Written by Carly Tierney from DW Fitness Clubs
It doesn’t matter how many triathlons or endurance events you have under your belt; there will inevitably come a time when you feel like your progress has stalled.
Whilst it’s common for many of us to ‘hit the wall’ in our workout plans – it’s something you will want to eradicate as soon as possible.
What is an exercise plateau?
Plateaus are a natural (and often frustrating) part of physical progression and most people will experience them at some point during their training programmes.
Plateaus don’t care if you are a seasoned triathlete, a bodybuilder, or a newbie gym-goer one month into an exercise plan; they can affect anyone.
When you fall into a plateau it can make you go from building muscle and getting stronger, to suddenly feeling weaker than before.
So how can we avoid this lull?
Here are six tips for you to follow…
1) Embrace rest days
If you’ve got one eye on a big race, it’s tempting to put in as much work as possible so that you’re in peak physical condition once the event comes around.
However, not only could you be doing your body some unnecessary damage, but you’re more likely to hit a dreaded plateau. Carly Tierney, DW Fitness personal trainer and Miami Pro UK bodybuilding champion, believes that many athletes fall into the trap of underestimating the importance of rest days.
“If you’re just going to the gym and putting in 50%, you’re never going to progress or see results. Take a rest day.”
You’ll notice that your carefully-tailored training programme will naturally start to wind down as you get closer to a race. If you’ve hit a plateau a week or so before you’re due to be downgrading the intensity of your sessions, don’t try to catch up. You’ll wear yourself out.
2) Mix up your regime
One of the biggest reasons you may be in a workout plateau is because you’re continually performing the same routine day in, day out. Not only can it affect results, but you’re less likely to stay motivated. It just gets boring and soon becomes a chore.
By performing the exact same workout every day, your body will eventually get used to its strenuousness and will stop developing. Granted, you need to be ready for the unrelenting rigours of a triathlon (endurance is key after all), but adding some variety to your pre-race preparations is never a bad idea.
You don’t need to make drastic changes, as Carly explains:
“Vary your intensity (change up your rest periods), change your rep range, perform your exercises in a different order, take more rest days. Or if you’re really serious about progression, consult an expert. Writing your own programmes is unlikely to get you the best results. Don’t wing it.”
3) Call on experienced triathletes
Following on from point two, if you really want to get the most out of your training and see some incredible results, having an expert by your side is the way to go.
Not only will they provide tips and give you a programme that suits your personal goals and requirements, they will revolutionise the way in which you train;
“When you workout alone, you can think you’re pushing yourself but training with a PT or coach takes it to a whole new level. A good coach will inspire you, teach you new tricks, check your form (you’d be surprised how many people have poor form and this could be the reason you’re hitting a plateau) and encourage you to push yourself. It’s that point when you think you can’t push any harder and break out of your comfort zone that the magic begins.”
For relative newcomers to the triathlon scene, partnering up with somebody who has numerous events under their belt can be invaluable during the training phase. They have been there and done it, and will be able to spot signs of over-training or flaws in your routine. Absorb their wisdom and use their experience to your advantage.
4) Keep things ticking over after a big event
There are few things more difficult than building up fitness from scratch. For many triathletes, the biggest problem they have is taking their foot too far off the gas once their race is over.
Of course, you’ve worked extremely hard to prepare for your event and you’re entitled to some well-deserved downtime. Just remember, the more inactive you are and the more you allow your diet to slip after one race, the harder it’ll be for you to build yourself up for the next one.
Keep yourself ticking over. Keep running, cycling and swimming at a low intensity to keep your fitness at a respectable level. This will give you a platform to build from when training resumes again, and you’ll no doubt find it much easier when you start to incorporate weights and higher-intensity exercises into your programme again.
We can’t promise that you won’t hit a plateau, but you should find that your progress is nice and steady, rather than a massive grind.
5) Lift heavier weights or increase your reps
Strength training is imperative for serious triathletes, but this is one part of a training plan that is commonly blighted by plateaus.
One day you’ll feel strong and the next you’ll struggle. That’s how it goes sometimes.
Weight training is all about mixing it up – keeping your body guessing. By simply changing the amount of reps, or just switching up the method, you’ll see better, quicker results.
Try changing up the weight by 5% of what you are used to, or go a few numbers higher on the reps and try drop sets.
As an example, aim for four sets of 10 dumbbell curls, gather four different weights and use your heaviest weight on the first set, then the second heaviest, then the third heaviest, then the lightest on the last set.
Be aware there are no rests in between drop sets, you are ‘walking down the rack’. Drop sets use different muscle fibres which helps trigger growth that wouldn’t be ordinarily possible when using the same weight.
6) Know your weaknesses but don’t let them drag you down
Each and every one of us has aspects of our training that we are better at than others. This is especially true for triathletes.
There will always be one discipline that you’re stronger at than others. If you’re a good runner but not as proficient in the water, you’ll naturally want to spend more time working on your swimming game. While this is great logic, you can end up with an unbalanced training plan and could ultimately find yourself hitting a dreaded plateau.
The same principles apply in the gym too. There will be some parts of your body that are stronger than others, and you might be tempted to single out certain muscle groups for special attention. Again, this can be a mistake. It’s a good idea to partake in full-body workouts where possible, rather than doing too many “isolation exercises” that focus on really specific areas.
A muscle imbalance is a surefire way to affect your gym routine and overall training performance, possibly resulting in an exercise plateau, so Carly gives her expert advice on how to combat it.
“Regular massage treatments or using a foam roller can address soft tissue issues. A proper warm-up consisting of light aerobic exercise can not only prepare you for the workout ahead, but can also address range-of-motion issues. This will add strength and function to your body.”
Carly is a qualified personal trainer, nutritionist, published fitness author, ambassador for South Yorkshire Eating Disorders Association and an award-winning Bikini Fitness contestant, Carly is well versed on the frustrations of fitness regimes.
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