A New Outlook
It’s as if you’re running in quicksand. Each race you run the same old pace, same old times, and have the same old feelings of frustration. How often have you been working hard in training and competition, yet you just don’t seem to see any improvement? It’s not that you’re really getting slower, it’s just that you don’t seem to be getting any faster. Often times the whole situation doesn’t make a lot of sense. You honestly feel like you are capable of performing better. It’s as if you’re running in one of those weird dreams where you run really hard, but don’t seem to go anywhere.
Feeling like you’re in a performance rut isn’t that unusual. All runners have to deal with them in some shape or form at different points in time. Most coaches simply feel these performance ruts are a normal part of training. Progression will never be perfectly linear. Sometimes you improve quickly, while at other times you may stagnate. The goal should be to make the periods of performance stagnation as short as possible and get you back to a positive trend in your training and performance.
Performance ruts are often the result of spending too long of a period in a particular training phase, or even too much time in the same training environment, i.e. same course, same pace, etc. Many ruts are a result of pure unadulterated boredom. The rut can have more to do with mental factors than physical problems.
Racing schedules can also lead to performance ruts. Too few races can lead you to lose sight of your goal and you may begin to feel your hard work has no real purpose. On the other hand, too many races may not allow for adequate physical and mental recovery, both of which can lead to overtraining and running burnout.
The main point for most runners to ponder is how to get out of these ruts and back on the running fast track. First and foremost, be sure you have a sound training program. A good training program is well planned with different phases that stress different intensities and mileage at different times of the year. Too often runners get locked into a training plan that does not have any specific goal in mind. This may result in a pattern of running that varies little in intensity and duration each day. As a result your body adapts and little training effect occurs past a specific point, leading to a performance rut.
Plan your races for variation as well. If you do like to race a lot try to vary the distances. Don’t run the same distance every weekend. Mix it up and view certain races as preparation for a major race you may be looking toward down the road. Run a road mile, cross-country race or even try a duathlon. This variation in stress on the body will improve your physiological parameters, while at the same time help to prevent mental fatigue and boredom.
Psychologically, there are a number of things that can be done to increase the likelihood of getting out of a rut. A key word to remember is CHANGE! First and foremost, do something different. Run some totally different workouts, do more fartlek, run some hills. Just do a different type running that is different from your normal routine. Try running at a different time of day. Run in a different geographic location. Get away from the old three-mile loop! Go and run around a field, go to a different town, go out to a farm. Just run anywhere different. If you normally run on the road, try to run some on grass or trails. Hate the track? Go to the track for some workouts simply for a change of pace. You may even consider (heaven forbid for some) taking a day off and even participating in another physical activity.
Try not to get overly “stressed out” about being in a performance rut. Above all, don’t panic. Sometimes simple patience is the key to getting out of a running rut. If you truly believe in your training program then give it a little time. All of us are different and physiologically respond to training differently. Too often runners will try to get out of their running rut by drastically increasing their mileage or training intensity. While this may help in some cases, there is always the risk of physically and mentally wearing yourself out, which will result in further performance decrements. Overtraining and burnout can result when drastic increases are made in mileage and/or intensity. If overtraining and burnout do occur, you will have a lot more running problems on your hands that just being in a rut. You’ll probably mentally feel more like being in a deep ditch! Chronic fatigue and motivation problems may totally ruin your season if overtraining occurs. Try to ere on the side of caution when changing your actual training plan.
Remember -- if you feel yourself running in a rut, be patient and try to make some changes that will refresh you mentally. Often a change in mental outlook is all that it takes to achieve a performance breakthrough. If you’re fresh mentally you will be more motivated to run hard and your confidence will be high. Recognize when you’re about to get yourself in a running rut and do something about it before the rut gets too deep. Remember to train hard, train smart, and have fun!