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Bust Out of a Running Plateau!

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“I’ve been running for three years. At first, it seemed like I got stronger and faster with every race, but my progress has hit a stumbling block. I do a lot of local 5ks, but still haven’t broken 30 minutes. Help!” —Bethany

Congratulations on three years of running strong! What you’re describing is very common for anyone who takes up a new sport. Remember that first ride on your bike without training wheels? I do. My father hung on until I was able to balance on my own, and then I took off exploring the block. My skills spiked dramatically in the first year of riding—but haven’t improved much since. The same thing happens to new runners.

That said, you can break through this plateau—and with a strategy shift  you will smash that 30-minute mark. Your body has simply adapted to your current training regiment and needs a little kick-start. Here are a few strategies to get out of your rut safely and efficiently.

RACE LESS. If you race too often, your performance can stabilize due to fatigue and burnout. If you truly want to break a personal record, race no more than one 5k per month. It takes a little more patience, but it will pay off when you see the finish line clock.

MIX IT UP. Include a variety of workouts in your schedule. It’s easy  to get lured into running at “ho-hum” effort–the pace that helps you burn off stress and feels good. But when we stick to the same pace all the time, we learn to run well at that pace and that pace only. By incorporating long-distance runs and hard-effort speed workouts into your schedule, you’ll train to push yourself on race day by improving endurance, speed and metabolic threshold.

ACCESSORIZE. It might be counter-intuitive, but performing non-running exercises will make you a stronger runner. At least once per week, mix it up by following a Pilates DVD, taking a strength class at your gym or working with a personal trainer. A strong core will help you waste less effort stride-for-stride, and the energy saved will translate to faster race times.

BRING IT DOWN. Always scale back your training in the week leading up to your race. Getting in “just one more hard workout” will sabotage your big day. Save your strength by tapering your running volume and intensity by 60 percent. For instance, if you normally run 50 minutes four times per week, run 40 minutes only twice during race week.

FINE-TUNE YOUR RACE-DAY STRATEGY. Once per week, perform race-simulation workouts to learn how to pace yourself. Then on race morning, get to the start at least one hour early to park, use the bathroom and check your gear. Start your warm up 20 minutes before the gun: walk 5 minutes briskly, then run easy for 5 minutes, then perform four 30-second strides. During the race, go by effort rather than the numbers on your Garmin. Run half a mile at an effort that feels comfortable, the next mile and a half at a moderately difficult effort and the final mile at a difficult effort. Smile when you see 29 minutes on the clock! ■

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Jenny Hadfield is the co-author of Running for Mortals and Marathoning for Mortals. You can  nd more of her training programs, tips and running classes at coachjenny.com.