One of the most rewarding things about training – whether it’s for cycling, triathlon, running or swimming – is tracking your progress and experiencing that feeling of getting fitter, faster or stronger with each session that gets ticked off. The trouble with progress, is that it’s never linear. Plateaus happen. But when you’re training consistently, showing up and putting in the work, yet seeing the gains slow down – or even start to drop off – it can be incredibly frustrating. Training hard and not seeing improvements makes it hard to stay motivated. And for some, experiencing a plateau in their training can even derail their goals and lead to them giving up entirely.
The goods news is a training plateau doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve reached your limit: in fact, reaching a plateau is a sign that you’ve been training well, your body has adapted and you’ve now got the opportunity – with the implementation of a few tweaks – to take your performance up to a whole new level.
In this article we’ll explore why training plateaus happen and how you can adjust your training to break through and get the gains back on the go.
Why have I hit a plateau in my training?
Training is a bit like coffee. When you have your first ever sip of espresso, that tiny mouthful is enough to have you bouncing off the walls for hours. But then you get a taste for it. Your one-a-day habit becomes a two-a-day habit. Your body gets used to the caffeine hit, and suddenly you find yourself needing a bit more to get the same effect. That single, 6am cup of the good stuff just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Your body has adapted and it needs either more volume (more coffees) or more intensity (stronger caffeine content) to generate the same response to the stimulus.
The same can be said for training. Particularly when you’re new to a sport, the gains come thick and fast. That’s because when your body is subjected to an exercise stimulus it’s not used to – it finds it difficult to perform what’s being asked of it. So it quickly sets about generating adaptations so that the next time you put your cycling shoes on or lace up your running trainers, it can cope with the demands better. When you’re just getting started, there are a lot of adaptations that the body needs to make so you’ll find the progression in your fitness comes about pretty quickly. But after a while, your body will have got fitter and adapted to the stimulus you’re providing through your training regime. That means it no longer finds the effort quite so hard – so it doesn’t have that ‘crikey, that was difficult – better get some building blocks up in here so next time we don’t feel so horrendous’ moment. The body can start to coast along with the adaptations it’s already made, because it’s effectively meeting the demands being placed on it. That’s fine, if general wellbeing and recreational fitness are your aim. But if you want to keep improving and you have performance goals in your sights, you need to vary the training stimulus to keep seeing progress.
In short, hitting a training plateau is a sign that your body has adapted well to the exercise you’ve been doing and it no longer feels the need to keep adapting because it’s managing just fine, thank you very much. To keep progressing, you need to vary your training load and intensity to give your body something different that’ll spark further adaptation. Essentially, you need to give your body the fitness equivalent of a stronger cup of coffee!
Okay, but I hit a plateau at first – and now I’m actually going backwards. What the goat is going on?
This is where plateaus get particularly pesky. For many of us, we hit a plateau and think: “Okay well I clearly just need to train even more then.” Training volume is certainly one of the variables that can help to boost fitness… but just ramping up the volume alone without taking into consideration the other variables – intensity and recovery – can push you into fatigue. Which means your body simply doesn’t have the energy to perform as you want it to, because you’re not giving it time to recover (which is when the adaptations happen). Going through this process of plateauing and not seeing any forward progress… And then, actually “getting worse” despite training more really does take a sledge hammer to our motivation. The key thing here is to not give up – and not just try to push through your plateau without making any changes. Take a step back, assess your current training schedule and there’ll almost certainly be a few tweaks you can make which will have you hopping on the next train out of plateau city!
Five ways to get out of a training plateau
Vary your training stimulus
To keep seeing progress, you need to keep challenging your body with a variety of training. If you just ride the same 20km loop at the same pace every week, sure your body will get really good at riding for that distance at that speed. It’ll feel easier, as the weeks go on. But you’re not going to get significantly quicker, because you’re not giving your body any reason to generate the adaptations required to speed up. This is where variation comes in – essentially keeping your body “on its toes” so it’s not tempted to rest on its laurels.
When we talk about variety in training, we’re talking about load (training volume) and intensity (how ‘hard’ the training is). The former is going to boost your endurance and make your body a more efficient machine – so you can swim, bike or run further. The latter is going to improve your strength and power – which translates to speed in the pool, out on the road or on the running track. The key thing here is striking the appropriate balance between load and intensity, and making sure that there’s suitable progression week on week to keep stimulating adaptation.
Balance training load with intensity
Upping your overall training volume (how many hours per week you spend exercising) is going to make you fitter. But there are limitations in terms of how much training your body can tolerate without getting injured, and how much time you have available alongside all your non-training commitments. Simply doing more of what you’ve already been doing isn’t going to be the most efficient use of your time and it’s not sustainable long term.
If you’re already training consistently and getting in plenty of steady miles – then swapping one or two of your steady sessions per week out to introduce some higher intensity work is a great way to see progress. This could be things such as hill repeats on the bike, short speed repeats in the pool or interval sessions for running. These types of harder efforts place a greater training stress on the body which will boost your VO2 max, develop your speed and enhance your ability to push power through the pedals. The precise sessions you’ll need to do really depend on your chosen sport, and your goals within that sport. But let’s say your goal is to be able to ride 50 miles at a faster pace. Adding in short, sharp intensity work to complement your endurance training is going to boost your top end speed – which translates to your steadier 50 mile pace becoming faster for the same effort.
