How to Break Through a Training Plateau

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Editor's Note: This question was originally posted in the Total Immersion discussion forums.

Q: Six months ago, when I decided to take up triathlon, I could barely swim two pool lengths. But with the help of the Total Immersion video, I swam my first mile in three weeks and by November could swim three miles without stopping. If you'd told me when I started that I'd progress to three miles that quickly, I'd have called you crazy.

Once the question of finishing a mile was settled, I began to time myself. I progressed quickly from 40 to 36 minutes. By last week I was down to 33 minutes. Again, I couldn't believe it. Now I have a goal of breaking the 30 minute mark. But there's a big difference between swimming a 57-second 50 and a 51-second 50. I've practiced swimming short intervals and find I can't swim 51 seconds even once.

This leads me to ask: Do we have personal speed limits or are they imagined? There's no better feeling than breaking what you thought was a personal limit, but how do we know when we've reached our ultimate speed?

A: There's no question each of us does have a physical limit on how fast we can swim. Mainly because drag increases exponentially with speed, while our aerobic fitness and muscular power are not only finite, they decrease as we age.

Because drag increases, getting faster—at any distance from 100 meters to a mile or more—is similar to climbing a mountain. At first, it's an easy walk with quick progress. As we climb higher, and the terrain steepens, we work steadily harder to go ever slower.

The sub-40 minute range was the bottom of your "mile-high mountain", but those hefty improvements represented sizable increases in pace—and thus in the resistance you need to overcome.

It's therefore natural that progress in the lower 30s will come in smaller bits, not large chunks. It will also require better skills, keener focus, and more resourceful and strategic thinking. Consider the following.

Adjust Expectations. Aim for improvements of 60, 30 or perhaps 15 seconds, rather than two or three minutes.

Embrace the Challenge. You can't predict the destination (your personal limit), nor would you want to. Instead focus on the Journey, day-by-day, indeed minute-to-minute, learning and experiencing as you strive to improve.

By embracing the challenge, you create the possibility for a level of self-knowledge and personal power that trivializes the question of whether your personal speed limit for the mile is 33 minutes or 29.

In his 1992 book Mastery, the Keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment (among the most valuable books I've ever read) Aikido Master George Leonard describes what you're experiencing as a defining moment for all of us.

A universal phenomenon in most endeavors is that we improve quickly as we tackle the most basic aspects, but improvement slows, then often stops, as we progress to higher skills.

Because drag increases exponentially, this is a far more tangible matter in swimming than in, say chess, music or math. What happens next reveals something fundamental about character.

Leonard says that when progress slows or stops, most people fall into one of two categories:

The Dabbler makes good initial progress. Upon encountering the plateau he loses enthusiasm, gives up and tries another activity, then repeats the pattern.

The Hacker hits the plateau then defines satisfaction as status quo. Rather than seek instruction or adjust his approach, he contents himself with that level.

A fortunate few progress to a third category:

The Master displays mental discipline, persistence and flexibility as his learning curve flattens. He understands that lessons learned more slowly have more meaning and permanence.

The training plateau is where you need to remind yourself why you took up triathlon—and by extension swimming—in the first place. Fundamentally you do these things for health and happiness. When you started, you acknowledge having had no expectations for how fast you might be and that simply completing one mile, let alone three, left you ecstatic.

Does your temporary inability to swim it in 30 minutes diminish your accomplishment? Heck no. Only one percent of the human race can swim a mile at any speed. By that measure you're already in rarefied company.

This isn't a plateau, it's a crossroads. You now have the opportunity to choose a master's path, where 33-minute miles (and 32:30, 32:15, etc.) are only waypoints.

Doing so will bring the health and happiness benefits far beyond any you imagined when you first thought, "Maybe I should try a triathlon."