Plateauing Personal Best
Achieving an aimed-for Personal Best can feel fantastic. But what happens when a PB becomes stubborn, unable to be improved upon? Plateauing is maddening, but armed with training tactics you’ll be able to raise your game once more. Phoebe Doyle seeks expert advice.
“Even the best runners find they reach a plateau from time to time”, says Papillon Luck, Founder of Liberte Fitness (www.libertefitness.com). “’Plateauing’ is the term we use when someone is struggling to improve, usually when they’re failing to increase their speed.” When this happens we begin to question our training patterns; what are we doing wrong? What are others doing right? How can training be engineered and manipulated? Papillon recognises that this self-examination can be exasperating; “This requisite analysis of training can be challenging for the experienced runner who’s used to sticking to their usual schedule. Suddenly they find their current methods are no longer sufficient if they want to achieve more”.
Experts agree that when a PB (Personal Best) becomes stubborn, or when you’re simply finding that you aren’t improving, then it’s time to factor in other forms of training, Papillon advises; “by focusing on building long distance stamina, combined with stronger aerobic capacity, you can make huge advancement in shaving minutes off your times.”
Papillon says that it’s also an opportunity to liven up training, a way to keep monotony at bay. She tells her clients that high intensity training, as well as the addition of strength building, will help to add variety and this can relieve some of the mental challenges running can bring; “adding some diversity will improve motivation and ensure your mind is as challenged as the rest of your body.”
Interval training involves structured periods of work and recovery; its principal aim is to develop the aerobic energy systems. Personal Trainer Dave Clamp (www.daveclamp.com), who competes at top international level in Ultra Distance triathlons explains; “The body's lactic acid tolerance is enhanced by this type of training. When we exercise at higher intensity, the necessary energy can no longer be provided by the aerobic energy system. As a result, the lactic acid energy system must be used to provide the remainder of the energy. Interval training improves performance in 2 areas: Firstly it increases our ability to tolerate high levels of lactic acid and secondly it improves the rate at which lactic acid is removed from the muscles.”
When starting to incorporate interval training, many are confused about how long to run at sprint speed for. Dave advises; “Intervals can be anything between 30 seconds and 5 minutes duration. The intensity should not be absolute sprint speed, but at a speed which you could hold for about 15 minutes in a race situation.” So, initially some find they have to resist the urge to go full pelt which is not advised, due largely to the increased injury risk.
“A further benefit of interval training is that it teaches both your body and mind to feel more relaxed at your race pace” says Dave. It’s this that may lead to the fact that a 2 month period of regular interval training should increase your speed per mile in a marathon by between 10-20 seconds.
Often the terms ‘fartlek’ and ‘interval’ are used interchangeably, but there’s a difference, as Dave explains; “Fartlek training is a Swedish term meaning 'speed-play'. That is exactly what you do with this type of training; play around with your speed. Whilst it’s similar to interval training, the key difference is that the intensity is varied in a more sporadic manner.” As it’s less structured, it’s felt that your body tells you when to stop, hence you’re less likely to push too hard or far.
For runners new to adding speed training, fartlek can be the perfect starting point as it simply means going a bit faster at times – nothing more precise than that; “It can certainly be much more fun and less mentally demanding than intervals due to it's unstructured nature”, says Dave.
Papillon helps her clients by saying that instead of time, or precise distances, simply pick a landmark to sprint to; “alternate jogging and sprinting at around 70% of your maximum speed until you reach a chosen landmark”, she says; “Then pick another landmark in the distance and increase your speed to up to 90% of your maximum. The landmarks are interspersed by jogging, offering a recovery period. As your training develops, you can intensify by adding longer sprint stretches.”
It’s a common oversight of runners to focus all their training time on solely running, and neglecting to work on flexibility and strength training, Papillon explains why they do so at their peril; “It really is a must for runners to focus on improving all-round strength and core stability. Doing so enhances fitness, balance and performance. By training your core muscles in your torso, which connect to the back, stomach and hips, you will improve your posture which in turn will aid your running technique, making your running efficient and subsequently faster.”
