The Dreaded Plateau: What It Is, And How To Overcome It

by SwimSwam Contributors 5

April 11th, 2024 News, Training

Courtesy: Corey He

It’s your end-of-season meet — the meet you’ve been training for all season long. You’re suited up, tapered, and shaved — you feel fast and are ready to race.

But the clock doesn’t lie. Your times don’t match up to the training you feel you’ve been putting in. Your stroke feels discombobulated, a far cry from your taper leading up to this meet. And most importantly, your confidence dips to an all-time low. Doubts race through your mind: What did I do wrong? Am I sick? I felt so good in training — how could this happen?

It’s the syndrome that all swimmers dread. Let’s talk about the plateau.

What is a Plateau?

As the name suggests, a plateau refers to a period where a swimmer begins to experience a lack of improvement — or, in some cases, performance regression. In fact, Swimcloud’s website has an interesting metric that illustrates this: under a swimmer’s profile is a chart that tracks an athlete’s annual performance via Power Points. The graphic makes it very easy to see an athlete’s yearly progress — as well as signs of a plateau.

From the outside, it’s easy to identify a plateau as a “period of time where a swimmer fails to drop time.” But in reality, there’s so much more to unpack here, and simply relying on race results alone provides an unfair judgment of what a swimmer may be going through.

The Mental Side of a Plateau

Perhaps the most dire ramification of a plateau is the effect it can have on a swimmer mentally and psychologically. Though these consequences often go unseen, they’re often the most damaging ones: feelings of self-doubt, loss of motivation, and lack of self-confidence can manifest into all aspects of one’s life, creating a downward spiral.

Especially for high-school age-groupers who are positioning themselves for college recruiting, a plateau is the very last thing you want to experience. But it doesn’t stop in high school: college and professional athletes face the same challenges. It’s safe to say that dealing with plateaus is not easy, whether you’re an amateur swimmer or an Olympic champion.

Most recently, several of the world’s best swimmers have spoken out on the importance of mental health in sports — especially in light of the pandemic which posed numerous physical and mental challenges for all athletes. Their experiences remind us that plateaus are not an abnormal occurrence: in fact, in order to progress in the direction that we want, it often requires us to first take a few steps backward.

How to Overcome a Plateau

With all this in mind, it’s much easier said than done to break through a plateau. In fact, many athletes never do, and it’s truly no fault of their own. Here are some tips we’ve come up with to help those of you looking for a way to overcome what may seem insurmountable.

  1. Change up your habits. Sometimes, your body might be due for a change. Whether it be pursuing a new dryland or lifting regimen, following a new diet or sleep schedule, or building new habits during pool workouts, changing things up might just do the trick.
  2. Take time off. It’s not rare to see an athlete lose motivation simply because their body needs an extended period of rest. Taking time away from swimming — as difficult and counterintuitive of a decision as this may seem — will not only help the body heal physically, but also mentally as well.
  3. Hit the “reset” button on your training. This is very similar to the first point. Whether it be moving to a different team, training in a different environment, or working with a new coach, sometimes change is all that is needed to reignite that spark within you.
  4. Focus on yourself. The very last thing you want to do in a plateau is compare yourself to other people. Especially if you swim as part of a team, it can be very discouraging to go through a plateau while your teammates are hitting best time after best time. Prioritize yourself — it’s crucial to take one step at a time.
  5. Build a strong support system. Your coaches, teammates, friends and family are here to support you. If it helps to confide in them some of your emotions, do not be afraid to open up. A strong support system means different things to different people, but always remember: you are not alone.

A plateau is one of the toughest tests any swimmer — or any athlete for that matter — can ever face in their sporting career. But one thing is for certain: if you do manage to break out of the plateau, you will have learned so much about yourself, both as an athlete and a person — not to mention that sense of euphoria and accomplishment that will overcome you once you realize what you’ve done.

I’ll leave you all with one final thought: in the midst of a plateau, rely on your discipline rather than your motivation. Motivation is sporadic: it is highly dependent on your short-term results and can therefore be very inconsistent. Discipline, however, is unwavering in the face of both success and setback. It’s easy to be hard on yourself during these stages, but do not lose hope: your resilience, sacrifices, and relentless pursuit will pay off.

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M d e
1 month ago

I personally strongly disagree with points 1 and 3.

To me external change should only come after internal change. It is too easy to blame people and situations around you for issues, when really the changes that you need to make are on your end. And I say this fully acknowledging I was guilty of this while I was swimming!

If you just change everything because you feel like you have stagnated you won’t be able to tell what has and hasn’t helped. And then you just end up back in the same situation again down the track.

Last edited 1 month ago by M d e
1 month ago

Excellent article. Focus on the process and let the outcomes take care of themselves.

1 month ago

The plateau- Can really mess with a swimmers mental health. Have to be very motivated and a strong person to get thru it.
Good article.

1 month ago

Fitting that there’s a Cal athlete in the cover photo, considering their program seems to plateau kids more so than any other program

Reply to  Andrew
1 month ago

Fitting Andrew read this and made a false and made up a false Cal comment just to be a bully to some college kids from behind his keyboard. Seems like he may have “plateaued” himself in life many years ago.