What exactly is a performance plateau in middle distance running? It is a temporary stagnation or slight decline in racing times or in key training markers. When a plateau becomes evident to a runner it can be very discomforting and may lead to a questioning of the training, over-reaction to the situation, and even panic. Rather than being a cause of concern it is important to realize that once a runner has been training for any period of time it is inevitable that they will hit a performance plateau. In fact, if you have not witnessed this phenomenon, there may be something wrong with the training program.
It is important to point out that a plateau in performance is not the same as overtraining. Rather, overtraining is a negative outcome of many factors which ultimately results in a significant decline in performance as well as the capacity to train effectively. It manifests itself in the forms of extreme fatigue, repeated failures in training and competition, and psychological issues such as the unwillingness to want to continue with training, racing, or even the sport itself. Overtraining is always the result of “too much”. By too much, it may mean any single or multiple factors of: too much mileage, too much continuous training without a break, too much racing, or too much of the same day to day style of training such as tempo run after tempo run. The key to preventing overtraining is variety, and that just may be the answer to coming out of performance plateaus as well.
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It is physiologically accepted that plateaus are a normal part of training progression in middle distance running. Performance improvement and training progress are not linear. There will be periods of stagnation, just as there will be periods of rapid improvement. Training theorists and exercise physiologists have long illustrated the idea that in any annual training plan, and throughout an athletic lifetime, performance fitness should ideally improve as a staircase-like series of ever-ascending small plateaus leading to a small period of peak performances. Each step in the staircase is a period of adaptation to the stimulus of the previous training period. If there is patience in evaluating progress in this light, and there is a training-dictated measured control of the duration of each plateau, then the plateau can be seen as it should be viewed: as a necessary and positive training phenomenon.
The athlete and coach must work cooperatively in controlling the duration of plateaus. The coach assists by controlling the training process and competition schedule, and the athlete assists by controlling their lifestyle. This requires careful microcycle and session planning as well as execution of a thoughtful annual plan by the coach. The runner must be completely aware of their role in the whole process, and loyally provide objective, ongoing feedback to help the coach make necessary adjustments. This is also why a middle-distance runner can only have one “real coach”. The real coach is the single person who writes the workouts. Any helpers such as timers, assistants, or strength and conditioning staff must work at the direction of the real coach, and not the other way around, if plateaus in performance are to be controlled.
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What are the root causes of extended or unexpected plateaus? Generally, plateaus like this result from too much time spent in a particular training mode, routine, or environment. For example, during specific prep or pre-comp periods carrying out six weeks of the same Monday-Sunday routine with the same aerobic workouts and anaerobic sets and reps (with the same amount of rest) done on the same days will certainly lead to a frustrating plateau. Also, the competition schedule can play a significant role in the cause of plateaus. Too much or too little competition can cause a plateau in performance with middle-distance runners. The former does not give the runner much time to train and prepare, while the latter can make the athlete feel like the training lacks purpose.
Middle distance runners should never compete as often as sprinters or throwers, but they can race a little more often than five or ten kilometer runners. Multiple races at track meets can cause extended performance plateaus, as the whole of the meets are spent warming up, racing, cooling down, re-warming up, racing, etc. Not much fun for the middle distance runner if done at every meet. Another big factor in middle distance runners showing unwanted plateaus is too much competition against an inferior opponent which results in stagnation of performance, as the athlete is not psychologically or physically challenged, and neither the training nor the competition offer enough stimulus for adaptation to occur. This can be solved by frequently racing middle distance runners out of their comfort zones at meets. Instead of the miler racing the 1600 meters at a meet, have them race the 400 meters as their event. Instead of the 800 meter runner racing that same event, have them race a pair of 200 meters in the open and relay events for a meet or two.
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Variety in work and rest are commonly found in sound middle distance training programs. Evidence of this is noticeable changes in training stimuli as microcycles, periods, and phases advance through a macrocycle. This strategy is important in preventing extended and unwanted performance plateaus. There are many ways to add variety to a training program to avoid prolonged plateaus or to break a plateau. The key is that each of the changes must have a specific purpose and methodology. In particular, the sequence of work must be structured so that training components are complimentary. Many times big changes are needed for an athlete to break a plateau, but most of the time small changes can be made in work or rest to stop a plateau if caught early enough.
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Some examples of big changes include: increasing or decreasing total volume, altering the speed of anaerobic work, increasing or decreasing rest intervals in anaerobic work, adding or removing different training modes, altering the sequence of workouts, and/or changing the workout environment/location.
Examples of small changes include: slightly altering the balance of the multi-lateral training scheme, change the visual and/or auditory feedback, change coaching cues, alter kinesthetic awareness, and/or change drills, warm-ups, and daily routine.
Never forget that middle distance training is a cumulative process. No one workout or training method will make all the difference; rather the total of all components is what determines the ultimate training adaptation. That is why it is so important to plan and recognize the plateau phenomenon and not make large scale, willy-nilly changes to the big picture as panic and frustration settles in during a plateau.
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