There’s a certain path through fitness that a lot of us have taken. First you take each workout as it comes: do this class, or tag along with that friend at the gym. Then, you realise that you can make progress in your sport—whether that’s lifting, running, or anything else—and you start following a plan designed to take you to a concrete goal. So far so good.
Newbie gains are fun and motivating. Every workout you run farther or lift more than you ever have before. But soon things slow down. Maybe you get discouraged, but hopefully you push through. Before you know it, you’re hitting PRs (personal records) again. After all, if you train for years, you know you’re going to get stronger. It has to happen. You just have to trust the progress.
But once you’re an experienced athlete, it can be hard to remember that ups and downs are part of the process. If you’re not lifting as well as you used to, or if you feel fatigued sometimes, that doesn’t mean things are going badly. In fact, if your coach (or whoever writes your programs) knows what they’re doing, a rough patch is a necessary part of the training cycle.
Here’s an example. If you’re training for a weightlifting or powerlifting competition, the last few weeks of training will be less taxing than usual, to give yourself time to recover and get ready to hit PRs. (If you’re a runner, you have a similar experience in the taper before a big race.) That’s a special phase of training, when you’re prioritising recovery over gains. But that means that during other parts of your training cycle, you’re prioritising gains. You’re working your body hard, and as a result you’ll come out stronger in the end.
The trouble comes when you forget the context. Some people, when they realise lifting feels harder than it did in the past, assume that something is wrong with them or with their programming. It’s tempting to fire your coach, get discouraged, stop trying so hard because obviously things aren’t working. But in truth, you’re probably in the intentionally rough part of a training cycle.
(This all assumes, of course, that your training is planned out thoughtfully. Maybe you have a coach, or maybe you’re using a tried-and-true plan that was designed by a coach or trainer who knows what they’re doing. As long as the person who plans your workouts is good or at least ok at their job, and as long as you’re listening to them, you’re likely on the right track. If that’s not the case, then yeah, it’s possible you’re running yourself ragged for no reason and you should consider changing things up.)
I was reminded of this reason for rough patches when I saw this Instagram post by weightlifting coach Tom Sroka. You go clockwise around the circle, with progress at the top and rough patches at the bottom. As you train, he said, the highs get higher but the lows (the rough patches) also get lower. But to progress, you have to trust the process.
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Story time (too bad if you’ve heard this one before): In 2012 I was sitting in an ice bath feeling sorry for myself at Cal Strength when Dave Spitz came in and asked what my problem was. I had just finished up a rough few days of training where gasp, I wasn’t PR’ing anymore and thought I had “peaked” and wasn’t going to get any better. He laughed and said some of these most profound advice I’ve ever gotten as an athlete and now use as my ace in hole as a coach. Dave said “Look, here’s the deal, training and progress is not linear. If anything it’s more like a circle. At the top of the circle is the good stuff: The PRs, the progress, the best of times. At the bottom of the circle is the not so good: Those days where warming up with the bar feels heavy and you don’t want to be at training. In between the top and bottom of the circle is adaptation and maintenance. The better you get, the bigger that circle gets. The highs get higher and lows can be lower and the time between can seem like an eternity.” Now the trick to all this that I see both with myself and the athletes I work with, is what you do when the going gets tough. Most athletes look to change something, whether it’s coaches, type of training, or quit altogether. But the problem is that you’ve disrupted the adaptation process. While your body was in the middle of figuring out what was going on and trying to grow and progress, you’ve hit the brakes and shut down the stimulus the body has to adapt and change to. Now just like with any other aspect of training, this model is varied athlete to athlete. Not one athlete will have the same path traveled. Their PR streak, their rough patch, their maintenance phase, and their adaption will all be different. Outside stressors can also greatly effect this as well. Sometimes it’s ok to back off a bit and let all the stuff life throws your way run it’s course until you can get back to pushing. The real power is knowing when you’re in each phase and adjusting your attitude towards training accordingly. Hope this helps someone who might be in a rough spot with their training.
It’s true. Here’s one example. Earlier this year, I was trying to combine workouts from two different coaches (this way lies madness, but that’s a different story). I quickly figured out I was doing too many workouts, so I backed off a bit. It was shortly afterward, during a comparatively easy week, that I managed to hit a bunch of surprise PRs. Awesome, I thought, I’m getting stronger.
But guess what happened when I ramped my training volume back up? My body was handling everything ok—I wasn’t feeling too tired, I didn’t have any injuries acting up—but that surprise progress seemed to have disappeared. I couldn’t hit those same numbers anymore. That was another rough patch. And then when meet day rolled around and I was properly rested and prepared, guess what? I set a whole new bunch of PRs.