17 March 2008

What to Do When Your Fitness Plateaus & How to Break Through It

Often when people get started with a fitness programme, there’s an initial flurry of activity and results as the body adapts to new challenges. Somewhere along the line you hit the 'wall' and progress seems to slow or even stall. This is frustrating physically and mentally. It’s always important to feel that you’re getting closer to reaching your goals so to stick in one spot with your fitness or, even worse, feel like you’re falling backwards, is de-motivating and extremely frustrating.

I know because it’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to many other people. So I’ve done some research with my own training and with a number of clients and together we’ve developed a fail-safe way to boost your fitness in double quick time.

We’ll use the rowing machine as an example but you can follow the principle for any type of cardio training.

The Problem

A few years ago, I took part in a competition at a local gym to see who could row 2000m in the fastest time on the Concept 2 rowing machine. Like everyone else, I had a few attempts and the quickest time I posted was 6-minutes 43-seconds. It wasn’t the quickest and it wasn’t the slowest but I was pleased as I’d managed to work my time down from around 7-minutes 30-seconds a couple of months before.

Shortly after this I moved house and didn’t join a gym as I was training mostly at home and going out running so I didn’t use a rowing machine until about 8-months ago. When I got back on it I tried the same 2000m challenge, and again started at around 7- minutes and 30-seconds and worked the time down to 6-minutes and 53-seconds.

But then I got stuck. Having got within 10-seconds of my previous best time, I couldn’t get the time down any further and then, the more I tried, the more it started to creep back up towards and then over 7-minutes again. I felt demoralised. On each attempt at my ‘record’ I was starting out OK but then running out of steam earlier and earlier in the attempt. Psychologically this was tough to deal with.

So I tried something different.

The Solution

This is the simple but essential method to reaching peak fitness as quickly as is possible. I looked at how far I could get through the challenge with a full intensity performance before I ran out of steam and it was around the 1100 / 1150m mark. So I shortened the challenge to a distance I knew I was comfortable with in my mind and set a target time for 1000m. The time I posted was 3-minutes 22-seconds.

Brilliant I thought. All I need to do is maintain that speed for the second 1000m and I’d achieve a time within 1 second of my best attempt in the competition. I’d be more than happy with that. The programme I chose to help me make this happen was simple. Aim to row at the same speed – a 500m average speed of 1-minute 41-seconds – and add 100m to the distance on each visit until I got back to 2000m.

It was a push but mentally, knowing that I could row each distance at the right speed was crucial to going the extra metres. After all, it was only a matter of holding the same speed for roughly an extra 20-seconds each time the distance increases.

Here’s how progress went.

Average 500m Speed over Distance

1000 metres ------------ 1m 41
1100 metres ------------ 1m 40.5
1200 metres ------------ 1m 40.8
1300 metres ------------ 1m 40.7
1400 metres ------------ 1m 40.6
1500 metres ------------ 1m 40.9
1600 metres ------------ 1m 40.9
1700 metres ------------ 1m 40.8

Then a strange thing happened. The day I went to the gym to go for 1800m at the target pace, the place was really busy. I was focusing really hard on the job ahead of me and visualising keeping the right intensity up so that I could complete my row having successfully done the job I set out to do. But because of all the noise in the background I got distracted and accidentally set the machine up for 2000m instead of 1800m.

I pressed go and got stuck in, only realising what I’d done after I’d rowed a couple of hundred metres. It crossed my mind to pause and reset but then I thought no, just get on with it.

Amazingly, I kept pace and finished with an average pace for 500m of 1m 40.8. A total time for the 2000m distance of 6m 43.1.

I had matched my record and done it in a shorter time frame than I could ever have imagined.

I was delighted with the results. I’d leapt off the plateau that I’d been stuck on with my progress and got back to a level of fitness that I hadn’t achieved for years. And it only took three weeks.

Over To You

I used the rowing machine but you can follow the same routine for your preferred training plan. If you use the bike regularly, post a time for your usual distance, half the distance, set a blistering pace and then gradually work back to your chosen distance at your new, faster pace.

If you like to run outside pick one of your favourite routes and see how long it takes you. Then pick a point half way around the route and up your pace to this point. Then progressively add distance to the point to which you run quickly until you’re completing the whole route at the quicker pace.

The same principle can be used to boost your strength training results and pack on muscle. If you’re stuck on particular weights for your usual sets of 10 or 12 repetitions, pick a heavier weight and, observing good posture and technique, aim to complete just 4 or 5 repetitions to begin with and then add a rep each time you tackle this exercise in your routine. You’ll quickly see that it was just a perception of what was possible that caused you to stick with a particular weight and that tackling it in a new way pushes you on quicker than you’d have thought possible.

The method is tried and tested and never fails.

Photograph by mclgreenville / memorymotel (Flickr)

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