The infamous fitness plateau is a state no athlete wishes to face. We’re going to make sure you never find yourself there.


Throughout this discussion, we will introduce two foundational theories to understand what happens to our bodies when we train. By doing so, we aim to illuminate why certain practices yield results, while others achieve none. Keep these theories in mind and you’ll see humble increases in your FTP.

The way we think about training is pretty cut-and-dry: exercise, get stronger, faster. We rarely think about what’s going on behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this isn’t the best way to approach training. The more we know about what our bodies are actually doing, the better position we’ll be in to choose practices that increase fitness and avoid the ones that don’t.

The Foundational Theories

General Adaptation Syndrome theory

At the heart of it all is Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome theory. The theory supposes that the human body responds to the stress we apply in attempts to minimize disruptions made to its steady state. Training stress is simply a disruption to the body’s state of homeostasis, or in other words, disruption in the energy exchange within the body to get back to a “steady state”. This disruption also affects muscular composition and hormonal processes, all of which to help the body return to that stable state. We can chalk Selye’s contribution up as a road map to how we understand stress and its effects on the internal balance of the body.

Selye believed this process to have three stages: First, the body releases hormones to aid the completion of a task (acute stress response). Second, training stress is no longer exposed and the body allocates energy to repair damaged muscle tissue and aid other adaptations to the stimulus. Lastly — if stress persists for too long — the body’s ability to reduce its impact begins to fade because adaptive energy is running low. These three steps revealed a pattern of the body’s responsive nature, and it’s been applied to training theories ever since.

Periodization

Russian physiologist Leo Matveyev expanded on Selye’s work by creating periodic training models to understand the body’s predictive responses. By analyzing the training approach and athletic results of Olympians, Matveyev identified a common theme among athletes who were successful. From this, he built a training approach that would come to influence the entire Eastern Bloc’s 1960 Olympics and athletic training approaches today.

The traditional periodization model divides training time into distinct phases to achieve peak fitness. If you’re following a TrainerRoad training plan you know this model as the Base, Build, and Specialty phases of your training plan. Break this down even further, and you’ll see microcycles and mesocycles within this progression. The microcycle being your week of workouts, and the mesocycle being 3-4 weeks of training (the macrocycle being your entire season). Using this model, training schedules integrate periodic downturns that play on the previous weeks of training and help avoid burnout.

So how do you prevent a fitness plateau?

Am I Progressing?

The first thing you need to ask yourself is, “Am I progressing?”. To answer this question, examine your training and analyze whether your workouts are providing a progressive stimuli to keep your fitness moving in an upward direction. You’ll also want to make sure your training schedules periodic downturns to give your body a chance to absorb training stress. TrainerRoad’s training plan process takes the guesswork out of this for you.

Training progression in light of Selye’s GAS theory is really just consistent exposure to specific stressors on the body. Physiological adaptations are made in response to stress in an effort to minimize the effects on homeostasis. The body eventually gets really good at this, such that the previous level of stress is no longer recognized by the body as a stressor. As a result, your body stops spurring physiological change, and a fitness plateau is as simple as that.

Successful Completion of your Workouts

Say your training plan prescribes the right level of progression, but there are still workouts you can’t complete. Why would you move into the next week to complete harder workouts when you’re having a problem completing current ones? You wouldn’t, or at least you shouldn’t. Take this as a sign from your body to repeat the current workout in lieu of the one scheduled next week.

For example, say you’re really struggling with your Sweet Spot workout, which consists of 2×15-minute intervals this week and 3×12-minute next. Next week, repeat the 2×15-minute workout to successfully complete the workout. Then move onto what would have been the next ride. You may not be progressing at the rate prescribed by the plan, but you’re still making progress. If the same issue occurs next week, cut the ride short and reattempt it the following week.

When it comes to VO2 max specifically, the zones get pretty blurry. If you find you just can’t seem to complete workouts at the prescribed 120% of FTP, maybe your VO2 max is more in the 115% range. Dial back the intensity when doing VO2 max workouts in the future (going no lower than 110%). You’ll move forward knowing with this lower intensity as the new value for future VO2 max workouts.

Note: This approach to VO2 max doesn’t apply to sub-threshold work because the zones at these intensities have less wiggle-room.

Does every day feel like a bad day?

If every day feels like a bad day, something’s up. If all signs point toward “go” but you still feel stale and flat, some outside variable is likely the culprit. Whether you’re not eating enough (quality and/or quantity) or you’re not getting enough rest, some external factor is influencing the impact of your workouts.

Sleep is pretty basic, and you should know 5 hours isn’t going to do the trick. Food, on the other hand, isn’t always so straightforward. We try to help. We measure kilojoule expenditure in each workout, which basically equates to Calories. If you fear your diet may be a setback, pay attention to your energy balance, that is, your caloric intake versus the demands of your workouts.

Overreaching

The nature of training is overreaching. Each week we try to outreach what we could do the week before. If you don’t recover properly to absorb that stress, you can end up overreaching too far. In that case, it’s time to dial it back a bit. That can mean adding an extra day of rest, cutting a workout short, switching a VO2 max workout to a Sweet Spot workout/Sweet Spot for a tempo ride/tempo for an endurance workout.

Conclusion

To avoid a fitness plateau, we need to dial-in our individual rate of progression. That means consistently and successfully completing workouts, balancing good/bad days, and identifying fatigue beyond periodized heavy training stimulus. As we become more familiar with a new training regimen, it’s important to pay attention to that individual rate and make sure it plays nicely within the structure of your training. TrainerRoad’s Head Coach creates training plans with all these elements in mind.

Consistently making training progress is the only way to keep getting stronger. Integrated into that are specific workouts and recovery techniques aimed at achieving a particular set of physiological adaptations that translate into being a better athlete. Use this knowledge to make sure your training is helping you make progress, not keeping you from getting faster.



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Nick Kanwetz

Nick Kanwetz is a writer of all things cycling. Whether he's creating content, interviewing coaches or digging through studies, he's doing it all to make sure you become a faster cyclist and all around better athlete.

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