8 Powerful Ways To Breakthrough A Running Plateau

Just about every runner on the planet has a personal best that they dream about beating. It’s a number that sits quietly in every runner’s mind, whispering gentle reminders of your potential as an athlete.

The problem is that it’s very easy to hit a running plateau. When this happens, the possibility of a new PB seems to drift further and further into the background. You start setting lesser targets, and employ very convenient excuses to help keep your expectations in check.

You’re either too old, too slow, too bored or too broken to have a serious shot at making progress. You let these excuses overwhelm your judgment, and with each passing day, they start looking more like irrefutable truths rather than the self-imposed limits that they actually are.

The end result isn’t pretty. You peak at a level that is so far short of your potential it’s almost sinful. Then age starts to rear it’s ugly head, and all you can do is look back at another dream you just couldn’t quite materialize.

The good news is that we are about to destroy some of these limiting beliefs, with 8 powerful tips that can help you get past that running plateau.


Tip 1 – Stop Using Age As An Excuse

It’s almost too easy to fall into this trap. You’re too old, and therefore too slow, to break your PB. Oh lordy lord.

The real question is this. Have you learnt how to milk every drop of your potential?

Honestly for 95% of runners out there, the answer is no. Most people are operating so far short of their maximum potential, age doesn’t even factor it into the equation.

Imagine an oil well that has yet to be drilled into. It’s just sitting there, waiting for the right combination of forces before it releases the most coveted liquid on the planet.

The comparison here is obvious, but I’m going to state it regardless. Most people never learn to tap into their true potential as runners. They are like oil wells just waiting for someone or something to come along and unlock their true power. They use ultra convenient excuses like their age, flexibility and speed, when in actuality it’s their training and mentality that’s letting them down.

Don’t let this happen to you. Drop the age excuse, and reinvest that mental energy into doing everything you can to become a better athlete.


Tip 2 – Learn How To Avoid and Overcome Injury

I know exactly how this story plays out. You have all the motivation in the world, but you haven’t figured out how to train consistently without getting injured several times a year. This is the foundation on which plateaus are built.

In my case, it all came down to a pair of unreliable calves. I would spend months building up my running fitness, knowing that a Parkrun PB would be almost inevitable if I could just string enough good training sessions together.

But I failed to appreciate that working on my my most crippling weakness is the single most important aspect of my training. Instead of working on my calf strength every single day, I would flirt with danger every time I put on my running shoes.

The end result was awful. I suffered 7 calf strains in 2 years and I almost gave up on running altogether.

Then finally I came to my senses. I took a long hard look in the mirror, and faced up to the fact that I wasn’t conditioning my body properly. My strategy was reliant on rest days, rather than strengthening the muscles that were holding me back.

And then I committed to the very simple task of 30 (or more) calf raises, every single day, for the rest of my life. Since committing to this daily routine, I haven’t had a calf strain, and I can finally train 3-4 times per week, knowing that my body can actually handle the training load.

I can’t force you to have this wake up call, but if you’re anything like me, you probably have a weakness that needs to be addressed. Stop pushing it to the side and pretending that it’s going to magically disappear.

In other sports you can get away with having a weak link in the chain, but not with running. As soon as your training load increases, that weak link will buckle. That means injury, setbacks, immense frustration and poor performance.

Fortunately, there is way to nip this particular issue in the bud. The first thing is to recognize your most crippling weakness. The next thing is to commit to a simple daily action that will rehabilitate the affected area. If you then add efficient strength conditioning training and adequate rest days into the mix, you can build the foundation you need to conquer your injury demons and slay your next race.


Tip 3 – Stop Doing The Same Bloody Thing!

This is another trap that’s super easy to fall into. You finally get into a training grove and things go well for a couple of months. You make a few solid gains and start knocking on the door of a new PB. But at as time goes on, that initial progress grinds to a halt.

Where did it all go wrong?

The issue here is actually the human body. Over time, it will adapt to meet the demands of your training. When that happens, there is literally no reason for your body to get stronger, fitter or faster. It reaches a kind of homeostasis, and then it sees no further need to for improvement.

To add insult to injury, this issue is worsened by habit formation. Once you settle into something, it can be super difficult to break your routine. You train for 40 minutes 5 times a week, and that becomes part of a never changing schedule. Mixing things up is going to feel awkward, uncomfortable and a little bit scary. But it has to be done if you want to achieve a break through performance.

