It happens to all of us. We train and train and train, improving all along. One day we have a workout that just doesn't go well. And then the next day, the same thing happens. PRs for loads on the heavy lifting days are no longer within reach. Your once solid performance on "Helen", "Murph", or "Fran" now seems like a bridge too far. You ask yourself what's going on, but you just can't wrap your head around it.
What do you do? You tell yourself that you just need to train harder. So, you go to the gym even more, or train more hours on your own, or go for a long run - all the while hoping that you're just in a funk and that everything will be okay in a few days. But after a few days, you see no improvement at all. In fact, things are getting worse! Perhaps you start to think that this CrossFit stuff just isn't working for you anymore. Guess what? It is working, but you've just hit a plateau that you need to push through.
When you hit a plateau in your training, your options are many. You can get depressed, eat like crap, and sulk about how you're just getting out of shape. You can give up on coming to class and hope that 3 mile slow run you did last night will change things, knowing all along that long slow distance is merely a trip to oxidative stress and poor fitness. Basically, you can suffer along without ever coming off the plateau, or you can do something to get going again. The following options will help you get out of your training plateau: diet, goal setting, master the basics, and rest and recovery.
DIET AND NUTRITION
Diet is crucial to peak performance. I'm referring to diet in the sense of proper nutrition. What the scale reflects is not an indicator of fitness. You can be a skinny, but unhealthy, athlete, or you can be a healthy, well-fed athlete. Are you eating Paleo or Zone? If not, that's the first place to start. Think about the Theoretical Hierarchy of the Development of an Athlete that we've discussed on numerous occasions. The foundation for all training is nutrition. Without that, your fitness is sitting on a house of cards that is bound to fall. Hitting a plateau in your training is the first sign that the foundation is cracking.
SET NEW GOALS
New goals are a great way to get off of a plateau. If you haven't taken the time to look at all of your personal goals and milestones, then do it. Have you done every single named CrossFit WOD? Why not? Do you want to improve your heavy lifts? What about running or rowing times? How many pullups can you do? How many double unders can you crank out in 5 minutes? The list is endless and your goals for CrossFit are limited only by your imagination.
How about goals outside of CrossFit? Is your career going as planned? Is there a vacation you want to take, but have put off for too long? Have you spent enough time with your family? All of these things are important and require balance. But in order to balance these with your CrossFit goals, you have to have a plan.
Take a few hours and write down all of the important aspects of your life. Family, career, health and fitness, and anything else that you value. Next, rank these and then decide where you want to see yourself one year, five years, and ten years down the road. Keep in mind that all of these goals are inter-related, for without health and fitness, you won't get the chance to enjoy your family or a good, long career. The list you created consists of your goals and your task is to figure out how to get where you want to go. I can't speak for your family and career goals, but I can tell you that CrossFit will enable you to enjoy a lifetime of health and fitness through increased cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, speed, power, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy1 in the way you train and use your body in every day life. So, don't fall off the wagon and give up on all of your hard work. You may be stuck on a plateau with your training, but the plateau will not go away if you give up on CrossFit. One thing that should not be on your goal list is a permanent trip to the nursing home. Continued CrossFit will ensure that you'll only be a visitor and not a resident of any nursing home!
MASTER THE BASIC SKILLS
Once you've set your nutrition back on track and developed your goals, you then need to evaluate the direction of your CrossFit training. Basic skills equal improved performance. When elite athletes find their performance slipping, or they've hit a plateau, they get back to the basics and master them. In CrossFit, we press upon the importance of form over speed and learning the movements the right way. Are you 100% sure you can perform all nine basic movements correctly (squat, front squat, overhead squat, shoulder press, push press, push jerk, deadlift, sumo deadlift high-pull, and med ball clean)? Do you have a muscle-up yet? Why not? It's a basic movement. Perhaps to get there, you first have to master the pullup and the dip. Get started! Have you worked the Olympic lifts so that you can do them correctly and efficiently? Have you focused on your rowing and running form, or is your rowing and running form so perfect that you don't need to practice those skills? Fall back on the basics and focus on the best form in every movement - not the clock. Doing this will ensure that you slow down, but it will also ensure that proper form and correct movement patterns translate to improved performance overall. Don't worry, speed will come back as the skills improve, but while you're on the plateau you need to become a master of the basics.
REST AND RECOVERY
Nutrition, goal setting, and mastering basic skills are all important keys to overcoming plateaus, but there's still an area that one needs to explore while getting back on track. Rest and recovery. These are important for muscle development and the prevention of overtraining. While the prescribed CrossFit training routine follows a three-day-on/one-day-off (3/1) schedule, perhaps this doesn't allow your body enough time to rest and recover from the intensity that is CrossFit. Try to change it up a bit by going two-on/one-off, or 3/1-3/2. Or maybe the 3/1 routine works, but now you're also playing on a rugby team two nights a week, playing tennis one night a week, and doing CrossFit Endurance runs three times a week on top of your regular CrossFit classes. Overtrained? Perhaps. Try taking a week off from CrossFit and see what happens. There are many top CrossFitters that take a planned one-week rest every three or four months.
Sometimes a little rest and recovery is all one needs to get off the plateau. There's no quick and easy answer to how much rest and recovery you need. The key here is to pay attention to your body and know when to back off. Get enough sleep, get a massage, and talk to your CrossFit trainer about your schedule. We've all been there and can offer some advice.
EMBRACE THE PLATEAU FOR WHAT IT IS
Plateaus in training cannot be avoided. We're human and we all suffer from training plateaus and setbacks. The important thing to remember is to push through these plateaus by examining your nutrition, goals, mastery of basic skills, and rest and recovery. If you really take your CrossFit training seriously, you'll realize that these four plateau busters are as much a part of your CrossFit training as going hard and fast and heavy. Embrace it for what it is, learn from it, and soon you'll get off the plateau and on your way to improved performance.
1 These are known as the ten general physical skills as noted by Jim Crawley of Dynamax. CrossFit's First Standard of Fitness notes that you are only as fit as you are competent in each of the ten general physical skills.