The key word here is ‘complement’ – just as steady miles alone aren’t going to make you significantly quicker, pivoting to just doing the hot and spicy workouts that look really hardcore on Strava isn’t going to be sustainable – and it’s not going to help you if you want to be able to swim, bike, or run for longer than 20 minutes or so. It’s about balancing the two, so you can stay consistent. This is where working with a coach can be a great idea if you really want to maximise your performance, as they’ll be able to structure your programme to your specific goals, capabilities and time available to train. But a good, though very general, rule to follow is the 80/20 rule. 80% of your weekly training volume should be completed at Zone 2 (read our article on Zone 2 training for an in-depth explanation of training zones), helping to develop your aerobic base and making your body more prepared for the harder efforts. Then 20% of your training should be about layering intensity on top of endurance. Over time, you’ll be able to go harder for longer and the personal bests will follow.
Progress the intensity as fitness improves: “Testing, testing…”
Varying your training stimulus by introducing different sessions at different intensities is great. But you need to keep checking in with your fitness and your abilities so that you can continue to work at the right intensity to keep stimulating the training effect. This is called progressive overload.
Let’s use running as our first example. Let’s say your personal best 5km time is 25 minutes. That means that for 2 minute interval repeats, you might be targeting around 4 mins 35 per kilometre pace. To start with, hitting that pace target is going to feel fairly difficult. But after a few sessions, it’ll get easier. So if you keep targeting that pace, you’re going to end up plateauing again. This is where testing – performing a session that gives you a line in the sand of where your current fitness is at – is great, so you can keep progressing your targets. For running, after completing 4 or 5 weeks of interval training, you might want to head down to your local parkrun and put in a good honest 5km effort. If your time has improved (i.e. you’ve got quicker) then your target interval pace needs to change to reflect your improved running fitness. Hint: The V.02 running calculator is a great resource for quickly and easily working out your pace zones. Simply enter your most recent best time for a distance (e.g. 5km, 10km, half marathon) and the calculator will give you your training and race paces.
For cycling, the best way to make sure you’re working at an intensity which is going to continue to spark adaptations is to perform an FTP test. An FTP test measures your Functional Threshold Power: the maximum power (amount of force you’re putting through the pedals) that you can hold for an hour. Just like doing a hard 5km for runners, this gives you a line in the sand for where your bike fitness is. It also gives you the power number you need to be able to work out your training zones. FTP tests involve either a flat out 20 minute effort, or a ramp test where you pedal progressively harder until you reach failure. Neither of these are particularly pleasant so it’s not something you’ll want to be repeating too often – approximately every 8 weeks or. Zwift has both of these options available as pre-built workouts on the platform, and it’ll then use your result to make sure you’re working at the right intensity for all of the other workouts in the library.
Now, that’s all relatively nerdy and numbers focused. So if numbers aren’t your thing, the key takeaway here is: once your interval or tempo sessions start to feel easy, it probably means your fitness has improved and so you can start to push it a little more. The key to progression is continually pushing yourself a little further out of your comfort zone, one small step at a time.
Train strong, recover hard
The actual training you complete is only one part of the sports performance puzzle: if you’re not managing fatigue and prioritising recovery, your body won’t have the time, the tools or the energy it needs to be able to absorb the training load, recover and adapt to become stronger. If you’re someone who’s been training really well, including a variety of stimuli and progressing the load over time but you’re still not seeing results – recovery might be the key thing that you’re missing.
There are plenty of shiny, sparkly sports recovery potions, lotions and contraptions out there – some of them effective, others… not so. But priority number one is always going to be about getting the basics nailed. That means getting enough sleep, refuelling properly after your sessions (carbs are not the enemy!), managing your hydration levels and taking into account the impact that non-training ‘life stress’ (e.g. that big scary work meeting or the eternal debate about the existence of the dishwasher fairy with your partner) has on your body’s ability to recover from exercise. Not giving yourself the time to prioritise recovery, and trying to muscle your way through the fatigue by just training harder might get you some results for a little while… but trust us when we say, at some point the body will say ‘nope!’ and in the long term it’ll be counterproductive to your performance. Train hard, but recover harder and you’ll not only become a better athlete – you’ll also be giving yourself a far better chance of achieving longevity in your chosen sport. And really, while improving performance and hitting new PBs is great, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Getting to do what we love, for longer.
Don’t forget the fun factor
Something we can all be guilty of when we’re laser focused on a particular race, event or goal is that – unless you’re a professional athlete – most of us choose to take part in our chosen sport for fun. Yes, you’ve got to train hard if you want to get the best out of yourself. Yes, sometimes sacrifices have to be made. But it’s also important to enjoy our training. If that means every now and then you switch that hard solo session for a social ride or run with your mates… that’s okay. Because that fun factor is what’s going to “fill your cup” and bolster your mental resilience stores so you’ve got enough in the tank to dig deep and go hard when it matters. Sure it might not be precisely what was on your training plan. You might even end up with a yellow slice on your Training Peaks pie chart (!). You might even end up going harder than you intended because you got into a ‘last one to the top of the climb buys the coffees’ race again… But if you had fun, if it made you excited about training. It’s worth it. When you take care of your happiness and protect your energy, the rest of it all tends to fall into place.
Happy training, Herd! As ever, if you’ve got any tips to share with your fellow Goats feel free to tag us on Instagram, pop them in our Strava club or start a conversation in our Facebook group. Now if you don’t mind, this particular Goat is off for a run and a sandwich (probably not at the same time…)