Beating the Plateaus

Most of us who take up a hobby have this shared experience. Especially those of us who turn out to be good at whatever that hobby is, maybe start competing. Or at the very least pushing ourselves to see how good we can get.

Head and torso shot of me dressed in black running kit, wearing an orange buff and a hydration vest, standing in front of a large stone

At some point we reach a plateau. We hit that level of performance that we somehow just can’t get beyond. Training no longer brings the rewards it did. And then, one day – or rather over a period of time – we notice that it has stopped bringing progress at all.

I’m not talking about the point at which we reach the ceiling of our potential. Or where we have been going at something so long our bodies can simply no longer do what they used to. I’m talking about a point where we know, theoretically at least, we can do more. All around we see people like us who are doing better. They don’t seem to have any genetic advantage. Their circumstances don’t afford them any privileges we don’t have. We know damn well they don’t train harder than we do. So why are we not up there with them?

There are lots of things in sports – whether of the body or the mind or both – that we can’t control. But the frustration of knowing that it must, surely, be in our power to do better yet finding that no matter what we do we simply don’t improve – that feels like something we ought to be able to control. Surely. I would go so far as to say this is one of the most fundamental problems in progressive activity. It is something almost everyone experiences. And finding an answer to it feels like finding the holy grail. Finding an answer means narrowing the gap between our potential and our performance. And that is, ultimately, what all of us who are competitive in this way want. Our “A” goal isn’t necessarily to be the best in the world. Or even the third best in our local age group. Because things outside our control really do place limits on that – and those ridiculous memes that pretend otherwise to you do no one any favours and have led to as many disappointments and overtraining injuries as they have to unexpected successes.

Our “A goal is, rather, to narrow the gap between what we could be and what we are until it doesn’t exist. For our performance to reach 100% of our potential.

And while there are lots of complex things that need to go right for that to happen, the one that perplexes me most (as I say, I think because it’s the one I feel I should have most control over) is getting past plateaus.

It’s only writing this that I realise just how much finding the answer to this conundrum means. I have always known that I have often found myself coming up against plateaus. In a way that’s to be expected given how frequently I move from one passionate project to another. What I hadn’t realised until I sat and tried to come up with a list of plateaus I’d like to make an effort to break through is that I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded at doing it.

One of the ways my neurodivergence expresses itself is a combination of moving between projects regularly but being hyperfocused on each project while I’m in the middle of it. The result is that I get really good at things really quickly. I learn everything there is to learn about a subject. And because I’m good at learning, I learn really efficiently. I break something down into its parts and see not only how they fit with each other but how they fit with everything else I’ve ever learned. That kind of connection makes learning fast, and it also feeds into the ability to learn by teaching, which in turn accelerates learning even more.

But what I realise as I look back across all of the projects over all of the years, is that while I have raced swiftly to 90% of my potential, I’ve always hit a wall. Sometimes I’ve spent longer than others bashing at the wall. Writing novels is one example of that. And physically, the one that comes to mind is the 6 months to a year I spent trying to get above a 190 kilo deadlift and never getting there, no matter what I tried.

Even when I have done really well at something compared to my peers – speed reading, for example, at which I’ve won 3 European titles in a row, or even creativity, which has brought me 3 World Championships, at some point I’ve hit a plateau at a point I know is a false summit. And I’ve never managed to push through it. Something else has always come along and I’ve been off, rushing swiftly to 90% of my potential on that.

What I want to spend time doing as I prepare for 1 Day Like This is to see if I can get beyond one or two of those plateaus. That’s one thing about setting a long-term challenge. It might span 6 disciplines, and that might sound like a lot to a lot of people, but it really feels like a lot of time focusing on the same thing!

I have a few things I want to try. I want to exhaust the clichés first. That means “training smarter”, being more ruthless about using the techniques of deep practice (always focusing on that bit of something that is *just* too hard), although I think that’s one of the blockage busters I’m already good at.

Likewise, I think I’m OK already at what bodybuilders would call shocking the system – overcoming our natural adaptation to a form of training by keeping on trying new ways to push at the edges.

Another, more psychological trick, is “going second” – or the 4 minute mile effect. That is, once someone else has done something it’s easier for you to do it because a barrier has been taken away.

But the one I think is most likely to yield results is going back a step, and building foundations in solid technique, to then use that as a springboard for going forward even further. I know this has always been a weakness of mine, again one attributable to ADHD. It has always been more appealing to make, say, 50% progress in 1 week by using shortcuts, taking advantage of natural ability and quick learning, rather than making 25% progress in 2 weeks by focusing on really good technique. Inevitably this comes back to hurt – it either means that as you near that 90% of potential level you start to struggle with overload (in physical exercise this is a big cause of injury – and that has been a big cause of lack of progress all my life); or it means that as you gain in expertise you nonetheless lack the technique to have the kind of major insights that will take you even further. This, in essence, is what happened when I was playing bridge, and was one of the reasons for never progressing beyond the Junior International level. I was very good at always taking all the low hanging fruit. And I’d get flashes that my experience and intuition combined to produce. But I never quite had the full set of brushes in my paint box when I needed them on the really tough hands – because I’d not done enough of the basics.

And that challenge fascinates me. I know taking a step back terrifies me. Even when I KNOW it’s the best thing to do. Part of it’s because it feels like I’m “losing it”. Part is that everything in life when you’re disabled feels so tenuous that this feels like a loss of grip. And part is that the few times I’ve done so, I’ve struggled even at what feels like a more basic level. It doesn’t matter that actually I’ve been building up muscle memory – I experience it as a slide into decline.

All that makes it feel like a really existential battle is ahead in this coming year.

As a way of keeping a target in sight, the physical plateau I want to break through is the consistent 6 minute kilometre running – I want to be able to run 5k in sub 30 minutes, 10k under an hour. Yes, I know those are REALLY bad numbers – running really isn’t my thing. I’d also like to run non-stop for more than 10km – yes, I’ve done ultramarathons but I have had, for 6 years, an inner voice which tells me that continuous running beyond 10k before walking cannot be done. But I’ve spent 6 years unable to break this particular plateau and it needs to go. And I want to perform 30 really good push ups ()right now I can’t do one – I’d love to do the same for 10 pull-ups once I have access to equipment again) – again, an area where over the years I have progressed by using bad form over building technique. That stops.

And on the mental side, I want to start with memory and cubing. I don’t have particular target numbers there yet. I’m not close enough to my potential yet. But I do know that I’ve been learning poorly, not paying attention to technique. Not really working to form solid images and memory journeys that lock into each other. And not really understanding why algorithms for moving pieces around a cube do what they do.

So there it is, a semi-scientific journey through a neurodivergent mind’s attempt to break plateaus that goes hand in hand with a journey into myself. Next, something on consistency and self-belief. Because it feels like those are two further sides to this same puzzle.

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