Sage Advice: Moving off a Plateau

gopcLast night, I spoke to a fantastic group of women at Great Outdoor Provision Company in Chapel Hill. Most were beginner triathletes and triathletes-in-training preparing for the Ramblin’ Rose races, a series of beginner-friendly triathlons and running races staged by Endurance Magazine. (In the photo, my face, captured midsentence, echoes the terrified expressions some of them had while contemplating the swim.)

One attendee asked me a great question. She’d been training for a while, pushing herself, and wondered why she’d hit a plateau and wasn’t getting any faster. Naturally, this is a major issue that could stand deep investigation, but in a casual Q&A setting, here are two things to look at.

1. Underrecovery. All the hard work in the world isn’t going to pay off if you don’t give it time to soak in. Just because you can string three workouts back to back many days a week doesn’t mean it’s a great idea. It can have the opposite of the intended effect, actually making you slower and dampening down your ability to hit the high notes—the fast paces and heavy efforts—in your workouts. Without these peak workouts, there’s no fast race; without recovery, the peak workouts are useless. For more on this, read The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery, my manifesto on how not to train (now in Spanish and German!).

2. Complacent workouts. When you train alone, it can be tough to push yourself that extra bit—to reach for those high notes. When you stay within your comfort zone, or only just beyond it to the start of your discomfort zone, you aren’t applying enough training stress to encourage your body to adapt by growing stronger. Group workouts and training partners can help you break your way through this plateau, by encouraging you to give a slightly greater effort than you’d do on your own.

When you hit such a plateau in training, it’s like you’ve attenuated your wavelength, dampening it down to a comfortable middle range. Your body needs the low points (recovery) and the high points (hard effort) to supercompensate and move you to the next level of ability and speed. Combining these two remedies—resting more and working harder—should help get you there.

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