Overcoming Life’s Performance Plateaus
Some 20 years ago, I fell prey to the boiling frog syndrome, finding myself in a significant state of imbalance between my work patterns and my personal health. After our second child, my wife, Stacey, and I decided to hop back up on the proverbial horse and try something new, taking a spin class together to get some exercise back into our routine. I lasted all of six minutes in the first class. Six. Minutes. Ouch.
Tail between my legs, it took some gumption to get over my bruised ego and back on the horse again. But I persevered and eventually got into a rhythm, in part, because of instructor Felicia. She was an inspirational force to be reckoned with. That year, she somehow got Stacey excited to go out for a sprint-distance distance triathlon. I wanted nothing to do with that crazy talk. Contentedly, I sat on the sidelines and cheered her on.
Over 3000 women participated in the event, a good number of whom were cancer survivors – among them, a woman on crutches and a 76-year old. I was utterly inspired that day and moved to tears on a number of occasions. I told myself that I had no excuse to remain in my current state. That day I decided that I too wanted to complete a triathlon.
It would be easy to say that “the rest was history”. But in truth, there was nothing easy about it. Having never been a proficient swimmer, I took some lessons and worked on training for my first race the following year. Undertrained and unprepared for my first open water swim, I panicked and had them pull me out of the lake. It took me two years to get the gumption to go back and try again. But I did, and managed to complete my next attempt. I’d be lying if I said my first successful race wasn’t a chore. But it was also quite gratifying. And now I was hooked.
For the next 15 years or so, I continued to participate in various sprint distance triathlons on and off. It was a way to gamify my fitness and give me focus for my training. When the pandemic hit, as a way to stay sane through it all, I decided to challenge myself and train for my first Olympic distance triathlon. I hired a coach and upgraded my bike. After successfully completing this race, I felt the urge to ride this momentum and set my sights on a half Ironman the following year.
Fast forward to race day, jumping into Lake Eerie, the first 500 yards were in a protected channel and weren’t too bad. Then the chop hit when we made the turn into the less protected part of the lake. I got in my head, lost my form over the next few hundred yards, and accelerated my heart rate and breathing to the point where I made the decision to pull out. That night, I was determined that Lake Erie wasn’t going to have the last word, so I went back out to the lake and swam the distance and made the decision to try again next year.
I trained for the race again the following year, continuing to work with my coach, and this time I made a point to get much more open swim practice in my routine than I had the prior year. I found a local swim group and did weekly Friday morning 5:30 am swims across a cold dark lake, which built my mental fortitude for my race day swim. I successfully completed my second half Ironman attempt the next year.
In the course of this continuing journey, I took away some important lessons. It’s one of the reasons I appreciate the sport – because of the powerful analogue it provides to life more broadly. One of these life lessons it offers is how to break through performance plateaus.
Whether in life or business, you are running, or swimming as the case may be, your own metaphorical race. And no one can run this race for you. There will be external forces such as course conditions, weather, and health curve balls, that will invariably crop up along your journey. You can’t control those, but you can control how you choose to respond to those.
Your mindful planning, preparation, persistence in action-taking, and resilience in mindset will carry you through the challenges and the plateaus you will ultimately face. And you’ve got this community of support and resources to lean into for your business race and enjoy the journey.
Here are 10 steps to break through performance plateaus in each area of your life.
1. Set Clear Goals.
Define specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve is the first step to breaking through a plateau.
Each time I sign-up to complete a race, this creates a commitment with myself as to the type of race, the associated distances, and the amount of lead time I have to train in preparation.
2. Reflect and Identify the Plateau:
Take time to assess your current performance and understand where you’re plateauing. Are there specific skills or areas where you’re stuck? Pinpoint the issues you need to address.
When I failed to complete my first half Ironman attempt, it was evident that I needed to work on more open water swim practice and the associated mental training that accompanied it.
3. Seek Feedback and Inspiration:
Reach out to mentors, peers, or experts in your field to get feedback on your performance. They can provide valuable insights and suggestions for improvement.
In my case, I sought feedback and inspiration from other friends who had successfully completed the half Ironman and I worked formally with my coach to prepare my training plan and debrief my progress.
4. Analyze and Adjust Your Strategy:
Review your current strategies and identify what’s not working. Be willing to adjust your approach and try new methods to overcome the plateau.
In conversation with my coach and analysis of my training data, I was able to make appropriate tweaks to my training plan along the way.
5. Break Your Goal into Smaller Steps:
Sometimes plateaus occur because your goals are too overwhelming. Break them down into smaller, more manageable steps. You may even find ways to gamify this work. This can make your progress more tangible and achievable.
I didn’t set out to go from couch to half Ironman in one season (thought some people certainly do). I set my training plan for the month with my coach and made appropriate adjustments.
6. Consistent Practice and Effort:
Plateaus often result from a lack of consistent effort. Dedicate time each day or week to practice, train, or work on the specific skills or tasks required to reach your goals.
Half the battle is showing up. I trained every day (with active recovery days as part of my regimen), building a consistent habit.
7. Cross-Training and Diversification:
Explore related skills or fields that can complement your main area of focus. Cross-training and diversification can provide fresh perspectives, prevent fatigue, and help you break through plateaus.
There is obviously inherent cross-training in the sport of triathlon, which I have found helpful to minimize the risk of injury and enhance my overall health. I’ve also experienced cross-over benefits in strengthening my commitment to discipline and my own mindfulness work in other domains as a result of my training.
8. Visualization and Mental Training:
Use visualization techniques to mentally rehearse success and imagine yourself breaking through the plateau. Positive mental reinforcement is a critically important tool.
I visualized completing each leg of my race hundreds of times as I trained. By the time I came to race day, I was merely enacting what I had already completed in my mind. Conversely, in the instances where I did not successfully complete the race, I had not trained my mind sufficiently for the challenge.
9. Stay Accountable:
Share your goals and progress with a trusted friend, coach, or mentor who can help hold you accountable. Knowing someone is watching can provide extra motivation.
Each time I felt the urge to let up in a workout or take a pass, I knew that my coach would see my Garmin workout data (or lack thereof). I advertised my goal to friends and family and this provided additional motivation.
10. Be Patient and Persistent:
Breaking through a performance plateau can take time. Stay patient and persistent. Celebrate small victories along the way, and don’t be discouraged by setbacks.
My first half Ironman attempt was unsuccessful. It served to motivate me and help me adapt and adjust my plan so that I could complete it the next time around.
Remember that breaking through plateaus is a journey, and it may not happen overnight. As with life, my triathlon journey is ongoing. The key is to stay committed to your goals, remain adaptable, and keep pushing your boundaries to achieve new levels of performance.
Here is a self-reflection framework you can use to apply these steps.