes.
Why is it important to limit how many changes you make?
Well to put simply, you want to be able to identify whether a change is beneficial. If you introduce 4 or 5 changes at one time, how are you going to know which of those changes was beneficial? In addition, this reduces the risk of changes leading to injuries – every time you add in a new type of training you increases, or change, the training stress. So, be cautious when introducing new sessions.
20 Training ideas to help improve your running performance:
Include 1-2 Interval sessions per week.
Interval training is a great way to bring about quick improvements in running performance by maximally stimulating aerobic capacity, improving neuromuscular strength/co-ordination, running efficiency, cadence, stride length, aerobic enzymes, and fatigue resistance of type I and type II muscle fibres. To get the best benefits and maximise the training response from intervals look to include up to two interval sessions per week and utilize different training intensities during different interval sessions.
Examples include: Session 1) longer intervals e.g. 4-6 x 1600m intervals at 10k pace with a short active (jog) recovery – the recovery should be just long enough to allow you to complete all the intervals at the same target pace; Session 2) shorter intervals e.g. 10-16 x 400m at 3-5k pace with an active jog recovery, or alternatively, 150m intervals at 1mile pace with a 50m jog/walk recovery. Alternatively, replace one of the interval sessions with a hill interval session (see #2 below) or consider combining it with a threshold/tempo run (see #4 below).
Include a hill interval session.
Hill running training increases activation of the glutes, quadriceps, soleus, and calf muscles. It's been shown to have a positive effect on running efficiency as well as running performance. Hill training should be performed at an intensity equivalent to interval training. It’s important to note that the hills should be run at an “intensity” equivalent to normal (flat ground) intervals, rather than at the same “pace” as you would run during normal flat terrain intervals. So, you will need to adjust the pace depending on the gradient of the hill.
Here’s a few examples: 1) Short sprint efforts e.g. 10 x 15-30second fast sprints, with 2.5-3min recoveries; 2) Continuous tempo intervals e.g. 25mins of continuous 25secs steady/fast uphill (5k/10k intensity), with a steady 30sec downhill (marathon/half marathon intensity); 3) Long hills e.g. 3-5mins at threshold intensity with a steady jog back down, or run at a higher intensity (5k/10k intensity) off a very easy recovery jog. As hills are a type of interval training, they should replace one of your current interval sessions, so if you normally include two interval sessions per week, then the hill session would normally replace one of those.
Include one tempo run, or, lactate threshold session per week.
Without going into too much detail, lactate threshold pace is equivalent to a pace you could sustain for around 60minutes in a race situation, whereas tempo pace is slightly slower and encompasses a wider pace range that is equivalent to a race pace you could sustain for around 90mins to up to 3hrs. The training benefits are similar (but not equal) for both intensities – the intensity you choose (threshold vs tempo) should be dictated by your targeted race distance. The primary benefit from these types of sessions is improved fatigue resistance, at race intensities ranging from 10k upwards, as well as improved running economy, lactate threshold and ventilatory threshold.
Examples include: 2-3 x 10mins at around 10mile race pace (~lactate threshold), or, one longer continuous tempo run e.g. 60-80mins at marathon pace, or, 2 x 20mins at half marathon pace.
Combine a tempo/threshold session with an interval session.
To maximise the training benefit and get the best return on your training time, consider combining a tempo, or threshold session, with an interval or hill session e.g. 1) 10mins at threshold/tempo pace + 6-8 x 400m intervals + 10mins threshold/tempo, or, 2) 10mins threshold/tempo + 6-8 x 60second hills + 10mins threshold/tempo. Both, are tough sessions but really maximise training time and combine the benefits of both interval training and tempo/threshold training. These sessions should only be used when you have good training experience and have been consistently using high intensity intervals and threshold intervals as part of your regular training.
Always include some training at race intensity.
If you want to race well over a specific distance, such as 10km, then you need to include some training at that intensity. This is important for a number of reasons, but primarily it improves efficiency at that intensity, works the specific energy pathways that will be used at that intensity and trains you to feel more comfortable at that intensity – this trains you to better cope with the unique physiological and psychological stresses of the specific race distance that you are targeting. As an example, you can read about 10k specific running intervals here.
Include a weekly strength training session.
Some of the proven benefits of strength training include improved fatigue resistance, lactate threshold, neuromuscular co-ordination and running efficiency. Strength training also helps to even out muscle imbalances and when used correctly can lessen the risk of injuries. Good strength exercises for runners include squats, deadlifts, lunges, split squats, step ups and calf-raises. These can be progressed to include single leg exercises (e.g. single-leg squats, walking lunges, single-leg deadlifts, single-leg calf raises – both straight leg and bent knee variations). Plyometrics have also been shown to be beneficial for endurance runners.
