If you’ve hit a training plateau, you’re probably trying to find the best (and quickest) way to push past this stalling point. Whether you’re a pro athlete or weekend warrior, what does your body, and mind, need to keep at it? Are you wondering if maybe this is it- you’ve peaked as much as you’re ever going to and your performance just won’t get any better? Before despair sets in, consider what a plateau is, and what it means for training progress.
Have you followed the career of any elite athletes, once unstoppable leaders in their sport, when they begin to slip behind the competition, missing the expected placement on the winner’s podium? Before you think it was because they were getting old or the competition was younger, consider how many of them came back stronger and more dedicated the next season. How did they do this? They got smarter about their training. And their recovery.
When an athlete hits a plateau, chances are their body adapted to the training demands that were placed on it. It’s normal. This adaptation even has widely recognized scientific names, including the principle of specificity and specific adaptations to imposed demands, more simply known as SAID. For the athlete, it basically says that change and progress aren’t going to accelerate unless the demands change. (It almost sounds like the definition of insanity when you expect different results from doing the same over and over.) Does this mean they have to train harder? Train more often? Lift heavier? Run farther? Cycle faster? Recover more? Yes, but with some realistic exceptions and smart planning. We’ll circle back to this in a moment.
Though it would be great to say training is an exact science that when applied to any athlete the results will be the same, it’s not. Elite athletes are close to the top of their potential. They aren’t going to see as large of gains as a novice would. (We still haven’t seen a marathon completed in under two hours!) But there are approaches that can work for breaking through plateaus and reaching performance goals.
Pushing Past a Performance Plateau
Change the Training Variables
Training variables include repetitions, sets, intensity (level of effort), tempo (speed of movement), volume (how much training is performed), frequency (how often training occurs), duration, rest and selection of exercises.1 Depending on the athlete’s goal or training needs, any of these variables can be modified in a training session or plan. For example, if an athlete’s goal is to improve endurance, extending the duration of cardio activities, adding more repetitions to a set, slowing the tempo, or even taking less rest between sets would be smart choices. Strength improvements would focus on increasing the intensity while increasing the rest between sets or activities, allowing muscles to recover more completely between repeated maximal efforts. Training variable adjustments should be progressive, typically not increasing by more than 5%-10% per week. Training volume should be given extra attention to avoid overtraining and injury potential; as the training intensity becomes higher the training volume should be lowered.
Change the Mood and Mindset
Try training with a partner or team. Banter and support can improve mood, which often leads to a positive improvement in training and performance.2 Plus, when teaming up, these partners can also help with spotting heavier lifts or assists with other resistance techniques such as drop-sets. Adding an audience or some friendly competition can also push performance-whether that’s with drills or scrimmages, or remotely competing with your connections through tracking apps.
Change Your Recovery (You recover, don’t you?)
Different recovery modalities and approaches have become one of the hottest training topics in the sports and fitness realm. Though spending time on recovery may seem indulgent and possibly even counterintuitive, skipping recovery activities, whether between reps, sets, training bouts, or events, can keep the body from attaining the benefits of training. These benefits can range from removing metabolic waste, to reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), fatigue and injury risk, all of which can impact future performance.
More is not always better. Continually overloading with training stressors beyond what the body can recover from can have negative impacts-both physically and mentally. Common signs of overtraining to watch for include elevated heart rate, reduced performance, excessive fatigue, moodiness and anxiety, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite and weight, and a decrease in immunity. If these signs are exhibited, it’s time to decrease training workloads and/or take a break from training. The last thing an athlete needs is to be pushed so hard that they become injured, sick, or burnt out on their sport.
There’s a time to push, but there’s also a time to embrace the plateau and allow the body to acclimate - and celebrate- what’s been accomplished. This isn’t to say an athlete should stay here if they have higher hills to climb or performance goals to hit.
- National Academy of Sports Medicine. (2018) NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
- Karageorghis CI, Terry PC. (2011). Inside Sport Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.