Commander's Fit Tip: Plateau busting - knowing your physical fitness potential

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- "I've hit the wall!"... "No matter how much I work out, I just don't see any improvement."

We've all been there. It can be really frustrating, but the good news is, unless you've really hit your potential, "breaking through" is easier than you think. Maybe you've heard this before ... "If you want to accomplish what you never could, you have to do what you've never done."

I don't think the author was talking about fitness training, but the message behind these words is right on target. When we've run out of steam, it's time to change the game.

The problem is right in front of us. How would you describe your workout? A regimen? A routine? That's the problem! We tend to get repetitive after a while, and literally focus on the elements we either enjoy the most or give us the best (short term) results. But the body is the great adapting machine, and only responds to challenges.

Once you reach a level where you've adapted to the load, your improvement will level off. That's the signal to take a new approach. This assumes of course, that adaptation is the issue.

For many of us, the real culprit could be more insidious, and instead of actually reaching our potential, we'll likely far short of that target. But we just can't get there because we violated the "holy trilogy" of training: Train Hard, Race Harder, REST HARDEST!

If you are working out regularly, you've probably done OK in the "train hard" category. Since most of us don't race, that's not usually a big problem. So that leaves rest. I know it's counter intuitive, but this is really the most important and most overlooked part. Here's why.

A challenging workout will actually overload your tissues. The damage is done, and the repair response is part of how we get stronger. But the repair process takes WAY longer than you think, and typically the time between workouts is much shorter than you need for a complete repair.

So over time, the lines meet...you improve initially as all the positive aspects of the workout combine, but the damage accumulates as you experience sequential incomplete/partial repairs.

Eventually, the muscles reach a point where ratio between the undamaged tissue and damaged tissue stabilizes, and any increase in the workout only makes it worse.

Typically, we'll feel sore or achy, so we won't take the damage to an extreme, but we just can't convince ourselves that it's our own fault. We chalk it up to a "bad day" or find some other explanation. But I learned this one the "hard way" and I'm a true believer now.

I was running very regularly on a deployment years ago. I had a great course laid out, and I attacked it with a vengeance for weeks. I was thrilled initially, as my time on the course came down steadily. But before long, the gains slowed to a crawl. No problem, I just needed to run more, right? WRONG!

I was plateaued, and didn't even know it. I did run more, and sure enough, no improvement. Then I got lucky. A flu bug was going around the camp, and hit me hard. I was off the road for two weeks.

When I finally got back into it, I was dreading having to make up all the lost time. Imagine my surprise when I finished the course nearly TWO MINUTES faster than the last run!

All I needed was a little rest, and a virus was the only thing that would make it happen. It doesn't have to be this way.

If you work out regularly, one of the easiest methods is variation. If "cardio" is on the ticket, you need two things...a string of different events (elliptical, running, cycling, swimming) and a "hard day/light day" routine.

By varying the activity, and allowing some rest between workouts, we give the healing process more time to run.

But even a somewhat repetitive program isn't always the problem. The plateau is most common for those following the "hard day/hard day/hard day/skipped day/harder day" cycle, where "rest" isn't even part of the game. This is why it's really important to actually track your progress. You can see the plateau coming. Then back off!

Plateaus are nearly inevitable, since we don't have a good way to really sense the repair process. But they are easy to break, and that's the secret...take a break!

Or at least "do something different" and soon you'll see results again. Better yet, do something different every day, schedule and apply the same discipline to your rest periods that you use for your workouts, and you may just avoid them altogether.