Maintaining progress in any sport, at any level, is hard work. As much as you want to see constant upwards progression, athletes will hit training plateaus – these occur when your body adjusts to the demands of your workouts
Training plateaus can happen for any number of reasons. It could be caused by suboptimal technique, insufficient joint stiffness, or not enough general strength. Encouraging a player to run faster, just keep going, will only get you and them so far.
When a plateau is hit, you need to clarify the training focus. Make changes to the way you’re training players who are struggling to overcome this plateau. Clarification needs to come in the form of increasing the specificity of drills, exercises, and coaching cues.
If drills and cues aren’t effective, how can coaches ensure athletes keep progressing when it seems like they’ve leveled out?
In this article are four ways you can help players overcome training plateaus.
#1: Improving Technical Proficiency
One method for improving technical proficiency is to use a weighted sled, or other tools such as Run Rocket, Vertimax Raptor, or KATN Strength Engine, to improve external feedback. Using a tool like this helps to manage and reduce the impact of technical deficiencies, strength, or lack of coordination.
Coaches can also help athletes improve sprinting techniques. When an athlete’s sprinting improves, it increases force development, and exposes them to higher contractile velocities. Both of these outcomes give athletes more strength and power on the field, and reduces the risk of injuries.
When coaches are trying to improve a player’s technical proficiency, they’re often forced to rely on verbal and tactile cues. Phrases such as, “Push harder into the ground” or “Keep the foot dorsiflexed.”
For players, this can be frustrating, especially when they’re putting as much as they can into an exercise yet not making progress.
Experienced coaches and players say the best way is to help an athlete feel the position you are coaching them to implement. Athletes tend to be kinesthetic learners, so this would help you speak the same language. Here are a few tried-and-tested ways you can do this:
Wall Drills: the downside of wall exercises is that athletes, especially younger ones, get so frustrated with these exercises if they leave their hips behind, let their chest collapse, or lose postural integrity.
KATN Strength Engine, or an anchored cord or chain are the best ways to counteract this tendency. This approach forces athletes to feel the correct angle and tension, while also stabilizing them through the hip and midsection.
For new athletes, the best approach is to help them balance more effectively with a dowel or hurdle.
#2: Reducing Load, Increasing Competencies
Once you’ve improved an athlete’s basic sprinting techniques, you can start to focus on reducing the load to increase competencies. A verbal cue to the athlete at this stage is to say, “Be more reactive off the ground.”
However, many coaches know that younger and larger athletes often struggle to internalize this cue. One reason you need to encourage this is to improve that point in sprinting when an athlete moves from the force absorption phase into the force application phase.
At this stage, loading an athlete can be a helpful exercise. Reactive jumps, pogos, or skips are a great way to coordinate an athlete’s reaction off the ground. Doing these exercises off a grounded, moderate, horizontal load helps them to feel the joint stiffness, condition the motor unit patterning, and improve rate coding.
For these exercises to be effective, the force weighting should be anchored at the waist or torso, with a 45 degree line of force working towards the ground. Once an athlete has experienced this a few times it will enable them to internalize the cue more effectively.
#3: Improving Imparting Force
When an athlete is sprinting — once they’re out of the transition phase — it might look like they’re running in place. What you now need to work on is imparting force during load mechanics.
An effective solution for this is encouraging them to run while practicing alternating bounds.
Bounds under load help athletes to improve transmutation ability, giving them the chance to feel the vertical and horizontal force required for propulsion. This activity improves coordination and force output. With a coach’s support, athletes will improve the imparting force they deploy while sprinting, giving them more power in the field.
#4: Introducing a Repetitive High Knee Exercise
Another intervention you can use is a “Running A”, or repetitive high knee exercise, while coaching a player to cyclical heel action.
A weighted sled is often too jarring for this exercise, so it’s better to use a Run Rocket or the KATN Strength Engine. Both add extra tension (although light), encouraging them to feel the correct stacked position — shoulders over hips, hips over knees, knees over ankles. At the same time, tension on the leg helps improve the motor unit recruitment pattern.
All of the exercises in this article come from tried-and-tested methods from former NFL players and coaches, and players who’ve become coaches. If your athletes are struggling with overcoming a training plateau, these exercises and activities are worth implementing.