Progress Isn’t Linear

Life has a way of being generally unpredictable, but lately it seems like the chaos dial has been cranked up as far as it will go.  In a world that requires sharing your work space with your entire family and a trip to target entails full PPE, things are definitely off kilter.  And as non-professional athletes, all these life circumstances will undoubtedly impact our training.  I always tell my coaching clients that progress isn’t linear, but especially in times like these I think this message bears repeating.

Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that many athletes learn through the lens of frustration.  Rational thinking would lead someone to believe that if they train a certain way and see a certain amount of progress, continued training will lead to continued progress.  And for a while, it likely will.  But I think we have all realized that the world is far from rational.  So expecting continual and repeated improvements over time, without expecting set backs and plateau’s, will likely lead to some negative feelings.

The first time a runner crosses a finish line slower than their last PR, or when a full strength cycle doesn’t lead to a single pound of lifting improvement, it sure can be frustrating. Especially when we have conditioned ourselves to expect continued progress. After several races didn’t lead me to shaving even a second off my best time, I was throwing full on temper tantrums at race finish chutes all over the state of Texas.

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And honestly, sometimes that mental frustration can cause athletes to have a hard time moving forward.  Instead of hoping for progress, they approach their sport with desperation and self-doubt.  There’s a whole industry built around this: sports psychology.  And while I think seeing a sports psychologist or performance coach is an amazing option, for many weekend warriors, it’s just not an option.

So what are those of us who don’t perform anywhere near Des Linden-level supposed to do?  Well, a big part of the equation is having an understanding of the way progress happens, and being able to adapt training with that information.  So here’s what you need to know.

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The body will adapt to training over time.  While running 3 or 4 times a week might get you a few 10k PR’s, it’s not likely that the exact same training will get you those continued results for years to come.  Because your body will become used to the training stimulus.  If you want to hit that 5th back squat PR, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to have to adjust your training and do things differently than the first few strength rounds.

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And in addition to natural adaptations, there will also be set backs in your training. There will be days of training lost to Netflix binges in bed while you battle a cold, flu, or pandemic. I mean at this point, it’s far from impossible. There’s also injuries that pop up over time. Pulled muscles, strained tendons, cranky joints. They all have a tendency to creep their way into an athlete’s training calendar at just the exact wrong time. Like 2 days before destination race. Because, why not?

But if you are facing those kinds of set backs, one of the best things to remember is that sometimes the biggest gains are made after taking some time off.  Time to let the body fully recover and rebuild.  Will you come back to the gym crushing workouts 2 days after a flu?  No.  But have I seen plenty of clients finally get that PR after taking a few weeks off after an injury, and then struggling through a training cycle?  Absolutely.  You just have to get through the suck.

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So what can you do when you’re in the middle of the suck? And getting frustrated with a lack of progress, or feeling like every obstacle on Gods green Earth is somehow finding its way onto your path? Well, don’t attach your identity as an athlete to your metrics or progress, for starters. Know that you are an athlete because you keep showing up. Because the numbers you can’t always control, but the discipline you sure can. It’s not easy to mentally unf*ck yourself in this manner, but just like anything else, practice helps.

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And while we’re talking about unf*cking that mind of yours, let’s also address the issue of comparison.  Which often rears it’s big ugly head, bursting into your subconscious like a diabolical Kool-Aid man, taking advantage of the fact that you’re already somewhat frustrated and unbalanced.  So recognize that you’re just in a vulnerable place, and questioning yourself and your abilities is normal.  And try like hell to not compare your performance to anyone else’s.  They’ll hit their own hurdles on their own time schedule.

Once you’ve done the mental work, it’s time to look at where you can make training adjustments.  Do a little research, reach out to friends, talk to other athletes.  Remember that more doesn’t always mean better.  So it may not be that you need to do more reps or run further, but maybe change intensity.  Just be willing to experiment and see what works. 

Related Post: Being Naturally Unathletic is a Gift

Which brings us to our last point; be willing to failBecause making improvements in training is going to require failure.  It’s going to require bad or hard training cycles.  Sometimes you have to work through training methods that don’t work to figure out what will.  But if you’re not willing to try new ways of training, you’re going to stop progressing at some point.  And the one thing every single strong athlete has in common is that they all have a long line of failures that lead them to the next success.

And in the end, the numbers aren’t what is important. Because we will all reach an age where the progress ends and nature wins. But the love of the sport can stick around for a much longer period of time.

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The lessons learned in consistently showing up for yourself, your health, and a sport that you love last a lifetime.  Accept that there will be setbacks, the progress won’t be linear, but there is always a reasons to keep moving.  And truly, basking in success after success and doing the same thing over and over is easy.  But mental strength and grit are only build during the hard seasons.

So while it’s frustrating that there are times where the numbers aren’t improving and progress doesn’t seem to be happening, remember that these are the times in training where the greatest gains are made.

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