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Dear Coach: What is a “training plateau”, and how do I get off of one?” – Flattened Freddy
In the tri world, a plateau is when you seem stuck at a certain level, and no matter how hard you keep pushing, you just can’t seem to improve. Plateaus occur when you’ve maximized your ability to produce speed with your current skill mix. They become more common the longer you’re in the sport and are often due to unbalanced training that focuses on only what you’re are good at, while ignoring other sports and skills. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that those things you don’t like to do in training are likely underdeveloped and may be the root cause of your plateau—these are often referred to as “limiters.”
Let’s say that in swimming, you’ve turned the “shoulder strength dial” all the way by doing endless paddle sets. You’re now going as fast as possible by muscling through sets with your shoulders, so maybe it’s time to start focusing on another drill, such as kick strength, catch technique, or rotation.
An example in cycling could be an athlete who only does long, moderate-intensity rides. After a while, they start bumping up against their ceiling (which we could also call “speed potential”), and the improvements stall out. Get past this by raising your speed potential with some high-intensity sessions like 10 x 30 sec all-out, on 90 sec rest, threshold repeats (3 x 10 min hard, on 5 min rest), or with bike racing (which also addresses bike handling limiters…double win!).
In running, a simple way to check for limiters is by checking your speed potential verses your race performance with an online run calculator. If you plug in your values and see that you can hit the times for the longer intervals, but not the shorter ones, then you may be on a plateau due to a lack of “top-end” speed—or vice-versa. After gathering that info, you can easily shift your training focus to address your run limiter, and get off that pesky plateau.
Doug MacLean is a former varsity college rower, a Level 3 coach for QT2 Systems, and has been a pro triathlete since 2011.