Plateaus by Mark Allen
One of the most challenging things that can happen in training is when we hit a plateau. We've all been there - those weeks of training where no matter what we do it seems like we will never get any faster.
Plateaus come with the territory of fitness. They can be frustrating, but they are not necessarily bad. Here are a few ideas to help understand what a plateau means for your training program and why they happen.
One key to dealing with plateaus is managing expectation. We often forget that improvement in fitness is not linear. In the beginning of the training season fitness will come up fast. Most people can get about 80-90% of their fitness within the first couple of months of consistent training. During this time it's easy to be motivated because we see improvements in speed, strength, and endurance almost on a daily basis.
Then later in the year when you are in great shape and are trying to get the final little bit out of your program, visible progress in any of these areas can take weeks. The last 5-10% to peak fitness can take up to 6 months. This is where managing expectation comes into play. If an athlete expects that same rate of initial improvement, it can be very de-motivating when the outward signs take longer and longer to show.
This is the normal cycle of how our bodies work. What took a week in the beginning of the year can take 4-6 weeks later. This is when we are on plateaus These are periods when your body is putting fitness into an internal savings account. This account has to accrue up to a certain level before the fitness shows up in the form of faster times in your workouts. It is a critical mass of fitness that has to build up. And knowing that these are normal can help you stay motivated when you reach them.
Here's an image that might help illustrate what I have talking about. Think of improvements in fitness as filling an inverted pyramid. Each workout adds a little bit more volume to your training pyramid. The ultimate goal is to have the entire structure filled by the time your main goal race of the year rolls around. Now take this upside down pyramid and divide it up into smaller segments with horizontal lines. For your fitness to go up to the next compartment, you need to fill the one below it completely.
The volume of training it takes to fill the small upside down peak compartment happens quickly. Then as you move up the pyramid throughout the training season, gradually working toward the large compartment of the base at the top, larger and larger volumes of training will be needed. These are the plateaus. These are the periods when you are filling the compartment and no outward sign of improvement is going to happen until it is completely filled. But when it does, the improvement comes in big jumps. From one day to the next your times in the pool might drop 5 seconds per 100, which is an incredible increase in speed. But it may have taken going to the pool for weeks on end without any visible improvement on the clock.
There's one final piece of this pyramid picture that we need to understand in order to have the right mindset to deal with how our body works with fitness. The point at the bottom of the inverted pyramid has a very small flexible hole in it that allows a little of your fitness to leak out. The size of the hole varies with the "weight" of fitness that is pushing down on it. So in the beginning of the year when you have very little fitness built up inside of the pyramid, the hole is tiny and the amount of fitness that "leaks" out is also tiny.
Then as more and more fitness builds up inside the pyramid, the weight pushing down on this flexible hole increases. At some point, the force pushing down on the hole opens it up so much that the rate of fitness leaking out matches the amount that you are able to put in on a daily basis. This is the most dangerous of all plateaus. This is the plateau that has the potential to turn into one of over training. The reality is that for this period of time, you may be at the maximum limit of how much you can put into your pyramid of fitness. And if you try to train more hoping for more improvement you will actually start to get slower. When you arrive at this final plateau, the only way to improve from it is going to be to back off of your training for a period of time and build up some reserve. Below is a checklist of items that will help your figure out if are at this final plateau.
Do any of these things apply to you?
• You have more than one night in a row or more than 2 nights in a week of restless sleep.
• Your legs throb at night in bed.
• You have a loss of appetite even though you are training a lot.
• You are irritable and little things that shouldn't are really bugging you.
• Your resting heart rate in the morning is 5-10 beats above normal and doesn't get lower even when you are well hydrated.
• You feel like your muscles are burning even at low heart rates during training.
• Your perceived exertion is extremely high even at low training heart rates.
• You feel generally tired and cannot sustain normal training heart rates for even short periods of time.
• You feel worse after warming up than did before you started working out.
• Your training is a seesaw. One day you are flying, then
next you are wasted and can barely move.
Here is what you do with your results:
• If you answered yes to 1 or 2 of these questions, you might be at the final plateau and will need to monitor your training volume and intensity. Back off slightly from planned workouts and see if the symptoms disappear.
• If you answered yes to 3-4 of these questions, you are definitely on the final plateau and could benefit from a week or two of reduced volume in your training and from cutting speed work out completely.
• If you answered yes to 5 or more of these questions, you have been in an over-trained state for some time and should consider taking three or more weeks off of serious training. Cut back to active recovery workouts only during this period. Avoid the temptation to jump back into full training the second you start to feel better.
• Remember that if you are very overtrained, feeling better will only be a relative scale. You may feel better than you did at your lowest point but you can still be weeks away from being fully charged back up and ready to go back into your full routine.