BREAKING THROUGH

Top coaches share their advice for understanding and working with performance plateaus—both those you expect and those you don’t.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: dr@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 15.1, January 2007, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1501/breakingthrough.htm

For most athletes, plateau is a four-letter word. In their minds, they should improve after every workout, and every meet should bring a new PR. As a coach, though, you know that performance gains don’t come in a straight line—there are many times during the season when performances should flatten and hold steady for a while. Rather than signaling a problem, plateaus are often simply part of the training plan.

On the other hand, there are times when an athlete’s lack of improvement actually signals that something has gone wrong. Rather than being a healthy plateau on the way to the next breakthrough, level performances over a long period of time can be a sign of overtraining, psychological roadblocks, or even an undetected illness.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at plateaus, both good and bad. In the case of a planned plateau, we’ll offer ideas for teaching athletes that patience is the name of the game. In the case of a plateau that is really a roadblock in disguise, we’ll provide the training tools for breaking through.

Part of the Process
When an athlete’s performance levels off, it can be frustrating for both the athlete and coach. However, the first step in understanding plateaus is realizing that they often represent a normal phase in the training progression.

“Everybody plateaus,” says Rick McGuire, Head Coach of Men’s and Women’s Track and Field at the University of Missouri. “Coaches have yet to find a training system where results are ever onward, upward, further, higher, faster, and better. Plateaus are just part of the deal.”

Vern Gambetta, President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a co-founder of the USA Track and Field coaches education program, likens plateaus to the landings on a staircase. “You go up a flight of stairs and there’s a landing, which is where you stabilize your performance,” he says. “Then you go up another flight of stairs to the next landing. It usually takes about four flights of stairs before you reach your peak performance, so there can be three or four lengthy plateaus.”

Plateaus are also an inevitable part of the mental adaptation to training. According to sports psychologist Keith Henschen, Professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Science at the University of Utah and consultant to USA Track and Field, plateaus result in part from the brain assimilating new information.

“When we’re learning, it takes time for the mind to digest information,” he says. “Although we may feel we’ve mastered a task, it takes a while for the brain to finish processing everything, so we see a plateau. And you’ll see that happen more with the elite athlete because it takes so much longer for them to improve just a little bit compared to a novice athlete who can improve a lot over a short period of time.”

Waiting It Out
It’s one thing for a coach to be comfortable with an athlete’s plateau, and another thing to help the athlete accept the situation. For McGuire, education is the key to helping his athletes have patience through a plateau. He teaches them that, from a physical standpoint, plateaus are a necessary component of great gains.

“I explain that if we were always rising to the next peak, we’d have to do a lot of resting,” he says. “That wouldn’t give us as much time to build more biomotor capability to put in the storehouse of our bodies. Then we wouldn’t have as much capability available in that storehouse when it came time to deliver the next peak, so the peak wouldn’t be as big.”

Part of the challenge, McGuire says, is that society conditions athletes to fight plateaus. “Society teaches us to demand immediate greatness, and when that doesn’t happen for an athlete, they ask, ‘What’s wrong with me? Have I lost it?’” says McGuire, who has a PhD in sports psychology and is an Assistant Professor in Missouri’s Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology. “So we have to fight the messages from society that tell our athletes to hate the plateau.”

To do that, McGuire often uses a concept from a book by George Leonard titled Mastery. “The book isn’t about sports, although the author uses some sport metaphors and examples,” McGuire says. “It’s about people trying to be highly effective in their lives and applying themselves in a way that allows them to be masters of their fate and their own excellence.

“One of Leonard’s concepts is ‘Love the Plateau,’” he continues. “Now, most people hate the plateau. They want to get off the plateau, so they fight it. But as a coach, the idea of loving the plateau makes sense to me.”

A large part of McGuire’s discussions with his athletes involves teaching them to love the plateau. “I tell them this doesn’t mean they have to be satisfied with where they are,” he says. “It simply means we know plateaus are part of what leads us up the path to the big peak we’re aiming for. Our intention every day is to work hard doing things that will allow us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. But we aren’t going to see that better tomorrow in new PRs every day. And since we know that there will be plateaus, we’re going to do smart things while we’re there, and we aren’t going to beat ourselves up during the process.

“We spend a lot of time discussing this approach starting with our first meeting,” McGuire adds. “That way, when athletes find themselves on a plateau, they understand what’s happening and think, ‘Oh, this is what Coach is talking about.’ And I’m there telling them, ‘Don’t get frustrated. This is exactly what we want to happen. This is the plateau just before the big peak.’”

Lou Duesing, Head Coach of Women’s Track and Field and Cross Country at Cornell University, also believes that coaches need to set the right tone when an athlete finds themselves in a holding pattern. “It’s important to be positive and not to panic,” he says. “Athletes reflect the personalities of their coaches, and if they see coaches panicking about a plateau, they’re likely to follow suit.”

