2013-09-27

Plateaus For Experienced Runners

Lately I've been running with very good regularity. In the past, when I've done that, I've found myself getting faster and faster, and steadily improving in general. Typically, it takes me about two months to get back into a position where I feel that I can run comfortably, and at a rapid pace.

There are some things that need to happen before I get there. If I'm carrying much muscle mass, I typically have to lose a great deal of it in order to run at a good speed. So, some of the time spent "getting back in running shape" involves simply shedding upper body weight.

Once that happens, the muscles and joints in my legs require some time and experience in order to get back into what I might describe as a "competitive running gait." Part of this process is the development of sufficient flexibility in my legs to handle the kind of running I do when I really get going quickly. For any level of runner, there is a stride length at which the runner feels most comfortable. The faster the runner, the longer that stride length tends to be. This isn't a steadfast rule, of course; every runner is a little different. But the general pattern seems to hold, and it definitely holds true for me. When I'm just getting into running shape, my stride length is shorter because the total range of motion in my hips, knees, and ankles is much shallower. As my speed increases, my range of motion increases. Over the course of a few weeks, it all starts to come together and I return to the classic, time-tested running posture I've had for years.

At that point, it's really just a matter of putting in the work required to get up to a competitive speed. And that's typically how the process goes.

As I said above, though, I've been running regularly lately, and I have found that my body isn't quite locking into the same pattern as before. Running a given distance gets a little easier every day, as expected, but my speed isn't decreasing much, and my overall running form hasn't improved. There may be a couple of reasons for this.

First of all, as I have covered quite extensively on my blog, I have built up a lot more upper body mass over the past year and a half than I am used to carrying. I did this for a new personal challenge, and I have felt good carrying approximately ten additional pounds of muscle in my arms, back, and shoulders. But if I want to run fast, I may have to consider letting some of this muscle mass go. It's slowing me down.

Second, I haven't done much to really challenge myself in terms of speed. The moment things start to get difficult, I push just enough to maintain a constant pace. This is a good exercise to develop a strong sense of pacing, but doing all-pacework means the for speed has suffered. If I want to run fast, I'll have to start prodding myself to genuinely run faster than I have been.

Finally, my long runs have been non-existent. I would like to blame the Texas heat for this, but ultimately I know that I bear full responsibility for my dearth of long runs. It may not seem obvious to the novice runner how important long runs are for becoming a fast runner, but it's true. The stronger one's sense of endurance the longer one can push oneself at higher speeds. If I want to run fast, I'll need to start doing a weekly long run.

I guess the bottom line here is that if you're an experienced runner finding yourself stagnating despite your consistency, you may have to prod yourself to really embrace what it takes to run fast again. I'm going to give it a try. Why not join me?