The Dreaded Performance Plateau Could Be the First Sign of Something More
When you're still training hard, but not improving, it can be frustrating. It also can be a signal that you shouldn't ignore.
Tell me if this sounds familiar to you:
Initially, improvements came thick and fast—quite motivating! Let’s keep this party rolling! Then suddenly, it stopped. Despite putting in the hard yards, your performance started to level off. You’re not tanking, but you’re also not improving. You’re just…stuck. You’ve done the work, so how come you’re not getting any faster?
Performance plateaus can be incredibly frustrating. Just ask pro athlete Renee Tomlin. After she turned pro in 2014 and dedicated herself to a higher level of training, she saw her initial investment drop off. “Initially, I was putting in a lot of hours, high-volume,” said Tomlin. “I didn’t get injured straight away, but after a while I was not getting any return on my investment. My results were not reflective of what I was doing in training. But was that just a bad race? Poor transitions? Overtraining? It was hard to pinpoint. I guess, in a broad sense, you could call it a plateau.”
Plateauing and overtraining are closely linked, according to physiologist and triathlon coach Alan Couzens, with the former predicting the latter. That’s why—like the canary in the coal mine—we should pay close attention to plateaus.
Overtraining: It’s a trap!
“From the athlete’s perspective, the amount of work they do equals performance,” said Couzens. “In reality, performance is achieved by work plus the ability to adapt and recover.” Athletes often want training to be simple and linear—more training equals faster times. Like Tomlin, when you’re improving at every break from the gate, it seems to signal you’re doing something right and that more of that is better. But when that progress stops, even if you’re still putting in the hard work, it can be puzzling.
“A performance plateau is often the first tip-off that an athlete is on the path to overtraining,” Couzens said. “Their ability to do the work is still intact at that point; however, their ability to adapt and recover from the work is impaired. Their hormonal system and nervous system are depressed, they’re not able to recover, and a plateau happens.”
The danger in plateaus is that athletes often see it as a reason to train even harder. When they double down on training and throw more work at the problem, it doesn’t lead to a breakthrough—only to overtraining.
“Perhaps the most reliable and agreed upon diagnostic criteria for overtraining is a decline in training and racing performance, in the range of 10%,” he said. “It’s indicative of a very fatigued system, and it can be tough to turn things around. This point is often marked by things like reductions in cortisol response during an ACTH stimulation test (a test to measure adrenal glands stress response). So, not only are the body’s recovery systems tired, the stress response systems are also tired.”
The next step in this progression? Injury. Tomlin discovered this firsthand: “Eventually my body broke down, and I was forced to take time off and rest.”
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How to Tell if it’s a Plateau
How do you know if you’re in a plateau? It’s sometimes hard to tell. For a more clear picture, Couzens recommends a standardized workout done every month. These training sets should ideally show progression. “If you’re not improving or getting worse, it’s a symptom that something is wrong. You can act quickly, and take a couple days recovery before it gets serious,” Couzens said.
Standardized workouts, done once a month on the same course (or trainer/treadmill), at the same time of day, with the same preparation and the same recovery, can give you an indication of whether or not you’re getting faster or stronger. Choose a short workout that won’t interrupt your key training sessions, cause excessive fatigue, or dehydration. Couzens’s simple test set for the bike and run is 2 x 10 minutes, with the first 10-minute session at 70% effort, and the second at 80% effort.
Additionally, Couzens recommends tracking benchmarks like heart rate variability each day, which can show trends in your health and fitness. Once every three months, he also tests blood lactate levels, which can serve as a marker of training status.
Get Out Of Your Training Rut
Chris Lundstrom, coach of Minnesota Distance Elite, finds changing up training stimuli can be useful for breaking through a plateau.
“We are creatures of habit; we repeat the same training, get the same results, and are somehow surprised by that,” he said. “By mixing up training, introducing different stimuli, you can change your result.”
Sometimes, Lundstrom said, there are physiological limiting factors to a performance plateau. For example, endurance athletes often focus on their aerobic base, but if you can’t run faster than 90 seconds for 400 meters, it’s going to be tough to break 19 minutes for 5K. “Focusing on explosive strength training to improve your top-end speed—not more volume, but different training—can address that limiting factor,” Lundstrom said.
He also suggested racing different distances to help avoid plateaus. If you’ve always been a 70.3 long-hauler, for example, shift your focus to the sprint event. Your training will not necessarily be less in volume, just more focused on speed—different systems trained. Not only will your mind and body get a break from high mileage, improvements in speed and efficiency will help your 70.3 when you return to it.
RELATED: How to Avoid the Zone 3 Plateau
How to Prevent Overtraining
This frustrating path from rising star to down-and-out is not inevitable. However, it requires ignoring the part of your brain that tells you more work is the way out of your rut.
“The number one thing an athlete can do to avoid a plateau in the first place is to take an off-season, sometimes several breaks a year,” Couzens said. “As obvious as that may seem, there are a lot of reasons athletes find for not doing it. They’re doing so well, they get excited and just keep racing, or they’re reluctant to give up that hard-earned fitness.”
When he says “off-season,” he means four weeks of dialing training back significantly and really focusing on active recovery. This usually means taking a full break from swim, bike, and run in favor of different sports at very low intensity, such as yoga or walking in nature. These exercises for recovery not only give your physical and mental being a break from the stress of training and racing, they also build up body’s ability to react to stress and make adaptations during the season.
In addition to a proper off-season, Couzens recommends taking two weeks to recover after a big race. Breaks are also important in the middle of the season when training feels super-hard or metrics like Heart Rate Variability (HRV) indicate you’re fatigued. “HRV gives a warning even before you see it in performance that something is amiss,” Couzens said. “You have to track it over longer periods, rather than day-to-day fluctuations, but if you have a week where HRV is way below normal, that indicates now would be a great time to add in recovery. You know what they say—sharpen the sword before you get back to the hard work of chopping down the tree.”
Over the years, Tomlin has learned to pay attention to training plateaus as the first sign that something’s amiss, and has incorporated ideas voiced by both Couzens and Lundstrom. It’s easier to adjust her training because she’s no longer in a training group. Instead of a coach, she has mentors and advisors, which allows her to honor what her body is telling her, not what the schedule says.
“I used to think I had to hit a certain mileage, that it wasn’t a good workout unless I racked up a certain number of miles. I had to change that mindset,” she said. “In coming back from a stress fracture in my foot, I found I could run the key workouts but cut out the fluff miles. I bike more, run less mileage, and still perform just as well or better than when I was doing more work. I try to prioritize quality over quantity.”
Yes, it’s frustrating to put in the hard work and not improve. But as Tomlin’s story shows, a plateau doesn’t have to mean you scrap the season altogether. You just have to recognize when you’re heading into an overtraining trap so you can take steps to get your speed and fitness back.