In other words, you basically have your mind and your body working against you. This is a recipe for mediocre performances.

Your job is to prevent this from happening. You literally need to push your body above and beyond what it is currently capable of in order to stimulate more physical adaption. That could mean setting distance goals that you’ve never reached before, or replacing one of your easy runs with a speed session.

It could mean hiring a running coach that has expert knowledge of how to extract better performance from your body.

It could mean finding a running partner that’s just a little bit better and faster than you, in order to show you what’s possible during your sessions.

There are so many things you can do to shake up your routine. You just need to pick one approach, let it play out for a few months, and then look for further modifications down the road. This commitment to constantly refining your training will keep the gains coming and the good times rolling.


Tip 4 – 100 Micro Gains = Mega Improvement

Until the year 2003, Britain was known for producing cyclists that were literally incapable of competing with the best in the world. In fact, there performances and reputation were so dire, certain manufactures didn’t want to ship their bikes to British cyclists, because they felt it might damage the reputation of their brand!

But what happened next is arguably the most powerful success story in the history of sport.

A man by the name of Dave Brailsford entered the scene, tasked with the seemingly impossible task of turning British cyclists into world champions.

Rather than focusing on the seeming impossibility of changing the genetic potential of British cyclists, Mr Wiggins took a different approach to this problem. His theory was quite simple. If you can achieve a 1% improvement in 100 different areas, it will add up a remarkable improvement in overall performance.

What happened next is the stuff of legend. James Clear puts it into perspective quite nicely.

Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games came to London, the Brits raised the bar as they set nine Olympic records and seven world records.

That same year, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The next year, his teammate Chris Froome won the race, and he would go on to win again in 2015, 2016, and 2017, giving the British team five Tour de France victories in six years.”


Ok. Now we know that when you stack up a bunch of marginal gains, the potential improvement can be dramatic to put it mildly. So how do you apply this idea to breaking through a running plateau?

The simple answer is to identify 10 key variables that affect your running performance, and then seek to make minor improvements in each of these key areas. For instance, you might identify the following:

  • Strength and conditioning
  • Sleep
  • Aerobic fitness
  • Flexibility
  • Weight
  • Nutrition
  • Supplementation
  • Training partner
  • Training schedule
  • Stress & lifestyle factors

All you need to do is figure out how to improve by 1% in each of  your identified areas. These micro gains will stack up into a plateau busting performance on race day.


Tip 5 – Draw Inspiration From Others

During one of my first parkruns, I noticed an older lady that was scorching through the field at a rapid pace. I figured she wouldn’t be able to hold that speed, assuming she was one of those overconfident, inexperienced Trojans that burn out by the second kilometer.

But I was wrong. This particular lady put in the best parkrun performance that I have ever seen, and I mean that quite literally.

See, Parkrun has this amazing thing called age grading, which factors your age and gender into your performance and calculates a score out of 100 for your run. It levels the playing field, allowing you to complete an apples to apples comparison between all the athletes in the field.

The lady in question ran a 19:05 5k, at the age of 56! She scored 95% on the Parkrun age grading scale. That’s at least 10% higher than any other parkrun athlete I have ever seen.

The point is, if you open your eyes and start looking for inspiring stories, there are hundreds of examples that can shatter your understanding of what’s possible.For instance:

Antonie Human – This is a dude from South Africa that used to weigh over 440 pounds. Then he discovered Parkrun. Within 2 years, he lost over 200 pounds and chopped more than an hour off his 5k PB. Keep this man in mind if your end goal is weight loss.

Stephen Way – Stephen is a British ultra runner whose athletic career sprang out of nowhere. In his early thirties, Stephen weighed more than 220 pounds, and he was also a chain smoker.

Then someone encouraged him to enter a fun run. This simple run triggered a lifestyle transformation that is almost an urban legend.

Stephen quickly discovered that he has the heart of a horse, and now he’s dominating the ultra marathon scene. Keep Stephen in mind if you’re hoping to change from average and overweight to world class in less than 5 years.

Judy Bird – It still amazes me when I think about how fast this lady is. If a 56 year old woman is able to run 5 kilometres in 19 minutes, I’m pretty confident you can knock a minute or two off your current PB. You just need to create a new paradigm of possibility.

