Progression is not linear

 In Blog, Dublin

“Hey Coach, I feel like I’m not improving, going nowhere. Last week I was lifting 100kg – this week I can only hit 90kg.”, “Last race I swam 55seconds on my 100m freestyle but I could only do a 56 this time around.” Unfortunately progression is not linear. This is kind of the way it is in all walks of life, whether it’s the stock market or sporting/fitness achievements. It kind of sucks, especially when we want to progress as quick as we can and just strive to get better.

As a coach I must remind my clients and athletes how they are improving and how far they have come during the times when they hit a plateau or a bit of a trough in their training. As an athlete or in my own training I find it hard to remind myself of the same and I also get caught up in the want to hit PBs (personal bests) day in, day out!

When we first start in sport or fitness it is easier to make big improvements, for example, we may make a fast increase in our squat from 40kg to 70kg, but getting from 70kg to 100kg becomes much tougher. This is due to early physiological adaptations, increase in muscle but also that we have just learned a new movement and our body has adapted to the movement and is performing it more efficiently (neurological adaptations).

So, back to the point “I feel like I’m not improving”.
Whether speaking to a professional athlete or general fitness client this is a delicate area for a coach in which they must be careful how they approach this with the person in question. Each of person is different and it is important to build a coach – athlete relationship to understand each individually, what makes that person tick. In general fitness it can be an easier approach, reminding the client of the progression they have made from the beginning. Maybe their squat hasn’t increased very much lately, but their gymnastics ability has improved, or their aerobic fitness has improved. Maybe they have made progression with their body composition. On the other hand maybe they are struggling and in which case it’s addressing other issues that may be preventing athletic progression – sleep quality, nutrition and stress.

For amateur & professional athletes the approach is not much different, how are all aspects of training going? Is it a sport specific plateau, is it all training aspects, a certain phase of the season or is their fatigue – sleep quality, nutrition and/or stress affecting performance?

The graphs below show progression of 10 world class 800m runners, there are sharp increases at the early stage of their careers, road to their best is not a smooth one. (1) There are many ups and downs and no path is the same.

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(1) Graph & Data from Steve Magness @

For me, I think it is important that as athletes and coaches we always strive for improvement but it is imperative to remember that we must be patient along the way and know that there will be times when we hit plateaus or small troughs. When we hit these speed bumps, how we deal with them is what determines how far we go. Stay patient, if your bigger picture is all ok (the controllables – sleep, nutrition, stress, work/life balance) then keep working hard, trust the program and stay positive. If you have a lack of sleep, poor nutrition or other matters affecting your performance then they may explain your plateau in performance.

There is a lot more science to this topic, with programming, athlete monitoring (sleep, training load, stress etc.) and this just is just a brief reminder that the road to success/PBs or improvement isn’t a smooth straight line. The next time you question your progression – remember how far you have come. Don’t let one ‘bad’ workout or one week of training get you down, stay positive. If your external factors are in control then keep training/working out and your PBs will be just around the corner.

Coach Conor

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