Some athletes accept plateaus more naturally than others. McGuire has a special message for athletes who fight a plateau. “I tell them, ‘You can be frustrated. You can be depressed. You can put on a face like the world is going to come to an end because you didn’t set a new PR in the long jump last night. But it’s only going to make jumping farther more difficult,’” he says. “‘If you want to be great, you don’t have the luxury of not using each minute at practice most effectively to lead you to the next breakthrough.’”

Unplanned Plateaus
Patience and education are the solution to many plateaus, but sometimes a plateau has gone on longer than expected and despite following the training plan and working hard, the athlete never reaches the expected peak. There’s no hard and fast rule for how long is too long when it comes to plateaus. Training age, event, and the training plan itself are only some of the factors to consider when evaluating a plateau’s length.

In general, if a plateau has lasted longer than you expected and you can’t identify a flaw in the training plan, it’s time for a deeper assessment. The first step is ruling out the common causes that can keep an athlete from making a breakthrough, starting with the physical. Sometimes this begins with some quick questions for the athlete. Other times, it may require an outside medical evaluation.

“When a plateau lasts longer than we’ve planned, we begin by checking to see whether something physical is getting in the way,” McGuire says. “We look for fatigue resulting from lack of sleep, poor diet, or low iron stores through a blood test—particularly with endurance athletes.”

McGuire has observed that when an athlete is stuck, often the first inclination is to assume a psychological block. But addressing psychological issues before eliminating possible physical causes can be counterproductive. “The athlete may have something mental going on, but if not, we’ll be wasting our time. In one case, I discovered that an athlete I was working with to break a plateau had Graves’ disease, and boy were we glad we checked.”

When other physical causes have been ruled out, overtraining can be an explanation for an extended plateau. “The number one red flag for overtraining is difficulty in recovering and malaise,” Gambetta says. “When an athlete is on a positive plateau, the energy levels and the bounce are still there but the results just haven’t come yet. With overtraining, if you watch the athlete’s body language, you’ll see an overall feeling of not wanting to train.”

Overtraining can negatively influence both an athlete’s emotional state and physical well being. “There’s a direct correlation between the amount of physical work an athlete does and their eagerness to work,” says Craig Poole, Head Coach of Women’s Track and Field at Brigham Young University and a professor in sports psychology. “Overtraining can depress an athlete’s ability to psychologically prepare for the max efforts he or she is trying to achieve.”

In addition, plateaus in meet performances can occur when an athlete is working too hard in practice. “I worked with an elite distance runner who was achieving really good training marks in practice, but he was doing so by giving competition-level effort in practice every day,” Gambetta says. “He had a huge competition plateau, because he was basically competing five days a week in practice and then trying to compete again on Saturday. You have to make sure that there is a recognizable difference between training effort and competition effort, and you can’t just look at the times the athlete records. You have to see if they’re really straining to reach a time or if they working at the proper level to achieve it.”

Overtraining can also result when athletes take it upon themselves to do extra work in an attempt to break through a plateau. “Some kids, especially distance runners, are perfectionists who sneak in workouts beyond what they really should be doing,” Poole says. “If a coach isn’t aware of the extra work they’re doing, he or she won’t have all the data needed to make an accurate judgment about what’s going on. If you suspect this might be the case, you may have to bring them into your office and ask them directly whether they’re doing extra workouts on the side.”

Once physical causes have been ruled out, there are some psychological aspects to consider. Duesing often finds that when an athlete cannot break through a plateau, it’s because they don’t truly believe they can hit the higher mark. “I constantly tell our athletes that limitations in sports are self-imposed,” he says. “You can always find a hundredth of a second. Once you believe that—not just cognitively, but in your heart as well—you open a door to continued improvement.

“Let’s say their dream is to run a sub-five-minute mile,” Duesing continues. “If you really press them on it, they may say, ‘I really don’t know that I can do it.’ They impose that limitation on themselves, if not consciously then subconsciously. They see it as just a dream, and if they don’t believe they can do it, they probably won’t.”

The Next Peak
Fortunately, with all the different ways for athletes to put themselves onto undesirable plateaus, there are even more ways to help them break them. A common way to overcome a plateau is to have the athlete stop whatever they’re doing in favor of doing something else.

“If an athlete is doing everything right and it’s just not happening for them, I have them get away from their particular event for while,” McGuire says. “There is no magic answer to how long ‘a while’ is. It might be two or three practices or a couple of weeks.”

However long the break lasts, the idea is the same: Give the brain a chance to process all the information it has been flooded with. “Athletes in training are exposed to a lot of motor neural information through their kinesthetic senses, listening to people describe what they should do, and watching others do it,” McGuire says. “The body takes all this information and integrates it into a high jump, a hurdle, or whatever the event is. Athletes can put so much pressure on themselves that they’re on motor neural overload—their sensory motor neural filter gets clogged up and can’t separate good information from bad. If we want to keep the good stuff, we have to let the mind purge the bad stuff. So we halt the flow of information for a while by doing something completely different.”

