Coach Toolbox: When an Athlete Reaches a Performance Plateau

athletic plateau

Wenzel Coaching works to help our athletes and coaches find the best resources for their overall fitness and competitive games, no matter their level. This month we feature mental skills expert and therapist Melinda Halpern of Grit Performance as she talks about helping athletes through performance plateaus.

Identifying an Athletic Plateau

Athletic plateaus are part of the unspoken agreement that athletes sign onto when they decide to train and set goals. It is impossible for an athlete to constantly drop times and place better each time they compete. A plateau occurs in order to set up for another gain.  It means the body is maintaining while the athlete works harder for future events. While that makes sense on paper, any athlete who has gone through a lengthy plateau knows how frustrating it can be. There is no set amount of time that a plateau lasts, but for elite athletes it tends to last longer than for novices. While novices have the advantage of making technical and physical changes that result in gross improvements, elite athletes are battling fractions and slivers of change.

Assessing an Athletic Performance Plateau

When a coach assesses a plateau, it’s important to first rule out physical causes. Nutrition, sleep routine, and injuries can be reasons performance might be leveling out. Changes in these areas might contribute to an athlete not achieving the results for which they are training. Social stressors need to be highlighted. What is your athlete’s workload outside of training? Is there career stress? What about their relationships with their family? Finances weigh heavily these days. Sponsorships may be at risk as well as their status on their team, even for club level athletes. It is a rare athlete that has the luxury of training in a vacuum where they need only to train and perform; most need to balance their passion with the reality of everyday life.
[pullquote style=”left”]There is no set amount of time that a plateau lasts, but for elite athletes it tends to last longer than for novices.[/pullquote]

These stressors can drain an athlete without them recognizing it. Focus and intention has a tendency to wane when external stressors are high. These issues may not go away quickly or easily therefore it is good for the athlete to shift gears and re-prioritize. Stress management is not nearly as fun as working out or getting on a bike, but for unaware athletes it is a missed opportunity to download the events of the day. Encourage your athlete to start and end the day with a 3-5 minute breathing routine as means of clearing the mind, even if only for a moment. Making a written list of things in and out of their control (and paying attention to it) can help organize some mental drains.

Overtraining is often the fallback that athletes use to combat their less than ideal results. At a time when the body might be requiring rest and recovery athletes often inadvertently add workouts that can be detrimental.  If the athlete is adding yoga to their week, make sure the class added is a yin class (emphasizing passive stretching and breathing) and not an ashtanga class which is expending energy. Are they adding runs to their week when they should be walking their dog instead?  If your athlete reports having energy and bounce when training but are still not seeing results in competition, then they have probably reached a positive plateau: Their body and brain are gathering data towards improvement; it just hasn’t been integrated yet.

Adjusting Training to Overcome a Plateau

On the other hand, if training results in feelings of dread and lethargy, the athlete might need to make temporary adjustments to their training program.  Overtraining depresses an athlete’s ability to [pullquote style=”right”]It’s important that our athletes recognize the difference between training effort and competition effort.[/pullquote]prepare for those times when maximum effort is needed.  It’s important that our athletes recognize the difference between training effort and competition effort.  Training effort should include reachable times and zones that are tough and require effort but aren’t a consistent strain.  Competition effort is when everything is left on the course, a race day effort.  This is a common mistake with younger and new athletes; by training at competition effort there is a tendency to overtrain and extend the plateau they are trying to break.

Sometimes a complete shift in focus is necessary to move off of a plateau.  Racers that have experienced a lengthy plateau with no relief may need to try a new event in order to break a pattern of disappointing performances.  For runners this might involve giving up a preferred length and training for something completely different.  Triathletes can switch lengths as well as spend more time on their weaker events.  Cyclists can use the opportunity to add cyclocross, mountain bike or road riding, continuing to train while taking a break from the weight that a plateau can create.

Coaches are important in identifying plateaus as part of the natural cycle of training.  They can reduce anxiety that the athlete experiences. Proactive discussion and planning creates an opportunity for the athlete to take control of the situation as opposed to feeling like success is out of their control. It provides an opportunity for coach and athlete to create a plan for success.

Melinda Halpern

Author and therapist Melinda Halpern of Grit Performance enjoys a local race. (Photo by Dave Adams)


Melinda Halpern of Grit Performance is a Licensed Professional Counselor and trained EMDR therapist who works with athletes and athletically minded people through performance, relationship, work and other challenging which may be holding them back. Her own athletic experience includes competing and coaching swimming, rowing and skiing as well as teaching at Outward Bound.

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