Plateaus, helpful or hindering? The lessons we can learn from Olympic training routines.

A common perception amongst our clients is that fitness follows a linear progression. This is the idea that the more effort we put in and the more we train; the more progress we make in our fitness goals. Whether that is getting stronger, running faster or swimming further; it can always be achieved by planning a structured fitness routine, training a certain number of hours a week and varying the type of training session we do. Many seem to think that it is the perfect recipe for continuous success.

However, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, this structured, successful progression was shattered. It was harder to train due to the closure of facilities and less time to train outside due to restrictions. Annoyingly, the type of training we could do was limited, and overall our motivation for fitness plummeted.  For many, our unique situation had heightened the feeling that their fitness progress had plateaued. There was a strong consensus that because their structured fitness routine had failed, their goal for linear progression in fitness had also been halted. 

However, our Head personal trainer at Muto, Simon Green, says that plateaus in fitness are totally normal. In fact, he remarks that “improvement comes with plateaus. Long term movement comes with hurdles which could be in the form of injuries; changes in sleep, eating habits or personal circumstances.” With the Tokyo Olympics 2020 taking place this summer, Simon reminds us that “athletes are constantly going through this progression-plateau cycle, and ultimately it leads to improvement and peak performance.” He goes on to explain that most athletes structure their training around their competitions. For athletes competing in the Olympics, which take place every 4 years, training is planned in cycles, of which there are three types; micro, meso and macro. 

Training according to the micro cycle, focuses on improving a specific skill or technique in a short amount of time, usually a single session. For example, tennis players improving their backhand, swimmers improving their breaststroke technique or footballers, feeling their change of direction improve as they turn. Therefore, the micro cycle takes into account short term gains/success. This means that by the end of the  session you might be swimming a faster breaststroke than the start of the session. Additionally, meso cycles take into account a longer time frame, and usually focus on energy systems, endurance and cardio training or longer term issues with that athlete’s performance. This mostly means doing your skill (football, swimming, running) for longer and at a higher intensity. Therefore, Simon ensures that we need to put “more emphasis on rest and taking breaks”. In this way the meso cycle prepares the athletes for longer term training and lowers the risks of overworking, a risk which could usually result in the possibility of injury or prevent full recovery, in time to perform in  a match or competition.

For athletes taking part in the Olympics, macro training cycles take into account the whole four years between competitions, primarily focused on getting the athlete to peak performance at the end of the four years ie. at the Olympics. This means the training is planned to precision, making sure the earlier sessions focus on variability and technical improvement and slowly builds up endurance training over the weeks and years. The routine is consistently changed accordingly to make sure the athlete is not fatigued before a competition.

These rests/breaks are precisely plateaus in performance, displaying that success is not a linear trajectory. Simon summarises that “professional athletes work at varying degrees of intensity with a focus on rest and recovery especially around important times (in their case competitions etc) just to hit top performance”. He therefore levels that “for those of us who are working towards getting fitter, stronger or anything else we are focused on, it is unreasonable to think that it is going to be a linear progression of bad-to-good-to-great and instead sets us up for failure.” Conversely, we should understand that our fitness routines can change. Simon adds, “ after all our fitness goals are multi-faceted and therefore, plateaus may be a sign to change our training focus; whether that be rest periods, training intensity or our overall fitness cycle. In short, plateaus do not hinder our overall success and are never a sign of failure”.

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