Deconstructing the plateau: part 1

All too often, as runners and athletes we hit a “plateau”—a period of time where we don’t improve, and where increased training seems to shove us into a downward spiral of overtraining and injury. Rinse and repeat. Thanks to our own overactive imagination, or to the whispers of the running superego, we conclude that it’s our genes. Our genes just won’t let us.

I vehemently disagree with this conclusion. First and most importantly, we are not geneticists versed in the details of our genetic makeup. It is the constant frustration of injury—and not an epiphany about our lot in life—that typically leads us to conclude that the culprit is something that we have no control over: our genes (when we’re young) or our age (when we’re wiser).

Most of the performance in elite athletes (particularly in east-african runners) that is attributed to genetic differences in, in fact, a myth. Although elites do tend to have a particular genetic makeup, this is only a tendency. In Running Science, Owen Anderson comments: “elite athletes may be slightly different genetically from nonelites, but having a superb genetic makeup is not mandatory in order to become a top-level athlete.”

Boasting particular genes is not needed to break into the elite level—let alone to continue improving in the recreational sphere.

Of course, that’s not all there is to this. In Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, Jamshid Gharajedaghi writes: “As our knowledge about our environment [increases], so [does] our ability to convert uncontrollable variables to those that could be influenced.”

Regardless of what our “genetic makeup” is, our genes are not as immutable as we think they are (or, in some cases, as we would like them to be): It has recently been reported that gene expression changes after bouts of exercise. Although novel, this finding is altogether unsurprising when viewed from an adaptive perspective: in order to adapt to novel stimulus, gene expression must change, to create a structure and function that can address this stimulus.

This realization does two things for us: one, it breaks down the typical mental model (a.k.a. way of thinking) that certain things (like genes) are constants, and brings us the awareness that many things that appear to be constants are in fact variables, held constant by other systemic factors. Two, it prompts us to find a way to manipulate these—and other—variables, in order to further our athletic development.

Once we’ve pushed a particular variable—say, the quality and quantity of training—far enough, we’re going to plateau. To arrive at a training plateau is to be pushing the boundaries of the present system. At this point, a multitude of other variables, physiological, social, emotional, and even philosophical, contribute to stall our progress. By pushing our athletic training we’ve been pushing a multi-sided system unilaterally, reducing the slack between that variable and all others. Once we’ve pushed training as far as it’ll go, there’s no use in pushing it further. Just like a rubber band that’s reached its limit, pushing it any farther will only cause us to bounce back harder still.

We need to do something else, namely, to focus on the other variables—regardless of whether we think them “related” to exercise or sports. On this topic, Gharajedaghi writes:

“A given design may contain some slack between variables. This permits us to deal with each variable separately as though it were an independent variable. The performance of each variable can be improved independently until the slack among them is used up. Then, the perceived set of independent variables changes to a formidable set of interdependent variables. Improvement in one variable would only come at the expense of the others.”

If we push our training too far, our work suffers. If we push it further, our personal life will suffer. The fact of the matter is that once we’ve been training for a long time, our athletic pursuits become interdependent with all our other pursuits. This is why we find athletic masters such as Bruce Lee training the habit of breaking habits: technique and physique—two variables that Bruce Lee was renowned for pushing, were pushed hard enough that they became interdependent with psyche.

Bruce Lee realized this, and began to work on the flexibility of his psyche as he’d worked on the flexibility of his body. Had he not realized this, his athletic development would no doubt have hit a plateau—one probably very similar to the plateau that the majority of other proficient martial artists inhabit. It is his realization and acknowledgement of the interdependency of variables that allowed him to push the development of his craft that much further.

For the purposes of us runners and athletes, this theorizing coalesces into the following concrete advice. As soon as we reach a plateau, or we get the slightest hints that we’re beginning to overtrain, it’s time to change our approach—and change it fundamentally.

At this point, we’ve got training. We’ve done it so well that we can’t safely push it any further. It’s time to turn to our household, our family, our friends, our thoughts, and emotions, and begin to develop them as we’ve developed our bodies. We continue to train, and continue to run, but we move our focus towards other domains.

Then we’ll continue to improve—and not because we found a hot new training plan, but because we realized, inernalized, and acted upon the knowledge that training isn’t all there is to athletics.

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