Plateaus, Poor Performance & Procrastination

Well, it’s been 12 years now since I started in this game and I must say a lot has changed. Not just in training methods and the ever changing (often pointless) fitness fads that spring up from nowhere like unwanted ex’s but also the vying competitors for whose diet is best! Jamie Oliver, the Helmsley sisters, Joe Wicks? The list goes on, and on…and on.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but then again, I like science and credible, peer reviewed sources of information so forgive me if I don’t buy completely into what we are sold daily on TV or instagram as to what is best for our health. If it was this true I would be able to cite instagram, joe wicks and Mens Health magazine in my assignments for my MSc and not get a 0% grade back.

Despite the rubbish, there are some amazing journals being written that have contributed significantly to sport SCIENCE. One area of interest to me is the subject of overtraining and plateauing in performance. This can be applied to ordinary folk that take an interest in training as well as athletes.

Kreider and O’Toole (1998 as cited in (Slivka, Hailes, Cuddy, & Ruby, 2010, p. 1) state overtraining is “an accumulation of training and/or nontraining stress resulting in long-term decrement in performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of overtraining in which restoration of performance capacity may take from several weeks to months”. Usual physical indicators to overtraining are lack of sleep despite a high training load, injury and substandard times or lifts in relation to the individuals usual training load or a decrease in performance in whichever sport they play.

Here’s a question though? Is an individual suffering from overtraining if they are putting weight back on and are not really pushing themselves 100% in training and haven’t been for the last 3 or 4 months despite training for a total of 2 years? The answer is obviously no despite the individual experiencing symptoms taking more than several months to overcome!

This is instead a plateau, not caused by the usual suspects of unaltered frequency, intensity, times or types of training but rather a relapse into the use of old neural pathways resulting in this case, comfort eating and depression. So often we are provided with the physiological diagnoses of poor performance in sport or training but sometimes there is more at play. As Kreider and O’Toole suggest, psychological symptoms play their part in a decrease in performance and it’s not limited to just training or sport, but also in daily life.

Over the years, I have gained so much invaluable knowledge and experience working at the coal face and witnessing all the mentioned behaviours resulting in sometimes tragic consequences. In most cases, athletes and non-athletes can lose their way and become lost without any explanation as to how or why it happened. Some will admit to stress and at worst depression, but what we are left with as working professionals is a strategy to overcome it so they can either train effectively for their sport or train to achieve their goal.

After reading Viktor Frankl’s “Mans search for meaning”, I came to realise that people often lose their way or motivation because they have lost the reason why they are doing it, or they don’t believe strongly enough in their purpose for what they are trying to achieve. This is the basis of his theory and before you say to me “this book isn’t based on science”, it is.

Viktor Frankl was a doctor and psychiatrist before being imprisoned by the Nazi’s. First into Auschwitz and then transported to an enforced labour camp. He survived to tell his tale and more compellingly turned it into a thesis and then, valid psychological theory to which a treatment modality he termed “logotherapy” was implemented. Frankl’s theory gave him purpose to stay alive whilst imprisoned so that one day he might share it with the world to help others. Frankl observed those who lost meaning to their lives whilst in a concentration camp eventually died. Yes there were physiological reasons to their deaths but Frankl believed it was because they had lost hope, given up. How many times do we see old couples dying shortly after one another hearing the reason “they just gave up” without their husband or wife around anymore?

Obviously if you are fit and healthy you aren’t going to just die, this only happened because of their situation where giving in meant succumbing to starvation and disease. Instead, what it can cause is deep unhappiness and the worst of depression feeling rudderless and totally lost.

My client no longer believed there was a purpose for keeping her weight off. In the early days, they lost just over 5.5 stone in a year and a half and couldn’t have been happier. Overtime, they lost the meaning to why they needed to keep the weight off and instead focused back on the negative experiences that brought them to me. This lead to a 3-stone increase in weight with 1 stone being put on in two months!

This is a complex scenario and one fraught with situations where you are left completely exhausted as to where to find their motivation due to deep rooted and overwhelming negativity. The truth is, we can’t find meaning for them, they must find it themselves and as trainers we should help explore every corner of their lives to find it.

In most cases this comes with time. By taking them on a journey to discover their self-worth they can find that happiness does not depend on others. Only you can change a situation around from negative to positive and through finding meaning you can overcome your plateau.

Even if it takes a while, try and find what your purpose is. What truly motivates you? Is it work, family, a loved one, buying your first house, passing a medical to get your dream job? Whatever it is tap into it and let it get you through your worst times.

If you can’t find a meaning, read “Mans search for meaning”, that might make you realise that even in the worst of circumstances, there is always hope. It may even put into perspective just how lucky we are and that maybe your problems aren’t as bad as you think compared to some who must fight to just stay alive. That should give enough meaning for you to get over anything.

A lot might have changed in training and sports science over the last decade, but finding your purpose has been around since the dawn of civilisation. It is almost in everything we see from our favourite musician and artist, to poet, street sweeper or soldier. For each, there is an even greater purpose to endure and succeed.


Slivka, D. R., Hailes, W. S., Cuddy, J. S., & Ruby, B. C. (2010). Effects of 21 Days of Intensified Training on Markers of Overtraining. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2604-2612. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e8a4eb




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