Every athlete worth their salt has hit a plateau. You all know the feeling — suddenly gym sessions feel less productive, gains slow to a crawl, and you start to feel stuck.
Often, the natural response is to train harder and longer, assuming that plateaus can just be powered through, but pushing your body harder when it might actually need to slow down is asking for injury. Injuries aren’t fun for anyone, but if you’re preparing for a competition, race, or big game, it can be a death knell for your training.
Why Am I Hitting a Plateau?
While some plateaus are part of the natural training cycle, others are due to improper training. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your own drive and push too hard for too long. The result is a burned-out athlete whose body is breaking down instead of building up.
Avoiding bad training habits seems like it should be common sense, but it’s easier said than done. Everyone wants to be the best, and you get there by training, right? So what’s the difference between pushing and pushing too hard? And how do you toe the line without long-jumping over it?
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect formula for everyone, but with an updated training strategy, it’s a little easier to navigate the minefield of training fatigue. As with most athletic advice, this comes with a strong dose of “listen to your body.”
Plateaus and training fatigue generally stem from overdoing it every time you’re in the gym or under-recovering after you go home.
Am I Training Too Intensely?
Pushing muscles too hard during every gym session can leave them overworked and prone to injury.
Intensity is an important part of improving, but each workout shouldn’t be all the way to your limits. You should have a baseline that you are comfortable operating in — this doesn’t mean you never get sore, but that soreness only lasts a day or so.
As you up your intensity, make sure to do so at a rate the body can keep up with. “Stretch sessions” that push beyond your normal exertion should occur once a week, at most, and will require more rest afterward.
If lifting is your primary activity, stretch sessions may take the form of testing maxes in your major lifts over the course of a week. Follow that up with a week of deloading; scale your workouts back before resuming normal muscle-building activities to ensure adequate muscle recovery.
Should I Be Resting More?
You need to take care of your body outside the gym too, and that means more than proper hygiene.
Make sure your caloric intake is high enough to match your exertion level. If you eat fairly healthily, you might be surprised at how much food is required to keep up with a regular workout schedule. Try keeping a food diary for a week or so to get an idea of what you’re taking in and compare it to your estimated caloric need.
If you frequently find yourself sleep deprived or struggling to make it through your workday, you may need to get more rest.
Sleep is a major component of rest, but so are days outside the gym. Take rest days to encourage your body to relax and recover. You don’t have to be completely sedentary; walks, light hikes, and flexibility work are all welcome on rest days.
If you’re not allowing your body to recover adequately, your body becomes more prone to injuries. Fatigued muscles may not be able to stabilize joints or support the load you’re working with, causing strains and sprains to occur. In some cases, joints may break down or stress fractures may be present.
So What Do I Do?
Here’s where cross-training comes in. Cross-training is the idea that you can perform other athletic activities outside of your normal training focus and still see results. In fact, your progress may even accelerate.
Cross-training strengthens areas of the body you aren’t normally working, which can help prevent muscular imbalances and reduce the strain on joints. Increasing flexibility and strengthening stabilizing muscles is often accomplished with yoga or pilates, both of which are easy to take up at home.
There’s a lot of free workouts for yoga and pilates available online, and most of the needed materials can be purchased online for not much money. Just be sure to use your common sense when bargain hunting online!
New activities need to make sense for you as an athlete. Cross-training should encourage building complementary skills without repeating more of the same motions. For instance, swimming is great for lifters looking to increase shoulder mobility or get a cardio push without the joint impact of running. If you don’t like the idea of laps in a pool, consider open-water swimming in summer and fall (or year-round if you’re lucky enough).
An overlooked benefit of cross-training is breaking the cycle of boredom. Training with tunnel vision leads to doing a lot of one thing, leaving you with a capable body and a frustrated mind. Your cross-training should be something you enjoy.
Pickup games of soccer, ultimate frisbee, or basketball are awesome options. Lateral movements can challenge balance as many runners and lifters operate their joints along one plane of movement. The strategy involved in team sports provides a mental challenge and builds camaraderie, which is a far cry from the headphone-isolated world of a lifting floor. Intramural teams add a competitive aspect while also having the benefit of being scheduled for you, taking some of the guess work out.
Whatever activity you opt for, it should replace part of your normal routine. Adding extra workouts does nothing to solve the problem of overworking, so scale back your normal routine as you begin incorporating cross-training.
You don’t have to constantly replace your workouts — it can be once a week, or even less. The idea is to change up the routine so your primary muscles groups get a different type of workout while avoiding repetitive use injuries.
Wait, You Want Me to Workout Less?
If the idea of cutting down your current workouts makes you die a little inside, you need to examine your mentality. Chances are you clicked on this article because you’re feeling the fatigue that leads into injury, or you’ve had an overuse injury before and don’t want another one. Use that as a clue to start training smarter instead of harder.
At some point, you were probably told that pushing through now means better results later, but that’s not always the case. A rest day now may be just what you need to be more productive next week.
Developing a long-term view will benefit your training. Instead of just pushing hard to the next goal or competition and being left without a sense of direction after the event has passed, look at training from an endurance perspective.
You can’t sprint between goals with no rest and no recovery. You have to pace your body. Your training is a lifelong marathon, and events are the mile markers along the way.
Looking at training in the long-term gives you the freedom to back off for a day, something that you can’t do when you’re zeroed in on a specific goal in a static timeline. Check in, see what your body needs, and rest if you need it. Pushing through a twinging knee today is not worth surgery in a year.
A healthy mindset is one of your most important training tools; don’t forget to cross-train your brain, too!
How Do I Start?
Changes should be incorporated into your routine gradually. Just like ramping up your workout intensity too fast can lead to poor results, so can throwing something brand new in with no warning. Slowly start switching up your routine by adding in cross-training, but be sure to listen to your body the whole time. Pay attention to stressors and rest when your body asks you to. Soon, you’ll have a new routine with a greater variety of activities, and you may find yourself looking back with your plateau nowhere in sight!