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Troubleshooting Performance Plateaus

Joe Friel addresses the problems that athletes most commonly face en route to their goals: training plateaus, inconsistent training or lack of motivation, inadequate sleep, and prioritizing performance at the expense of health.

a frustrated athlete holds his head after a workout
a frustrated athlete holds his head after a workout

A successful coach is a good problem-solver—and as a coach you are certainly aware that there are lots of problems to solve. Working with athletes will present new challenges and obstacles to overcome on a regular basis. Many of the problems athletes struggle with start in their heads. They tend to overthink things, especially when it comes to their potential for athletic achievement. Let’s examine some of the challenges a coach might face, along with a few possible solutions.  

How to identify and address training plateaus

There are a few ways training plateaus are typically defined in endurance sports. One commonly accepted definition is that training data and/or race performance has leveled out with no signs of improvement, particularly if the athlete seems to be at a lower level of performance than previously achieved. Another common definition is that the athlete is not making gains regardless of training load increases; in fact, the athlete may even be experiencing a loss of performance with increased training. A third option is that training routines that previously resulted in improvement are no longer effective.  

In any of these scenarios, athletes often assume that it is an indication that they are underachieving relative to their potential. They often seek a quick solution, which is usually to train harder. But the coach must realize that any of these scenarios can also be a non-threatening, natural aspect of training. A plateau can be an indicator that the athlete is reaching a peak of performance. This is especially true if the plateau occurs late in the season, shortly before an A-priority event. Let’s see if we can put this latter point into perspective. 

Look for an explanation for the plateau 

It’s not unusual for an athlete to reach a high level of performance after many weeks of training and find it difficult or even impossible to break through to the next level. It could be that the athlete is approaching their potential. This becomes worrisome when the athlete is in an early preparation phase for the event. It is, however, fairly common for this to happen late in the season. At that point a plateau is merely an indicator of achieving a high, albeit stable, level of performance. This is not a problem unless the athlete has lost ground relative to their recent best levels of performance, even though it is late in the season. For example, if the athlete is at a level of performance similar to a previous season when they raced well, then the plateau is unlikely to be a problem. When this happens the magnitude of concern depends on how long the athlete has until the next A-priority race, how fit they are, and how long the plateau seems to have been in effect. Given the wrong combination of these variables—several weeks until the race, mediocre fitness, and a lengthy plateau—it truly could be time to take action. In this scenario you must address an unwelcome plateau. 

When an athlete is experiencing an unwelcome plateau there are some basic questions you need to answer:  

  • How long has this been going on? Is this a relatively new condition or has it occurred over several weeks? Compare performance data from similar workouts or races, both recent and in the past, to make this determination.  
  • Is the athlete’s performance going downhill following a successful period of training and racing? Investigate whether the athlete has achieved a performance peak recently in training or in another race. If so, a plateau or decline in performance is to be expected.  

If the plateau persists for six weeks or more, it is certainly too long. Shorter durations may not be indicative of a problem at all, depending on what the athlete has achieved recently. 

Investigate changes in lifestyle 

If you decide that the plateau is unusual, meaning that you believe that the athlete should be training and performing at a higher level, you first need to examine how it may have come about so that this situation can be avoided in the future while also finding a path to fix it now. Start by looking at the athlete’s lifestyle.  

  • Look for recent changes that could be a significant stressor related to family, career, travel, or lifestyle. Stressors such as a new job, increased workload, looming deadlines, financial concerns, or legal matters can all have far-reaching, sometimes pernicious, effects.  
  • Has the weather impacted lifestyle or training? Frequent snow, rain, wind, cold or hot temperatures can cause significant changes in training and the perception of how things are going.  
  • Has the athlete been getting insufficient rest and recovery, especially as related to sleep and nutrition?  
  • Has the athlete experienced illness, even minor issues such as a head cold? 

Investigate training for possible causes 

  • Has there been a change in the training routine? Perhaps the athlete was not ready for a change. Or maybe there has been no change for several weeks. The athlete’s body may have become accustomed to the routine and no longer responds.  
  • Does the athlete seem to be overly bored with training? How is their mood? Realize that some boredom is necessary to build a big aerobic base with repeatable, long, easy workouts, but if they are struggling with monotony this might need to be addressed.  
  • Looking back, does it seem that training load has been appropriate? Have you increased or decreased training intensity or volume in the last few weeks? Has the training load increased without a similar increase in rest and recovery? Has the athlete been training mostly alone or with others? Could any of this explain their perception of progress?  
  • Is the athlete’s event goal still mentally stimulating? Has the athlete not been training regularly and consistently? Have they modified the workouts you prescribed? Have the measuring tools for performance changed? For example, is the athlete using a new power meter?  
  • Is the athlete obsessed with seeking perfection? Are there signs of overtraining? If so, they should see a family doctor about testing for illnesses related to non-training indicators. 

