How to Overcome a Plateau and PR Again (Hint: It’s the Little Things)

Back when I was so naive I thought I'd PR just by showing up at the race.
Back when I was nice, happy, and naive.

I started my running journey about five years ago. Back in the beginning, it seemed like every race was a huge PR. I shaved times off in massive chunks. I took 45 minutes off my half-marathon time from my first attempt to my second. The first two years of running was so full of success, that I started to take it for granted. I assumed that all I needed to do was continue to bank miles and I would just get faster and faster.

If you’ve been running for awhile, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We have these huge gains at the beginning and it’s so easy to take PRs for granted and just expect them to happen because we showed up at a race. After a while, though, we all hit a plateau. That’s exactly what happened to me this year.

When I first began running, I read every.single.article about the sport. I researched hydration products, I tested various flavors of GU, I followed my training plans to a T. I got better and faster.

As I became more comfortable with running, however, I stopped respecting the details. I stopped making training plans and started winging it. I stopped obsessing over fuel and hydration. Every mile I put into training was run at the same pace, and none of my workouts were done with intention. Last Spring, I trained for our local half marathon with this mindset, but I still assumed I was on my way to a PR since my training paces were much faster than they’d ever been.

So, what happened? Race day came around and I crashed and burned. My race fell apart by mile five. My legs were heavy. I forgot my GU. I had mishap after mishap and mentally I couldn’t pull it together. That race ended up being my slowest half marathon since my very first half.

I attempted a redemption race several weeks later, because I wanted that half marathon PR. Another attempt, another disastrous race. I ended up in the medical tent with ice packs on my head at mile eight and was ready to DNF. When I learned the van wasn’t going to come take me to the finish line for half an hour, I threw the ice pack off, got up and just finished, albeit even slower than the one earlier in the month.

For the life of me, I really couldn’t figure out WHY suddenly my races had started going so poorly. I wanted to blame all the variables: weather, my period, illness, mercury in retrograde. While those variables may have influenced my end result, I had to swallow the hard truth.

THIS WAS ALL MY FAULT.

Simply put, I didn’t respect the process.

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And then reality set in.

I began to resent running and felt embarrassed about those awful races. I was once so passionate about running. It used to make me feel so good about myself and then, almost overnight, the opposite happened.

And then it hit me: my decline began when I stopped thinking the details were important. Those early PRs spoiled me. I took all those little things that I used to do for granted. Stuff like following a training plan to the letter, being intentional with my workouts, properly fueling and hydrating my body.

Often we experience these plateaus and we think we need to train harder or try a new plan or maybe we just reached our limit. But I realized running isn’t as complicated as we make it out to be. Plateaus are part of the process but, often I think, we lose sight of all the little things we used to do when we were PR’ing. There are countless articles that can provide you some insights and tips to help you be the best runner you can be, but sometimes we need to look to what has worked for us in the past that we’ve forgotten about or stopped doing because … well, we got lazy. For me, I’ve learned that the little details are what makes all the difference and just winging a training plan doesn’t make me a veteran runner, it makes me unprepared.

When we’re new to running, it takes a lot of self-discipline to make it a new habit and to stay uninjured in the process. Over time, it’s so easy to become lazy and feel entitled because we can get away without that stuff, but while we can keep up a running habit and not get injured without doing those things, now we need them to continue to perform our best.

For me, it’s time I go back to the basics and stick with a training plan again, and do better with my nutrition and all those little things I used to be so good about. So while this year wasn’t full of the PRs I imagined it would be, it was still very valuable. It was my version of a rebuilding year. I don’t know if I’ll be going to my own Superbowl next year, but for the first time in awhile, I feel really excited about this next chapter of my running career.  I can’t wait to share what I learn along the way.

Have you ever hit a plateau? How did you get out of it? Did you ever realize that you had an unjustified sense of entitlement to PR? 

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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7 comments

  1. As a fairly new runner (just 1 yr of lots of 5ks a few 10 k and 1 half), I hit a huge plateau! Now, 3 months later I’m back to a new regime and refocus. Thanks for sharing! Great to hear even experienced runners have their ups and downs. Keep on running!

  2. I’ve hit a plateau and I it is totally my fault. I started working with a coach, and while I was working harder on my workouts, I was getting lazy with everything else. I think subconsciously because I had someone telling me what to run and I didn’t have to think about my training as much, I just went along for the ride. I failed to take care of the “little things” i.e. strength training, nutrition, sleep. I was doing all my workouts at the paces I was told with out really thinking about the purpose. Good reminders to take into the next training cycle.

  3. Definitely been there! We get lazy about the little things, that we used to be so diligent about. You mean I’m supposed to drink something during my 20 miler? You mean I should foam roll and not just use it as a pillow when watching TV on living room floor?

  4. I’ve definitely been stuck in a plateau but am ready to break out of it. It definitely has something to do with accountability for sure! Here’s to leaving the plateaus in 2016

  5. Don’t I know the plateau feeling… I’m still there! I am definitely feeling optimistic about 2016 (which includes Grandma’s Marathon), and I think Jasmine’s recent post about racing marathons is really going to help me reverse the trend of actually getting slower with each marathon.

  6. This is so much like language learning: I taught German for nine years and the same thing happens to language students: in 101 and 102, you go from not speaking the language to have a huge vocab bank and feeling super confident. After that, you tend to stop practicing the new words as much, neglect the homework, etc, and expect to continue building that fluency (which of course doesn’t happen). I think with all new things, this happens – kudos to you for recognizing it and refocusing! Have a wonderful 2016 running year!