Duesing has even had an athlete change events for an entire season to break an unwanted plateau. “I once had a miler who was really in a rut,” Duesing says. “I knew he had done some intermediate hurdling in high school, so in outdoor track I moved him to the steeplechase. It was really different in terms of energy system usage and it was fun for him, so it got him away from the stale feeling he had when running the mile.

“He came back the next year and knocked about eight seconds off his mile time,” Duesing says. “He had been away from the mile long enough that he forgot his bad habits, not just physically but also mentally. Plus, in order to run the steeplechase well you have to be strong. And it turned out adding strength was the key to him improving his mile time.”

Most athletes don’t need to take a full season away from their main event to get back on track, so McGuire has a wide range of alternatives. “I might just take out the skill development portion of a practice,” he says. “I’ll have them do a warmup, some speed drills, their weightroom workout, and then go home.”

A plateau is also a good time for film review, as long as it’s positive. “You want to show athletes film from when they had great days,” McGuire says. “This is not the time to examine mistakes. This is the time to filter the system. It’s not usually my first choice, because watching film doesn’t get you completely away from the activity, but if you’re looking at good performances, it can be a positive thing.”

Gambetta likes to change various elements of the training program. The most common changes involve adjusting training volume and intensity. Although load can be increased or decreased, it’s best to not change by more than 10 percent from one training period to another. Similar adjustments can be made to intensity when a change is needed.

“As the athlete accumulates training over the years, I’m more prone to go toward higher-intensity and higher-quality work while cutting down on the volume,” Gambetta says. “But at younger training ages, the training hasn’t accumulated, so you can give them slightly greater workloads at various times.”

Another area that can be easily tweaked is rest, both within workouts and between workouts, especially if overtraining may be a factor. But Gambetta warns that just because some rest is good, more is not necessarily better.

“There’s a traditional tendency to overwork and under-recover,” he says. “But right now, rest and recovery are the buzzwords in training, and I’m beginning to see people resting too much and not working enough. Recovery is really important, but only if you’ve done the work first.

“Don’t forget about rest within a workout,” Gambetta continues. “Often, we don’t provide adequate rest between sprints and throws and jumps in practice and that can have a leveling effect on performance.”

Beyond the old standbys of volume, intensity, and recovery, Gambetta also likes to tinker with training modes. “For example, for squats you can use bodyweight, a weighted vest, a bar, dumbbells, jump squats, back squats, front squats, or overhead squats,” he explains. “The movements and muscles used are all similar, but the stimulus is varied enough that the body will perceive each exercise differently.”

Then there are changes to training sequences, such as swapping the order of plyometric work and weight work within a workout. “It’s important to have several different patterns of work,” Gambetta explains, “so that you can change the order of the primary stimulus for the days of the week. These sequence changes go a long way toward avoiding or breaking through plateaus.”

Gambetta says other smaller changes can include altering balance by having athletes perform on soft surfaces or barefoot, visual feedback by changing the workout environment, and kinesthetic awareness by going from a thin weight bar to a fat one or from a medicine ball to a power ball. “The key is that each of the changes must have a specific purpose and methodology,” he says.

When the problem is a psychological block, Duesing creates practice situations where the athlete can build the confidence needed to achieve the next breakthrough. “For example, part of running a fast mile is getting to the 1,200 mark in a time that’s going to have the athlete feel like they’re on pace without feeling like they have to bend over and rest,” he says. “So I’ll design some front-loading workouts that get them to that point. But you also need to back-load.So we design workouts that get them as tired as they might feel when they reach that 1,200 point, and then have them work at a faster-than-normal pace. That way, they know they’re capable of feeling that level of fatigue and still maintaining their pace.

“When we put them in those situations in practice, they see that they have what it takes physically and mentally to maintain the pace that’s needed,” adds Duesing. “They begin to really believe they can hit the new mark, and when that happens, a breakthrough is just around the corner.”


Sidebar: PREVENTING PLATEAUS
One surefire path to an unwanted plateau, according to Lou Duesing, Head Coach of Women’s Track and Field and Cross Country at Cornell University, is allowing athletes to do too much too soon. To avoid that pitfall, Duesing is careful to make sure athletes are leaving something in the tank early in the season, even if their natural inclination would be to train at a higher intensity.

“Sometimes the best approach is to hold people back early on so that what they’re doing later in the year is at a higher intensity than what they could do early on,” he says. “For example, our competitive season begins in January and ends in June, but January is really a pre-competitive stage. If an 800-meter runner has had a good fall and done their work over Christmas break, they’ll be fit, though not completely race sharp.

“If I gave them the opportunity, they could go out and run some fast quarters, and they could probably do so over a period of time,” Duesing continues. “But that brings them up to a certain level quickly and once they get there, where do they have left to go? So rather than have them run four to six quarters at 60, which they probably could do, I just keep them at 64 with short recovery so we’re working the endurance side of speed endurance. That way, when they start working at a little bit higher intensity, they’ll move forward and keep progressing from cycle to cycle. They won’t be stuck where they started, like they would have been if they were running 60s back in January.”