Possible solutions to a training plateau 

Once you’ve come to the conclusion that this is indeed a plateau, you need to consider what is necessary to correct it and get the athlete back on track. What are the common fixes for a plateau? There’s often more than one viable way to pull an athlete out of a plateau, but whatever the strategy, it will involve a change of some sort. Things certainly can’t stay the same.  

Reduce training load 

The most successful change may be to significantly reduce the training load or even take a break from serious training altogether. Several days of rest may be just what is needed to get the athlete going again.  

Change the typical routine 

Another option is to change the training routine. For example, if the athlete is currently in the build period (race-specific training) consider a return to the base period (high volume)—or the reverse. Another option is to change the training environment, if that’s possible. For example, have the athlete go to a lower altitude for a couple of weeks or go to another locale just for a change in daily routine. You may even have the athlete train at the opposite time of day from what has been common. You can also suggest adding or removing training partners.  

Adjust training intensity 

If the athlete has been doing exceptionally high intensity training (such as aerobic capacity intervals) you might consider changing them to moderately hard (such as sweet spot intervals). Or shorten (or lengthen) the duration of the work intervals or the recovery intervals. Reduce the total interval time within hard workouts or do away with intervals altogether. Fartlek may be a better option for the plateaued athlete. This would be a significant change from structured interval sessions and gives the athlete some control over the training routine. Or perhaps you could shorten (or lengthen) the workouts and allow the athlete to choose their own intensity.  

Shake up the racing schedule 

If there is a B- or C-priority event coming up, have the athlete treat it as an A-priority event and peak (taper) for it. Consider including some training races. Or if racing is likely to add stress to the athlete then a more sensible alternative would be to avoid races altogether for a few weeks.  

Shift the focus away from the numbers 

You may also simply have the athlete train without any real-time device data (for example, power meters, heart rate monitors, and speed-distance devices) for a few days or even weeks. Take training back to the old days—ask them to keep feedback subjective and simply describe in their log how they felt. Another option is to keep the devices in play but ask the athlete to ignore training data, such as CTL, ATL, and TSB and instead focus on the purpose behind each workout. 

The bottom line for a plateau is to first see if you can identify the cause and then make training changes that are appropriate to that cause. Serious plateaus require serious change. Don’t be afraid to do something that may seem extreme if a serious change is needed. 

Inconsistent Training

Consistency in training is the key to success in endurance sports. So what does it mean to be consistent? This does not mean never missing a workout. Even the very best athletes miss a workout from time to time due to any number of reasons.  

Inconsistent training does not become a problem until the athlete regularly and frequently misses workouts. The athlete will usually have a reason for a zero day. But one such miss is not the problem. Missing lots of training sessions eventually shows up as poor performance. How can you help the athlete improve their consistency?  

The cause for the missed workouts quite often has to do with waning motivation. The athlete may still profess to being dedicated to the goal, but somehow when it’s time to get out the door for a workout there are reasons it can’t be done. Consider giving these ideas a try to address training inconsistency and motivation issues. 

Find a training partner 

This is undoubtedly the greatest motivator the athlete can have. If they know there is someone waiting to work out with them, they are more likely to get the session in. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing it when it’s only you. A trusted training partner almost always changes things for the better. 

Prepare for the workout the night before 

Suggest that the athlete lays out their workout clothing the day before and gets any equipment, such as their bike and gear, all ready to go—tires inflated, lubricated, tool kit ready, etc. If it’s an early morning session have a light breakfast prepared the night before. The idea is to leave no small obstacles to chance and have everything ready to go. This removes a common complication: too much to do before getting out the door and not enough time to do it. 

If motivation is often low and the athlete talks themselves out of getting started, give them your permission to abandon the session 5 minutes into it. Remind them they can just start and see what happens. If motivation is still low, they can return home. In my experience that will seldom (if ever) happen once they get to 5 minutes. But when it does happen, remember that you gave permission for this. 

