I had a talk with an old teammate of mine this morning who is now a college track and cross country coach. He talked to me about how his team is experiencing what I call The Plateau. He described it this way:
"They're going through a tough stretch. You know, the start of the season is like when you first start dating someone. Everything is exciting, you feel great, you're fresh. But after a year, going to Taco Bell for dinner doesn't have the same spark. It doesn't mean the relationship is bad, but it's easy to think something is wrong if you don't talk about it, expect it."
I think his dating analogy is a pretty good one, as each season you can have a different relationship with your running. Especially if you are relatively inexperienced, as most high school and college runners are. Each year and each season represent new training methods, new teammates, new coaches, and hopefully new PRs.
What is The Plateau?
In the middle of any season (or training program), runners and teams experience a period where their motivation and their performances start to level off. Performance may even decline a bit. It tends to happen when you've been training hard for some time, you are getting a little banged up, and you are still far from tapering (and the excitement that championship season brings).
The Plateau generally lasts for about 3-4 weeks. But it can last even longer or you might (maaaaaybe) make it a whole season without one. The hardest part about The Plateau is that it sneaks up on you; it's only when you're in it that you realize it. And when you're in it, it doesn't feel like it will ever end. I think of it as the running equivalent to a headache.
If your team is training exceptionally hard, or has taken its training to another level, you may all go through this around the same time. If you have upped your training more than your teammates, you may go through this earlier than everyone else.
How do you know it's The Plateau?
First, nothing explicitly "happens". Training and life continue to go on pretty much as they do. But...
But you feel kind of blah physically. Morning runs start slower. Workouts seem longer and more daunting. Suddenly, the thought of doing 5 x 1 mile isn't all that exciting. You tell yourself things like, "I just need to get through this workout," and wonder, "Why does this feel so hard all of the sudden?"
Second, training loses its excitement. If you're on a college team, this seems to happen right along with midterms. You get a little distracted, you have a little more difficulty balancing running and other activities, and you find yourself doubting the quality of your training, mostly because you don't see much improvement. The doubt seems to come right after an inexplicably mediocre race performance.
As a coach, you begin to see athletes downplaying their own expectations before practices and spending more time in the training room. You also often see your athletes talking about lots of other things that don't involve that day's workout and/or the upcoming races. After all, they've been doing these workouts for months now...(insert new topic) is far more interesting.
Why does The Plateau happen?
Actually, it is just a part of the natural cycle of change. It happens whether you are training, studying, traveling, working, dating, parenting, learning a language, or doing pretty much any hobby. Change is never linear. It may appear to be, if you look at someone's PRs on a year-by-year basis. But PRs are just an indication of progress, not the progress itself.
Actual progress happens little by little, every day, in practice. It is the accumulation of tiny, marginal improvements made on a daily basis. The problem is, sometimes your body and mind need more of that energy to simply recover from your recent training and therefore you don't see as much change.
The progress is happening, however. You just won't be able to see it for a few weeks.
Preparing for The Plateau
So now that we know it's coming, how do we prepare for this? First, you have to know that no matter how much you love what you're doing, you are bound to experience stretches in which you just don't feel like doing it. The Plateau is inevitable. Maybe not every season, but it will happen. Expecting it is the first part of preparing for it.
Second, you have to believe--not just understand--that you will start feeling better and see improvement on the other side. The worst thing you can do is let yourself get frustrated, question your training program, and start over-training.
Third, talk with your coach. And talk with your teammates. Knowing that others go through it is an incredibly effective way to stay positive. Similarly, you need to be in tune with your coach so that if you start pressing--which is natural, given how much energy and passion you put into your running and what you hope to get out of it--your coach can help you to relax and pull back a bit.
Executing through The Plateau
The first three points above have to do with preparation. The last one has to do with execution. Optimal Training requires that you focus on each.
So fourth, focus on quality. You're always trying to get the most out of your workouts. But when you hit The Plateau, it becomes even more important. Stepping up your training does not get you through The Plateau faster.
For the three hours you are at practice, make a conscious effort to focus on practice. When you do a stretch, or a stride, or a rep, focus on that and that alone and do it as well as you can. Focus on incremental excellence. Every day, try to get better at doing what you do.
Then, when your practice is over, feel free to focus on the other things you need to do. Hopefully, you've already structured the rest of your life in such a way that it won't be detrimental to your training.
One last thing
When I was a redshirt freshman at UCLA, I showed up to camp in decent shape. I was training well and looked like I was going to make the traveling squad. Mark Hauser, our top runner and an NCAA champion, told me what he expected from the season.
He said we'd hit rough patches where we didn't feel we were improving. He said we'd struggle with tired legs in the middle of the season. He said we'd run races where our performances weren't indicative of the hard work we'd put in, or the practices leading up to it. But he also told me it is a natural part of training and that he'd gone through it every year. He never called it The Plateau, but he didn't need a name for it. Just taking the time to describe it helped me immeasurably when I found myself in it six weeks in.
So my last piece of advice: if you've been through The Plateau before, or you're working with runners who are going through it, take the time to discuss it with the younger runners. As a young runner, The Plateau can be an incredibly frustrating period. But when a young runner learns about it early in her career, it will help them to focus that much more on how to get through it. It certainly helped me.