On the upper east coast we live at a fast pace, on the west coast it's a bit slower. When we run 3 miles we run it at a certain pace, and use another for 10 miles, and yet another for 18 miles. We have a pace we run whether it's for weight loss, general fitness, for fun or for competition. No matter what we do and why, we have a pace for it.
Eventually it all plateaus. The pounds no longer melt away. We no longer feel like we are getting better, stronger, faster. Our workouts and pace remain the same but the gain is gone. Sure we still enjoy, but what about the rest?
Simply put, it’s our pace that is doing this to us. Yep, that same pace that got us to the point we’re at, is now the blockade that keeps us from continuing on. After a while our bodies adapt. We may still feel like we’re working hard, but physiologically we’re now on cruise control. Our bodies aren’t stressed the way they were before and we need to give them a jump start to get them going again.
The easiest fix is to start hitting the track a couple of times a week and cranking out the intervals. Mixing up the workouts and forcing our bodies to respond to new stresses and demands. If we stir things up enough we’ll find that we are once again improving. However, for many, like me, the track takes the joy out of running and makes it work. I do enough work that I get paid for; no one is paying to run laps around a track. I don’t enjoy it and I’m not going to do.
There are alternatives though. Interval training on the track may be one of the best and ‘easiest’ but there are ways to continue to improve without going anywhere near one. All we have to do is change our pace. I don’t mean to simply run everything faster, as many of us have found, pushing the pace on our runs only works so long. We just simply need to change the pace. Mix it up and keep our bodies from adapting to it.
There are many ways to do it. Go on 4 mile run, but at a 5k race pace (basically a Tempo run). When you can no longer hold the pace, let it go and find a pace to carry you to the finish. Try going on a 15 mile run at a pace significantly slower than your marathon pace. If you run an 8min pace for a marathon, try running those 15 miles at a 9:30 pace. Sounds silly? See how your legs feel in those last miles and see if you still think it’s silly. Chances are your muscles will be getting sore and your legs feeling tight. Why? You’re using your muscles much differently than normal. Your stride is shorter, and you’re spending more time on each leg bearing weight on every stride. I doesn’t seem like running slower will make you faster, but yet it does help. Our muscles strengthen from using them differently. Our body has to adapt to a different set of motor function parameters which causes a positive form of stress.
Another way to change the pace up is the old classic fartlek (Swedish for speed play, as if you didn’t know) run, where you keep throwing in changes in pace. There is no set distance for the total run or any of the changes in pace which may be anywhere from 50 yards up to ½ mile or more with no exact number to how many you throw in. Fartlek runs are very effective, but not really much fun (at least to me).
I know none of this sounds exciting and most of us have tried these and others as ways to improve, but unless we keep at them, their effectiveness is minimal. I know I will realize I’ve gotten to a plateau and I’m just logging miles at the same old pace day after day and I’ll start adding in Tempo runs and Fartleks for a while. They get old quickly and soon I’m back to just cranking out the miles, unless I find ways to make them interesting. As far as I’m concerned, intervals, tempo runs and fartleks all suck. But, they don’t have to…
This is where the more creative you are, the more you can start having fun with things. You may still be basically be doing a tempo run or a fartlek, but it doesn’t feel that way. One of the ways I’ve found to help mix up the pace and keep things fun is to race everyone that passes me. Granted, I don’t get a lot of runners passing me when I’m out a run, but I don’t limit it to runners. If someone on a bike passes me I chase after them for as long as I can or until I lose sight of them. Same with rollerbladers. Best part? If you actually hang with them for a while or better yet, pass them back, it drives them nuts. I actually went back and forth for over 2 miles once with a lady on a bike. By the time she finally broke free of me she was talking to herself, called me a name and probably rode harder than she ever had before. Did I feel bad about it? Heck no! We both got a better workout, even if she didn't like it.
Another tactic I've used is any time I see someone on foot I chase them down like it's between me and them for the win at Boston. It doesn't matter if they are walking or running, toward me or away. I chase until I catch them, lose sight or we go seperate directions.
When running with a friend I've made a challenge of it. We each get to pick 5-10 sprints of any distance during the run. They can be called at any time and for any distance. Loser of each sprint owes the other runner some prize to be determined. I used to do this with a friend on Sunday mornings during NFL season. Local bar had wings for 25 cents. For each sprint lost, you bought the other guy a chicken wing. If you don’t call all of your sprints before the end of the run, you owe the other guy a beer. It brings some strategy into the runs and can keep focus on what the other guy is doing. Notice that they aren’t paying much attention and call a sprint and take off before they know what happened. If other runner hasn’t called all of his sprints and you’re nearing the end of the run you can try to hold one of yours back and use it at a point that will block the other runner from calling their last before end of run. My friend used to call his last one about 50 yards from end of the run and one day I held my last one to the end and called for one remaining 200 yards of run. Got a free beer out of the deal and made future runs more interesting.
Another one I like is to do a 6+ mile run and start out at a 5k race pace. I have to hold 5k pace until I see a car with an out of state plate or I absolutely can’t hold on any longer. Some days this may mean a ½ mile, others 2 miles, and some until I crash and burn. But not knowing the distance ahead of time keeps things interesting and by focusing on passing license plates, I’m no longer focused on how hard I’m running.
I use some of these same tactics while cycling. See other bikes and I give chase. Or I may decide every time a red car passes I have to sprint. I may do a mile sprint of first one, half mile on second, and a quarter mile on third and then reset to a mile. If another passes before I’ve completed my sprint I tack on appropriate distance. If sprinting a quarter mile and it suddenly becomes a mile and a quarter, it really shakes things up. I usually set limit only one additional distance can be added on to a sprint already underway and will put a cap at max number of sprints on a ride. Some days I may only see a couple red cars and others it seems like every car is red.
There are so many different things you can do to mix things up. The important thing is that whatever you do forces pace changes, doesn’t allow runs to be the same time after time, and makes things a little more fun and interesting. Keep the body guessing, don’t allow it to adjust, and keep your mind distracted from the actual work out and enjoy. Before long you’ll find the miles melting away and that plateau you reached a thing of the past.