Review the workout the night before 

This will help them know what is supposed to be done, when they will do it, how they will do it, where they will do it, and why they are doing it. Just as with their training kit, they should be ready to start the next day with an understanding of the coach’s plan for the session. It also helps if in the training plan for each day you briefly explain why this workout is important. 

Inadequate Sleep 

Perhaps the most common problem I’ve run into with age-group clients over the years is inadequate sleep. This seems to be common in Western society regardless of an individual’s commitment to sport. We just don’t get enough sleep.  

Why is this important? There are lot of subtopics here such as physical and mental health, but when it comes to athletic performance the bottom line is that sleep is when fitness occurs. The athlete isn’t more fit immediately following a hard workout. In fact, we could make the point that they are then less fit. If we define fitness as the capacity for enduring high stress, the athlete’s post-workout fatigue is usually so high that they are unable to perform at a high level immediately.  

How sleep fosters fitness 

What a stressful workout actually does is create the potential for fitness and high performance. That potential is not realized until the athlete goes to sleep. It’s during sleep that the body releases hormones, such as growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, testosterone, estrogen, and others. These are products of the endocrine glands and are released in waves throughout sleep. When athletes regularly maintain a steady and adequate amount of sleep their recovery is improved, they reduce the risk of injury, and they become more fit. 

How you deal with this matter of limited sleep is critical to your athlete’s success. I suggest monitoring the athlete’s sleep on a daily basis and looking for optimal slumber time each night (which we know to vary between individuals).  

Better time management leads to more sleep 

So how can you ensure that your client is getting adequate sleep? One of the best ways is to help them get control of their time. I’ve told athletes who get inadequate sleep that we need to talk about what they have going on in their lives. If an athlete has a high goal that is near the limits of their ability, I tell them they can only have three things in their lives if I’m to coach them: their family, their career, and training. Nothing else. Every time something else is added to their daily list of important commitments—non-profit volunteer work, serving on a citywide board, running for local office, learning to play golf—the chance of reduced sleep increases.  

When we get overly busy in our lives, the most common way to find more time is to cut back on sleep. In fact, in our society this is often seen as a positive, even enviable, way to live. I often hear people say, “I can sleep when I’m dead!” The bad news here, perhaps, is that such a person will probably die much younger than if they had slept optimally on a regular basis. As a coach you must insist that your clients get enough sleep. There’s no way to get around this. 

Performance That Puts Health at Risk 

Which is the more important consideration for your athlete—fitness or health? I would argue that the answer is health. It’s not unusual at all to find athletes who have managed to raise their performances to very high levels while compromising their health. Illness often happens right before a high priority event when the athlete has pushed too hard for too long to peak their fitness. I had to deal with such a mishap once.  

I had a professional client who had an excellent chance to make the U.S. Olympic triathlon team even though he was relatively new to the sport. I started coaching him about three years before the U.S. Olympic Trials, which were to be held about three months prior to the Games. With such a long lead-up to the Dallas Trials, our first and most important goal, we started his program conservatively. And he responded well over the next year and a half as he steadily moved up in the world rankings. We began to gradually ramp up his training so that he could arrive at the Trials in top shape. This included preparation for the Dallas heat in late May. Only two U.S. men would qualify in that race for Team USA.  

Ramping up his training turned out to be a mistake. He developed repeated upper respiratory infections over the next few months. Doctors could not figure out why. He began to fall in the world rankings. I decided there was only one thing we could do—reduce his training load so that there was less stress being placed on his immune system. I lowered his volume from up to 30 hours per week (which was common for Olympic triathlon contenders), to about 16 to 17 hours weekly. I suspect that none of his competition trained so little. His health began to improve but we were concerned now that he may not be able to compete with the top American triathletes at the Trials. We were wrong.  

On race day, despite a very poor swim, he managed to get back into the peloton (drafting was legal). But there were three Americans off the front and they were widening the gap. Fortunately, one of those three was already qualified for the U.S. team. That meant he only had to catch one of the other two and he would qualify.  

In our last strategy session the evening before the race we talked about several scenarios. One was that if he came off the bike more than 20 seconds back he would likely be unable to make up the gap on the run. As it turned out, he came off the bike more than 30 seconds back. At that point I figured the race was over. But he didn’t see it that way.  

About 6K into the 10K run he caught and passed one of the three breakaways. He made the team. His success was largely due to our race strategy and tactics, including the fact that he arrived at the race well-adapted to the Texas heat. But more importantly, in the last few months before the Trials we were more concerned with his health than his fitness.