Whether you are self-coached or working with a coach, tell me if this scenario sounds familiar. You’ve been training religiously for a period of time and results came both quick and early. But, now you’ve plateaued or maybe you’ve regressed a little bit. You’re starting to feel more fatigued more often, yet you continue to follow your plan religiously. After all, no pain, no gain, right?
There’s a famous Greek tale about a man named Milo who developed hero-like strength by lifting a young calf while he was a young boy. As he matured and as the calf grew into a bull, Milo continued to lift it every day to the point he could lift the half-ton bull over his head. While this is clearly a myth, what it does do is speak to the principle of overload – in order to progress, we need to create overload so that we force the body to adapt to stimulus. Create too little stimulus and either progress is stunted or it doesn’t occur at all. It is important to progressively increase the training load – either by intensity or by volume, rarely by both – in order to experience continued gains.
There are various periods of adaptation that athletes and coaches either don’t comprehend or tend to ignore. The first period occurs immediately after stress is introduced. In the day(s) immediately after a hard workout, the body has to respond to that stress and repair itself. Performance is typically impaired and the athlete experiences things like deep muscular fatigue, elevated resting HR and either elevated or depressed HR in subsequent training. Even if you feel great the following day and like you could do yet another hard workout, this does not mean that you should. Masters athletes especially need to use caution when adding more hard work to their weekly training routine. The body needs rest and recovery after stressful bouts of training.
The next stage is that of adaptation. Adaptation occurs when manageable stress is introduced and recovery is not thusly impaired. If you train too hard, you dig too deep a hole to climb out of and a standard amount of recovery isn’t enough to set you up for another bout of stress. Yet, athletes often hold firm to their one recovery day or a couple easy days regardless of what their body is telling them. Severity of training sessions must be kept in check; we must finish tough workouts feeling like we could do another repeat or two were it required. Recovery is when the adaptation occurs, when the body can sufficiently repair the damage done and make you bigger, faster, stronger. Adaptation does not occur during the hard work itself, which is one of the most misunderstood things by athletes who feel the progress comes from the stress not from the recovery.
Eventually, athletes do reach plateaus. When you reach a plateau in your training or racing performances (and assuming you have been training intelligently), rather than stressing out, you should be excited. Plateaus are periods of time without progress. Typically plateaus occur because the body is absorbing stress rather than processing it. Think of a coiling spring before it releases. Typically, progress after a plateau results in a big step forward rather than a small incremental one. The biggest error both athletes and coaches make when hitting a plateau is that they start to trainer harder or faster or longer, thinking the plateau is evidence of not doing enough. In fact, this approach increases the stressors, which only serves to promote worse and worse performance. When this position is taken, the only path forward is one of failure.
Failure occurs when the body can no longer cope with the stress it’s being subjected to; it can no longer respond to and adapt to the stress. Performance degrades and athletes become sick, injured, can’t sleep well, become edgy and generally a basket case to be around. Insufficient rest and severe training are the culprits, because training and recovery are not being prescribed intelligently – either by the self-coached athlete or an athlete’s coach. With the Masters athletes I work with who have worked with coaches in the past, I find the majority of them are overtrained, heavily fatigued and really just not enjoying training or racing anymore. They are in too big of a deficit and at wits end. A well-thought out training program will ensure that this stage is never reached because sufficient rest and recovery is built into both the short-term and long-term plan.
Just as it is important to create enough stress that prompts the body to react and adapt to it, it is also critical to include enough easy training and days off so the body can actually recover from the stress and get stronger. If you balance stress with recovery, you will be able to avoid the pitfalls of ending up burned out, injured or sick.