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Is a plateau a bad thing?

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Every athlete I have trained with, trained, and known, has gone through a phase where they appear to be making no progress, setting no records, and potentially even regressing in some areas, in spite of eating and recovering well, and training hard. This will likely be no surprise, as you may have either experienced it, or seen it yourself. There are some things worth considering when this happens, and hopefully these points will help you put your next plateau into perspective.

  1. We can't progress infinitely, so periods of stagnation are inevitable. This doesn't mean you won't make progress again, and your current plateau may even be necessary to build a foundation for future progress.

  2. Some progress isn't obvious. This is especially true of mixed modal athletes, such as those who compete in or train CrossFit®️. You may not be lifting heavier, doing more pull-ups, or running faster, but are you closer to touching your toes? Has your success rate gone up at 90% of your clean? Many such things we tend not to track, but may well be quietly improving in the background, setting us up for another bout of records in the near future.

  3. Recovery is huge! When we peak, either naturally or by the design of the programme, we often hit a raft of records in a short period. This is an expression of our training and the abilities it has given us, but is also costly! It taxes our nervous system, and we can't continually operate at this level. Another way to track progress is actually to track the level to which you regress after each peak. You might be lifting a touch less than you were a month back, but what about what you were lifting in your last lull

4. Maybe it's the point of the programme that you're supposed to plateau on? You may not know this, especially if you're in group training, or follow a remote programme, but many programmes will have an accumulation or consolidation phase. These phases deliberately see high volume, repeating reps at similar loads, to normalise that weight for the body. This is important for adaptation, but during these phases you're likely not in the shape to express your best form.

5. We're human, and we have lives, stresses and other fluctuations that naturally mean we can't be on top the whole time. Our hormones cycle, women's approximately monthly, man's approximately every 24 hours. Our nutrition and hydration will likely fluctuate. Our sleep will vary in quality and duration. External work and personal stressors will change. Weather and season will impact our mood and motivation. The list goes on. It's important to note that with all of these, the effects might be offset, so the cause may not always be readily identifiable.

With so many factors at play, it's important to understand that much of the cycle of life and training is outside of your control. That leads us to two logical conclusions:

  1. Focus on what you can control; turn up and work, eat well, and sleep well.

  2. Accept downward curves, and recognise that they are temporary.

Training through a downturn, regardless of how it makes you feel, will inevitably leave you in a better place when you come out of the other side than if you quit and try to restart. It may be worth changing focus during times you struggle with training, and instead concentrate on just having fun, and let the numbers take care of themselves.



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