5/23/18

How to avoid the training plateau


It's not uncommon for an individual to start a training plan and experience quick results in terms of body composition changes and fitness improvements. These are two of the most enjoyed benefits of starting a new training plan or exercise routine. But sadly, despite being consistent with workouts and feeling strong enough to train harder and longer, results stop happening. If anything, it's more difficult to experience fitness improvements and you are tempted to make extreme changes with the diet or step up the intensity and volume - putting you at risk for injury and illness. And, you may even notice weight gain, particularly around the stomach area.

A training plateau refers to a period of time when the body is no longer responding to your exercise or diet routine. Although it's completely normal to reach a state of over-reaching, where you are unable to improve pace or mileage, only to experience a breakthrough in fitness after a period of tapering or planned recovery, a training plateau is different in that it's a wall that's difficult to break through. Despite feeling like you were once making quick fitness and body composition gains with the same style of training, you just can't seem to make progress or notice change.

When I started training for endurance triathlon events twelve years ago, my first year of Ironman training was pretty regimented. I did pretty much the same training week after week after week for an entire season. I gradually increased volume and intensity but the frequency and layout of workouts stayed pretty much the same every week. This was good for my body to adapt slowly to more volume in anticipation of my first half and full distance IM. I also found myself improving my fitness, changing body composition easily (not forced) and feeling more confident with each week of training. However, come the second year of Ironman training, I found myself gaining weight and struggled to experience any significant fitness improvements. I also got myself injured by trying to do more volume and intensity- assuming that more is better. Instead of taking forward steps with my endurance fitness, I was taking huge leaps backwards. 

Since that time, I have tried a lot of different training strategies to keep myself healthy, strong and fit as an endurance triathlete and the one thing that has helped the most with longevity and enjoyment in the sport, along with good health, is variability. I have not been injured in about five years and my body has gotten extremely resilient and strong. No two weeks look the same for my training as every week is different in terms of frequency of workouts, duration, intensity and sport. Instead of cramming all my workouts into the morning, I regularly perform two-a-day workouts to allow ample time for recovery and refueling/rehydration. I am not married to a certain time for workouts as frequency training has proved to be more beneficial for my body than longer miles. I will often do two bike or run sessions in one day to accumulate more volume but ensuring good form by not overdoing it in one workout. Every workout is of quality and I keep my easy sessions easy so I can go hard on intense days. I never count miles or get obsessed with paces but instead, go by time and focus on form and effort over metrics. Sleep is extremely important and I won't sacrifice sleep for a workout. My long workouts are never too long that I can't recover from them. I always eat before my workouts, use sport nutrition during all my workouts and focus on good recovery post workout. The rest of the day, I eat to nourish my body. These are just some of the strategies that I have adapted to my style of training, which has helped me continue to see performance and body composition improvements over the past few years. At the age of (almost) 36, I have been in this sport for a while as I haven't taken a break from long distance triathlon since the age of 24. However, I feel stronger, healthier and fitter than ever before. There's nothing magical, extreme or ground-breaking with my training other than I am constantly stressing my body with quality training sessions that vary week after week. Every week is new and exciting, which also keeps me from feeling burnt out and makes training fun and fresh.

If you are finding yourself in a training plateau, here are a few of my tips to help you break through the wall: 
  1. Make sure you are focusing on good fueling and hydration before, during and after your workouts to minimize added stress on your body and to help you better adapt to training.
  2. Incorporate strength training into your cardio-focused routine. 
  3. Mix up the workouts in your typical routine so that you aren't doing the same workouts on the same days each day of the week. 
  4. Add in more intensity (with appropriate recovery intervals) and reduce the volume. 
  5. Get more sleep. 
  6. Move more when you aren't exercising. It's very easy to add more volume to your training and become more sedentary throughout the day. 
  7. Focus on quality instead of quantity/intensity. If you are experiencing chronic deep muscle and joint pains, an overall lack of energy, low motivation, feeling down, frequently getting sick or injured, you may be overtraining. Overtraining is not limited to a certain number of hours per week or the elite, but failing to properly recover between two sessions, match energy intake with energy expenditure and nourish your body with wholesome foods and proper hydration. 
  8. Make sure you are eating "enough" to support your training load and timing nutrition properly around/during workouts. 
  9. Focus on form over pace. 
  10. Make a small change in your training to feel more energized, mentally and physically. Avoid making a drastic or huge change. Don't get fixated on needing to stick to the same routine every week.