Drawing inspiration from others is the best way to do this.


Tip 6 – Lose Some Weight To Increase Speed & V02 Max

Before you skip past this advice, keep this key fact in mind. Losing weight is one of the easiest ways to increase your V02 Max. The simple act of dropping a kilo will give you solid v02 max performance gains that are hard to replicate through other means. Why does this happen?

Quite simply because V02 max is scored relative to your weight. The lighter you are, the higher your V02 max will be.

Why does this matter?

Because V02 max is “the defining metric of aerobic performance capacity”. In simple terms, improving your V02 max will improve your running potential. Every breath you take will give you more energy as you chase down that PB. Increasing your V02 max also introduces the following benefits:

  • Increased heart muscle size
  • Improved stroke volume (the amount of blood the heart pumps in each beat)
  • Improved cardiac output
  • Lowered resting heart rate
  • Increased amount of hemoglobin in your red blood cells. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to the needed areas.
  • Improved ability for muscles to get oxygen from the blood (oxygen extraction) during your workouts
  • Improved blood pressure
  • Improved respiratory efficiency

Ok. So now we know that losing weight will improve your V02 max measurement. But are there any other benefits you can expect if you drop a few pounds?

The short answer is YES. Not only will dropping excess weight increase your v02 Max, it will also make you a little bit faster over every mile. 

There are basically 2 major studies on this particular topic. The one study added weight to the subjects and measured their running performance. The other study used a pulley system to ‘lighten’ the body weight of the subjects.

Both studies reached the same basic conclusion. Excess weight will slow you down, period. Roughly speaking, with every pound you lose, you can expect a performance gain of about 1-2 seconds per mile.


Tip 7 – Embrace Speed Training

Here’s the thing about speed training.When you do it properly, it’s going to be a little bit humbling.

You won’t be able to run as far as you normally can.

Your legs are going to hurt, your muscles are going to burn, and your lungs are going to feel like they are on fire!

Your body is going to scream for relief and beg you to stop.

And this is exactly  why runners don’t do enough speed training.  Your body, your brain and your ego will suffer.

This is exactly why you need to make it a core component of your training, if you want to break through a plateau. Speed training is the secret sauce that your body needs to create physical adaptations that quite literally make you faster. Your ass will get a little bit bigger. Your calves are going to pulsate like Ronnie Coleman busting a pose at Mr Olympia.

Ultimately, when you are going to activate and strengthen your fast twitch muscle fibers. There are few allies more powerful for this particular battle.


Tip 8 – Long Term Perspective

This idea is perhaps best summarized by Bill Gates. “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in 10 years”.

You might have heard that saying before, but have you ever stopped to consider that long term vision is one of the greatest predictors of your success?

This is essentially what the marshmallow experiment proved. People who are able to forgo immediate gratification in favor of long term rewards tend to be more successful in every area of life.

Jason Fitzgerald from strengthrunning.com ties this idea to running in a very tangible way when he refers to the ‘cumulative nature of running’. The basic idea is that your training today isn’t just going to affect your performance next week. Instead, you are laying the foundation for improved performance 6 months, 12 months 18 months and even 24 months from now.

Like compound interest, training benefits increase with time. The physical systems (let’s not also forget mental and emotional) that enable fast races and injury resilience take years to properly develop.

That’s why some elite-level coaches tell their athletes that it takes 2-3 years after college to even glimpse their potential!

There are 2 key things to recognize here.

Firstly, it takes time to reap the rewards of your efforts. Expecting immediate gains every time you train is unrealistic, and it can invite disappointment. On the other hand, appreciating the compound nature of performance gains can set you apart from other athletes.

Instead of getting bleak every time you hit a plateau, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you are just in the process of turning that plateau into a platform, even if it takes a little bit longer than you might like.

Secondly, when you start making decisions based on a long term vision, you can dramatically increase the likelihood of achieving success with your running goals and in other areas of your life. It is the mental paradigm you need to make the short term sacrifices that will ultimately result in amazing long term success.


Final Thoughts: 

My hope with this article is that you will gain the inspiration you need to start chasing a new personal best, in whatever running distance you prefer. Now get out there and smash it!