Incorporate some core strength exercises
Good core strength exercises for runners include: front planks, side planks, glute bridges, reverse planks, hip thrusts. These will help to improve stability, running efficiency, and help you to maintain better running form. Don’t underestimate the benefits that can be gained through consistent core strength training.
Include some running strides.
Strides are a great way to work on running technique and neuromuscular coordination. A good time to include strides, is either before or after an interval session, or towards the end of an easy/steady pace run. Typically, strides involve running at a controlled effort, for approximately 25-30seconds, over 4-6 repetitions. When running strides gradually increase the effort, whilst maintaining good running form, building the pace to around 80-85% effort over the final 10seconds. Recover between strides by running at an easy pace for 2-3mins. It’s important to gradually build the pace during the strides. The key is to be able to maintain good running form throughout the length of the stride; so, if you struggle to maintain running technique, then you are likely running the strides a bit too fast and should slow the pace down slightly.
Keep easy days “easy” and hard days “hard”.
If you look at the training diary of any elite endurance athlete, you will quickly notice two key features. Firstly, elite athletes tend to spend a large amount of the training at low intensities - typically around 80% of their training is completed at a low-intensities, and only 20% (or less sometimes) at higher intensities. Secondly, when they train easy, they are not afraid to really train easy. This has two key benefits: 1) It allows them to maintain a larger training volume, and; 2) It allows them to really train hard on their hard training days.
Easy pace runs serve an important purpose of helping to build/maintain a good base fitness, whilst at the same time being easy enough to allow adequate recovery between harder sessions. With Elite athlete’s there is a real significant difference between their easy days, and their hard training days. This approach is often termed polarized training and has been shown to be a highly effective approach to training. In essence, don’t be drawn into the “strava athlete” mentality of pushing even your easy pace runs.
Include some running drills.
Running drills can easily be included as part of the warm up to an interval or faster running session. Not only will these serve as a great warm up for the interval session, but they also help to improve neuromuscular co-ordination, as well as balance, left-right leg balance, strength and power of muscles, joint stability (great for improving running efficiency) and add a plyometric element to the warm up. Some examples include: grapevine exercise, high knee marching, high knees, A-skips, B-skips, high skips, backward running, and straight legged drills. Typically, you would include 4-5 different drills and complete 2-3 sets of each, with each completed over anywhere from 20-50m, depending on the drill and athletes conditioning, age, training experience etc – a key determinant is how long can the athlete hold good form during the drill.
Include some short maximal pace efforts.
As endurance runners we often tend to neglect the importance of developing top end running speed. Whilst this is less important for endurance athletes, the maximum speed you are able to run at still influences your endurance running potential – a faster maximum speed, increases the range of speeds that you can run at, and this in turn gives you the potential to run at faster speeds over long distances.
To develop maximal speed, include 4-6 x 30m near maximal efforts – this should include a 30m acceleration zone, followed by 30m effort, and 30m deceleration zone. Recoveries should be a very slow walk back recovery, or complete rest for 2-3minutes, to allow adequate recovery between efforts. It’s important that you are already including some faster pace training, or are familiar with training at faster intensities, before including top end speed work into your training schedule. Maximal efforts can be incorporated as part of your weekly interval session – ideally completed just after the warm up, and before the main session.
Don’t forget agility, balance, proprioception and co-ordination training
Whilst these might not seem important, they all contribute to overall performance and to becoming a more rounded and complete athlete. All of these can easily be incorporated within a warm up by using specific drills, ladders and accelerations – well look at these in a future article.
Consider including some cross-training sessions.
Bike sessions, in particular, can be beneficial to runners, and because cycling is more quad dominant it can help to balance out the leg muscles, improve stability around the knee, and can help to develop leg turnover (cadence) - providing you cycle at a good cadence. Research has shown that weekly cycling interval sessions can actually improve running performance. It’s a great way to work on cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance without the high impact associated with running.
Don’t forget to work on mental strength.
One big difference between Elite athlete’s and non-elite’s is their ability to focus. Focus is key to maximising racing performance and getting the best out of training sessions. Focus is all about being present in what is going on at that moment (i.e. the race or training) and not being distracted by things like negative thoughts, that can really interfere with performance and our ability to get into that all-important state of flow.
Being able to get into the right mental state during training is also key to maximising the training benefits from key training sessions, and the benefits from this over time contribute to a more consistent state of progression. Mindfulness meditation training and body awareness when running (mindfulness running practice) can be really useful here. There are some good apps that provide useful mental training sessions for athletes.
Practice race day nutrition strategies in training.
