Faster Workouts, Slower Races  – Troubleshooting Plateaus in Running

Running training

Training makes up the vast majority of a runner’s journey. If you’re like most runners, you only toe the race line 4-8 times per year, meaning you spend between 357-361 days each year in preparation for your next competition. 

Without the ability to get constant feedback from races, runners are forced to rely on training metrics to measure their week-to-week progress. Many runners have a go-to workout that measures their current fitness against past training cycles. Others rely on mileage, heart-rate data, and long-run pace to see how they’re progressing. 

Often times, runners will see tangible progress in their training, only to see their race times stagnate or regress. This phenomenon is confusing and frustrating for runners. If your fitness is improving, shouldn’t you be racing faster? 

The answer to the above question is an emphatic yes. Better workouts should absolutely translate to faster races. If they don’t, you’re doing something wrong in training, and it’s time to start troubleshooting. 

If you train with See You At The Finish, this troubleshooting will be done for you through a thorough analysis of your recent and long-term training, along with personalized, data-driven workouts to maximize your potential. But if you’re looking to troubleshoot your training on your own, here are some common mistakes runners make that can lead to a plateau in race times. 

Focusing Too Heavily on Arbitrary Training Numbers

In the midst of hard training, many runners forget that the purpose of all their workouts and mileage is ultimately to perform better on race day. Countless times, I see runners viewing training as their end goal. Weekly mileage targets, average pace on long runs, and workout splits take priority over the competitive metric that matters most – race performance.

A solid workout or long run can be validating for runners in the build up to a race. But many runners mistakenly view these training sessions as speed tests rather than building blocks. This philosophy can lead to a slew of race-killing mistakes, including:

  1. Running workouts too hard, which develops the wrong energy systems 
  2. Pushing through excess fatigue and injuries, which leads to form breakdown and develops bad habits
  3. Mentally burning out because every workout becomes its own race 

Instead of making training your end goal, you should constantly be asking yourself the following question: “How will today’s run help me run faster in my target race?” That simple philosophical switch can pay huge dividends in helping you run your next PR. 

Poor Long-Term Planning

The most valuable virtue in running is patience. With a proper long-term training plan, you can build each of your energy systems on top of each other, leading to consistent improvement every few months. 

Unfortunately, many runners are impatient. As a result, they ignore the unglamorous work that’s required to improve race times. 

To get faster in a sustainable way, your training blocks need to complement each other. Your aerobic threshold and lactate threshold, for example, are inexorably linked, so if you aren’t carefully targeting each system in your race buildups, you can overdevelop one at the expense of the other. A proper training plan should be based not only on your target race times, but also on your training from the past calendar year. What workouts are your strongest, and how can you build on them? What weaknesses are holding you back, and how can you fix them? 

Additionally, many runners tend to build up their mileage and intensity too quickly, which leads to burnout and injury. While harder training will produce the best short-term results, it can hurt your long-term progress.

Let’s examine the actual numbers with two hypothetical runners over the course of a year. Runner A is patient. Runner B trains too much too soon and is forced to miss three weeks at two points throughout the year. 

Runner A

Annual Volume: 1,800 miles 

Peak Week: 56 miles

Peak Month: 227 miles

Annual Workouts: 68

Annual Long Runs: 24

Runner B

Annual Volume: 1,520 miles 

Peak Week: 74 miles

Peak Month: 303 miles

Annual Workouts: 52

Annual Long Runs: 23

As you can see, Runner A, through a patient approach, is able to get in 280 more miles and 16 more quality workouts throughout the year than Runner B. Runner A is far more likely to see improved race times on a long-term basis than Runner B, even if Runner B has better workout metrics. 

Psychological Stress and Logistics 

While there are a number of factors that differentiate racing from training, perhaps the most underappreciated is timing. In training, you can run when you feel your strongest. In racing, everyone agrees to run at the same time and same place, regardless of how they’re feeling on the day. That fact alone adds an element of stress to race day that can significantly hinder performance.

How many times have you found yourself on a starting line after something has gone wrong during race week? Maybe you’ve come down with a cold. Maybe you’ve missed the starting gun because you were in the bathroom. Maybe the weather is terrible. All of these variables are incredibly common, and they take place before the race even starts. Understandably, many runners can struggle to race well under these conditions. 

Stress-induced tension in running can prevent you from performing to your potential. So how are you supposed to run your best in the midst of race chaos? Here are some tips: 

  1. Race nerves are normal and won’t hurt your performance. Don’t get stressed about your stress. 
  2. Something beyond your control will probably go wrong before your race, so accept that fact ahead of time. It’s simply part of the day. 
  3. Your fitness and race prep will override almost everything else during competition. Imagine that your training is an entire ocean of water. Anything that goes wrong is just a small drop in that ocean. 

If your training is improving but your race times are not, you may need to adjust your psychological approach to race day. That could mean a number of things, including training through non-ideal conditions. If you train with See You At The Finish, your workouts will expose you to many of the variables you’ll see on race day. This approach will allow you to perform at your best on the days that matter most.