When progress is slow

(don’t worry, I’ll make a race report of the Spring Thaw once Elite Runners posts the pictures from it)

It’s tough to admit, but I’m in a bit of a rut at the moment: my paces have plateaued since last year, and I haven’t been able to progress as quickly as I would like.

I didn’t start running in earnest until late 2010, when I ran my first half marathon. The rest of that year and most of the next were intermittent; I struggled with on-again, off-again shin splints from shoes that really weren’t built for me. Things started smoothing out in the fall of 2011, and between that time and the spring of 2012 I experienced incredible gains in both speed and distance: I was hammering out long runs at sub-9 paces, and crushing half-marathons at tempo pace. This rapid improvement continued through about 3/4 of our marathon training, right about until I twisted my ankle and stress levels skyrocketed due to impending research deadlines.

Since then, I’ve had trouble finding my footing again. As it were.

Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to see why I had a relatively poor marathon outing: stress, lack of sleep, a lackluster final month of training, and a precedent for breaking down the first time I run a longer distance. Most of this was completely outside my control; something runners have to be prepared for is that on each day there’s some non-zero chance of having a bad day. Usually, these bad days happen during training, and you hardly think twice about it. But by sheer probability, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a bad day at least once when you really, really don’t want to. Like your first marathon.

But I’m still struggling to find my rhythm again. Training has started for the Pittsburgh Half in May, and the second week was a bit rough. The desire to run is back with a vengeance, but my muscles still seem somewhat timid. Spring Thaw didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, and this morning’s “easy” run didn’t feel all that easy, and was in fact a bit slow for me (average pace was a few seconds over 9min/mi).

Ambivalent week 2 is ambivalent.
Ambivalent week 2 is ambivalent.

It would be unrealistic to expect near-constant gains in speed and endurance over time. I had an incredible ~1 year run where every run seemed to be faster than the previous one; almost every time I raced, I set a PR for that distance. I was steadily pushing my tempo pace into the low-7s; my speed pace was right at 6:20, and I even set one at 6 flat.

Here’s the upshot: these slowdowns not only happen, but they’re inevitable. Training goes in cycles; you’ll experience gains and then plateau while your body catches up. The key is not to become frustrated by these seeming lulls in productivity. Frustration will build on itself and create more problems. The hardest part is knowing that you’re capable of doing something by virtue of the fact that you’ve done it before, but right now it seems just beyond your reach.

Google “running slow progress” and you’ll find endless threads from people in the same situation. I’m no expert; I only started running in earnest in late 2010. But if history is any indication: be kind to yourself. Be patient; stick with the plan. If boredom is part of the problem, mix in some cross-training. This is something I haven’t been particularly good about; I miss my long 25+ mile bike rides around the city. I’ll have to bring that back now and again, along with semi-regular rowing.

I’m my own worst enemy. The worst thing that can happen is I get so frustrated with myself that I start hating running, and that would be truly regrettable. I need to take a deep breath…relax…and trust my training. Switch to cross-training on occasion. Run without music, or without a GPS watch. I’ve been going at this for longer than I ever have before; of course there are going to be bumps in the road.

I was out of the game for about 6 months in early 2011 due to shin splints. Quite literally the only difference between then and now is that I’ve built up a bunch of expectations for myself. I’m running like I now have something to lose, which always adds stress. I need to run with reckless abandon, like I have nothing to lose.

You know: run for fun 🙂