Friday, March 16, 2012

The Dreaded Plateau

The Colorado plateau, near the edge of southern Utah.
When I was a kid, I loved the word "plateau." It was something huge, expansive, and awesome. It was something I dreamed of seeing someday - the great plateaus "out west." In fifth grade, I even chose to write a report about the state of Wyoming because it had cool things like buttes and plateaus (note: I still have never been there).

Then, at the age of 14, I became a competitive swimmer, and the word plateau took on a whole new meaning. My happy association of the word plateau with an awe-inspiring rock formation was lost forever. The plateau became the point at which I couldn't go any faster in the water, and I entered the seemingly-never-ending struggle to break through whatever was holding me back from reaching my goal times. The plateau was maddening. The harder I worked to get past it, the more frustrated I became. And then, like clockwork every year, our coach would taper us - and I wouldn't just break through the plateau, I would crush it by several seconds (in a 100-yard race, that was a monumental feat). And it was always perfectly planned so that it happened in the most important meet of the year.

Indeed, in spite of the many plateaus I have faced as an athlete, I had almost forgotten the true meaning of that word until yesterday. I was talking to my good friend and fellow athlete, Ron, about training for Ironman St. George. He mentioned that he was making progress at running, but he was having trouble getting any faster on the bike.

I couldn't help but smile to myself and think: "welcome to the plateau."

After years of celebrating only the finishing of endurance events (his endeavors hilariously-documented on his blog), Ron has recently discovered that he enjoys getting faster. Last year he clocked several PRs and has been thirsty for more in 2012. And now that he's been getting faster almost on a daily basis, it was inevitable that he must deal with the dreaded plateau.

Thus, I'm writing this blog in solidarity. To tell my friend that the plateau is not necessarily a bad thing. That there will eventually be a breakthrough. That even when the training appears to be "not making [him] any faster," there are gains being made. It will all become clear. Because that's really what the taper is all about. Muscles will adapt, and this particular plateau will become a memory left behind in the dust. New ones may rise in its place, but hopefully not.

And there are more than just athletic plateaus. There are things like weight-loss plateaus as well. My husband Jim is coincidentally experiencing one of his own. He has recently added strength training to his regular aerobic workouts, and his weight loss seems to have hit a plateau (much to his discouragement). All I have is those same words of wisdom: hang in there, the body just needs to (and will) adjust.

I'm sure there are all sorts of physiological explanations to clarify what a plateau really is. But I'm not a physiologist. I'm just a person who has worked hard and seen them fall, again and again. And believe me when I say that those moments are the sweetest of all. Because it seems like you didn't have to do anything. It seems like it just happens. And that makes all the hard work worth it.

In closing, I'd like to point out that St. George is, geographically, also surrounded by plateaus. And it's about time for a breakthrough.

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