Research has shown that you can train yourself to become more efficient at absorbing and utilising fluids and carbohydrates, from energy gels and drinks when running. This can lead to a 4-5% improvement in performance as well as reducing gastro intestinal problems associated with consuming gels and energy drinks. This is particularly beneficial for longer races like marathons and ultra marathons.
Of course, progression in sport involves more than just training, so here’s five additional considerations to help to maintain improvements in running and reduce the risk of a plateau:
Don’t wait for a niggle to become an injury…..get it treated!
We all know those runners who have that constant niggle, they’ve always got a tight hamstring, keep getting cramps in their calf – and always want to tell us about it. Yet, do they get it treated? No, they tend to wait for it to magically improve. Injuries are one of the biggest enemies to running progression, so if you’re serious about running and you have a niggle that’s not improving, book in for a sports massage, see a physio or osteopath, and get it treated. Even, if you don’t have an injury, regular sports massage treatments, and the use of foam rollers, can help to stop these problems occurring in the first place.
Maintain a normal range of motion by working to maintain normal flexibility.
So, this is closely linked to #16 but involves you investing some time in maintaining a good level of flexibility. Whilst I’m not an advocate of excessive stretching, maintaining a good (normal) range of motion is important for both running performance and injury prevention. We’re not generally looking to increase flexibility – in fact this can be detrimental to performance, particularly in certain areas like your knees where stability is beneficial for efficiency and injury prevention – but rather we’re looking to maintain a “normal” range of motion. Obviously, this varies from athlete to athlete.
Currently, recommendations involve the inclusion of dynamic stretching as part of the warm up routine, and some light stretching (no more than 10-12seconds at a time) after exercise. Foam rolling can also be a useful way to aid recovery and to help maintain flexibility.
Schedule in some REST, or RECOVERY periods.
Whether you tend to incorporate full rest days, or easier days as part of your recovery strategy; it’s vital for your long-term progression, that you incorporate adequate recovery and rest periods into your schedule, in order for training adaptations to occur. Rest, or recovery periods should be featured as easier days within a training week, as well as easier weeks within a training block.
Whilst this is obvious, it’s often overlooked. Good nutrition practises include consuming adequate carbohydrates and protein after key training sessions, remaining hydrated throughout the day, and eating a well-balanced diet and also practising race day nutrition before race day.
Getting adequate sleep.
If you doubt the importance of getting adequate sleep, then consider that many elite athletes also sneak in additional short naps into their day to improve their recovery. Whilst this is not possible for most of us, we can do our best to ensure we consistently get an adequate amount of sleep.
Whilst that is by no means a complete list, I hope it gives you some insights into the importance of purposeful training, along with some new ideas to incorporate into your training schedule.
Finally, it’s important to recognise the importance of consistency, discipline and patience in any serious long-term attempt at improving running performance.
Don’t expect improvements to be instant
One of the biggest problems affecting long term progression, is that most people expect immediate results. Often we're not prepared to play the long game. You see this impatience, or lack of confidence, with athletes who are constantly changing things. They are constantly trying to find the one change that will make the big difference to their running performance. Yet, they never allow adequate time for a change to have an effect. One week they’re doing 400m intervals. Then they read an article about tempo running and replace the intervals with a 20min tempo. The next week they’ve decided it’s all about mileage. So they drop the intensity and up mileage and therefore there’s no consistency and no long-term progression!
Whilst there are some types of training sessions that can lead to relatively quick benefits; you won’t achieve long term progression if you’re always focused on short term results. Sure, if you’ve only recently started training, then you’re unlikely to see quick improvements from your training: whether that be an increase in training volume, intensity, or the introduction of a new type of training.
Often, when we make a change, we may not see any obvious improvement for a period of weeks, or months. Sometimes we may even see an initial decline. Examples include when athletes make a significant technical change, often this may lead to an initial dip in performance as they physically adjust to the change. After that initial dip the benefits of the new training will then start to take effect. Here, it’s important to be patient and have faith in the process that you are following. So, don’t panic, rush things, or try to make further changes without allowing adequate time for adaptations to occur.
To be successful in the long run you have to be prepared to play the long game.
So, you need to approach any changes you make, with the attitude that if you do the correct training in a purposeful way, this will lead to big improvements in the long run.
A final note on achieving long term improvements in your running
Long term success always comes from making many small progressive improvements over a number of years through a consistent and disciplined approach to training. So, unfortunately without the patience and discipline to consistently do the right training required to bring about long-term improvements, then progression will always be something that you’re just trying to achieve.
As we’ve discussed in this article, any significant improvement takes time. Many people think they can’t improve, but that’s really not the case: if you consistently do the right training you will improve – the improvements might be small, but over time they accumulate until they eventually add up to a significant improvement.
It will take time, but if you train consistently and with purpose then you’ll be surprised just how much you will improve.