Lifting weights (and heavy ones, because if they’re easy they’re not working!) in a gym environment, can be a controlled, safe way of improving muscular strength; “Doing this will dramatically reduce injury risk”, assures Papillon.
When we run, the active muscles become stronger but less flexible (runners have notoriously tight hamstrings!) and the opposing muscles, which are relatively under-used, get weaker. Dave says it is consequently beneficial to maintain flexibility and muscle strength balance between the opposing muscle groups; “A regular flexibility/strength session for legs/core/back/chest is a vital component for successful running.”
For top performance, you need to aim for running strength and power. Adding hill intervals will help you accomplish these goals; “Incorporating hill intervals into your runs will help your legs become stronger, making you run faster and be less likely to suffer injury”, Papillon tells us, adding, “Basically hill intervals make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner.”
What’s more, they also offer great practice for many events as road and cross-country races feature undulations, so training on flat alone can leave you meeting exhaustion on the day. And it’s not just running up-hill that’s of benefit, learning how to stay in control while running downhill is an equally valuable lesson. If you’re well practiced with this it will ensure you keep your momentum going and will strengthen other muscles groups than the ones you’ve used running up the hill.
Once you’ve started adding hills into your running, it’s then time to move it up a notch, as Papillon explains; “When you’ve got used to the hills, you can then take it one step further and incorporate fartlek training into your hill interval work. Speed hills will really raise your strength and aerobic capacity.”
As an experienced runner, Dave knows about the impact hill training can offer, indeed he feels that it was this element that was the main facet of running training that raised his speed and speed endurance to a whole new level. He’s got clear advice for those keen to incorporate hills; “The hill can be of varying steepness and length. It can be 30 second hill surges or several reps up a 5 or 6 minute climb. Hill reps really build leg strength and make you able to learn to cope with running with an elevated heart rate and associated heavy breathing. It really helps you get used to the heavy legs feeling too.”
It’s all in the mind…
Dave tells us about the power the mind holds when it comes to beating your Personal Best…
“Many runners don’t realise the importance of the mind in such an outwardly physical sport, such as running. Yet the top performing athletes generally train for mental toughness. I ran from London to Rome in 2011 and I’m convinced that being able to complete was approximately 85% in the mind and only 15% athletic ability.
“So it’s not just your body that needs training; your mental strength needs serious work on too. Visualising your target goal whilst remaining focused enough to see it through, requires both stamina and mind training. You need to have self-belief and a positive mental attitude. When times get tough and your body wants to quit, the power of your mind will be what takes you through. Don’t underestimate the huge positive impact it can have on your race results.”
Dave’s tips for getting mentally tough:
- Visualise yourself running faster, over-taking people and racing toward a new PB. This will help it to happen.
- Think outside of your body, see yourself in your mind running and tell yourself you’re in control of this.
- Dismiss negative thoughts, they can only harm.
- Set small milestones, breaking everything into small manageable segments rather than one large unachievable target.
- Talk to yourself. This will help you dig deeper for extra strength. Learn what works as encouragement for you.
Improve your running by… not running!
You will never be the best you can be through running exclusively. You know the old adage, ‘variety is the spice of life’, well, much more importantly than that, it can make you a better runner! Here’s how…
Cycling – When riding a bike, you’re roughly simulating the motion of running, and this motion performed in this way can help improve leg strength, and ultimately speed.
What’s more while running benefits calves and hamstrings, it largely ignores the front leg muscles; cycling works these well. By strengthening the muscles opposite those exercised by running, it helps you improve running performance and avoid injury.
Swimming - The resistance of the water gives a whole body workout improving cardiovascular and muscular-skeletal fitness. The buoyancy and zero-impact nature of swimming means there’s very little risk of injury.
The swimming pool can be the perfect environment for practising interval training as you can alternate by doing, say 3 steady laps and 1 sprint.
Rowing – Whilst running may feel like it’s all in the legs, having a strong upper body is essential for good form, and hence superior performance. Rowing works the arms, shoulders, back and chest – areas often neglected by runners. Strengthening these areas will lead to better posture, balance and a much stronger running style.