Dear Coach: Why Am I Not Showing Fitness Gains?

Despite consistent training, sometimes you might not see the fitness gains you're hoping to. Knowing why can help you bust through your plateau and get the results you want.

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“I’m OK with not showing any fitness gains,” said no time-crunched high-achieving triathlete, ever.

Unfortunately, it is common to become so focused on your end goal, or the day-to-day workouts in your training plan, that you fail to realize your training is not working and you’re not making the fitness gains you should be. Or, perhaps you do recognize that your training is not producing the physical adaptations that you would like to see, but you are too stubborn or scared to change it up.

Before you get frustrated and scrap your plan, here’s a checklist to help you get real with what is actually happening in your life, mind, and body, in order to start seeing training gains again.

Firstly, know your goals and set the baseline. How do you measure your fitness gains? Do you repeat the same workouts week-to-week and they don’t feel easier? Are you obsessing over a flat “fitness” line in your training data? Are you performing the same, or worse, at each consecutive time trial workout? There are many ways to gauge fitness, so first things first—get clear on how you measure fitness gains.

Once you set the baseline, then you can start to analyze your training plan.

Do you have a variety of workout types on your schedule?

Defaulting to the “same-old-same-old” workouts week after week is often the cause of a training plateau. To get off this plateau, you need to learn or re-learn how to challenge yourself. Ensure that your training plan includes a variety of workout types such as steady-state work, threshold intervals, hill repeats, and strength sets. Slowly and over time, increase the volume, intensity, or frequency of your training.

Do you honor the polarity of easy days and hard days?

One of the most common training errors is performing easy days too hard and hard days too easy. Without the proper polarization between “easy” and “hard,” you will be wasting your time in a grey zone with very little training benefit. Your hard days will tax your body, thus risking injury, but they will not be challenging enough to make positive training adaptations. Likewise, your easy days will reduce training load, but not enough to provide recovery benefits. As a result, you don’t get faster or stronger, yet you frequently feel tired, fatigued, and sore. The fix? Push your boundaries on your hard days, and know that you can’t go too slow on your easy days. 

Are you overtraining?

If you are ambitious, you may be tempted to follow the workouts that you see the pros doing. Or you may be trying to keep up with the volume of an elite training group. But every athlete’s tolerance for volume and intensity is unique. Some athletes see massive fitness gains on a 20-hour-per-week training plan, while others will see the same success from 10 hours per week. Know yourself and do as little training as possible to reach your goals. Get to know the symptoms of overtraining, and recover from overtraining by adding a solid block of rest time to your training plan.

Are you under chronic psychological stress?

Every day, you experience stress imposed by work, social media, finances, travel, break-ups, moving, lack of sleep, and so much more. This stress is psychological stress, and it is often much harder to manage than physical stress because you are not aware of its ill effects. Psychological stress has a cascading effect on nearly every function of your body, including your training. Think of carrying around a bucket that holds all of your physical and psychological stress. This bucket has a finite capacity. If your stress bucket is filled with life stress, then you will have no room for training stress. Therefore, if you don’t adjust your training plan to account for life stress, then you are putting yourself in an overtrained state and will be unable to progress in your fitness. Add some additional rest and recovery time to your schedule, or adjust the volume, intensity, and frequency down on your training plan. 

Cortney Jacobsen is the owner of Northwest Energy Lab and is a USAT L1 Coach and Precision Nutrition Coach. She is also a tech entrepreneur and the co-founder of

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