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Breaking Through a Training Plateau – The Foundation

By Jiri Kaloc

It’s easy to progress when you’re new to cycling. But with each season the risk of hitting a training plateau increases. One day you might realise that you have been training as hard as ever but the results just aren’t there. And that’s when you need to make changes. This series will teach you how to deal with and break through a plateau.

The adaptation theory

The first thing you need to understand is how training actually makes you better. Every time you go cycling, your body perceives it as stress and responds to reduce the activity’s impact on the steady state. This process has three stages.

Your body perceives training as a stress. © Profimedia

1. The body releases hormones to help complete a task, arriving to the finish line of your training ride. This is the acute stress response.
2. When the training stress ends and you arrive back home, your body allocates energy to repair damaged muscle tissue and help other adaptations to the stimulus.
3. If the stress lasts too long, the body’s ability to reduce its impact begins to fade because adaptive energy is running low.

The training periodisation model which is used by professional cyclists builds on this theory. It divides training time into distinct phases throughout a season – base, build, and specialty. This helps keep the training stress from lasting too long or not being a strong enough stimulus. It allows athletes to take advantage of this adaptation process to achieve peak fitness progress each season.

Why you plateau

There are two main reasons you could be hitting a plateau based on the adaptation theory. The first one is simple; you are training too much and your body is unable to recover and it stagnates or you even become less fit. This one is less common in amateur cyclists. The second reason is much more prevalent. Here’s why.

Training too much can result in a plateau. © Profimedia

Your body eventually gets very good at adapting to the same training load. It reaches a point where the previous level of stress, your last training session, is no longer recognised by the body as a stressor. This results in no further adaptation and you simply stop progressing. This is very common among cycling enthusiasts who only have a limited time to train or don’t follow a structured plan. If you simply end up doing the same rides at the same intensity over and over, you will plateau.

Am I progressing?

Whether you’re periodising your training the same way the pros do, or you have your training plan set up differently to fit your lifestyle, you always need to know the answer to one question. Am I progressing?

To answer this question well, you need to be able to examine your training and analyse whether your workouts are giving you the right amount of stimulus. And you also need to know if you have enough recovery days and weeks built into your training schedule periodically to give your body a chance to absorb all of that training stress. How do you do that? You need a training journal.

Training Ride
Start keeping a journal to mark your training. © Profimedia

Take action – Keep a training journal

Keeping track provides context for your workouts. It clearly tells you what you have accomplished over a given period of time and how. For example, if you set a personal best during a particular ride, you can take a look at the weeks leading up to it to see what you did that enabled you to maximise your performance. Conversely, you can also see what you did wrong in your training, when you have an unexpectedly poor performance in a race.

There are many ways to track your training nowadays. Apps like Strava, TrainingPeaks, Garmin Connect, and many others offer great platforms to do this digitally. But you can always use a physical notepad or your personal spreadsheet to track in a more personalised way. If you decide to do that, here are a few suggestions for what you can include.

  • Date and time of day for each training session
  • Ride time and distance (route description)
  • Intensity level (heart rate, power output)
  • Weather (temperature, wind, humidity)
  • Body weight
  • Hours of sleep the previous night
  • Subjective feelings about the ride

Now that you have a way to track your progress, it’s time to look at what needs to change for you to keep progressing. The next articles will be about how to work with training volume and intensity.

Next up in Breaking Through a Training Plateau series