Goal Setting

Is Fear the Cause of Your Fitness Plateau?

fearSomething odd happened to me this week: I lost interest in my exercise regimen. After 8 months of rock climbing multiple times a week, I just stopped going.

 I’ve been working extra hours at the office and I believed it was my hectic work schedule that killed my momentum. I was cranky that it was squishing out my climbing time until yesterday, when I finally had time to squeeze in a gym session — and I still didn’t.

By the end of the day, it was clear something was up. I could have made time for a workout. I finally penciled it in the next day… only to feel a big pit in my stomach. In fact, when visualizing myself climbing up the rock wall, I literally got cold feet.

After some digging, I realized that I had hit a fitness plateau in my regimen — not a physical one, but a mental one.

Ever since I started climbing, I’ve been hooked. I finally found something I enjoy enough to do through fatigue and discomfort, and I’ve gotten bold about heights. Approaching my 30th birthday, I’m in better physical shape than I have ever been in my life.

The more I thought about climbing, though, the less surprised I was that I hit a confidence wall. I was the kid in school who was so sickly and terrified of competition that I employed a combination of doctor’s notes and hiding under my desk to avoid gym class — from kindergarten through high school.

Although I’ve since made peace with exercise by focusing on activities that I enjoy despite zero natural athleticism, my inner perfectionist and panic still crop up, apparently.

What Causes Mental Fitness Plateaus

I wanted to share this story because I think that when anxiety and low confidence are the cause of sabotage, we don’t always realize it. It’s assumed that when we finally get over the hump of getting started, we’re home free and momentum will carry us forward forever.

That’s probably true 80% of the time, but insecurities and other deep-rooted beliefs can still rear their head at any step of the way.

Oddly, people aren’t talking about mental fitness plateaus in the context of regular exercise, outside of sports. A search for ‘exercise anxiety’ brings up articles from every major health outlet about how exercise calms anxiety, but I know I’m not the only one for whom, sometimes, it does the reverse!

So what was I afraid of this week? After a little soul-searching, I realized I was feeling like a failure. I haven’t been able to climb to the top of my routes because each time I get close, I chicken out and climb back down. It’s not from a lack of actual ability, but from not “wanting it bad enough” to push hard like my friends do. I felt doomed — if I can’t make it to the next level, if I’m “just not that kind of person,” why even do it?

After all this, I decided to go and train anyway, even if it was just doing easy stuff to get the exercise benefits. And then, rather oddly, within a few minutes of Velcro-ing up my shoes and warming up, I went and finished a project that has been *impossible* for me for weeks. It wasn’t fueled by rage or self-criticism; I felt calm and clear-headed. I think it happened because I finally put my ego aside and decided to go easy on myself. It was just going to be a wheel-spinning, workout-for-the-sake-of-a-workout day — and I walked up to the wall and conquered the problem on the first try.

Moving Past the Plateau

We don’t just drag our feet about exercising because we’re lazy. In fact, it’s usually much more complicated. The quicker we recognize when ego is sabotaging our goals, the less momentum we’ll lose, and the more we’ll progress to new levels of vitality and enjoyment in exercise.

So the lesson I learned this week: when you get caught in a workout funk, grant yourself permission to coast. People always say the secret to jump-starting a fitness routine is an easy 30-minute walk, and I can see why that’s true — not because a few short walks per week is enough to reach our fitness goals. It’s because this low expectation works in calming the pre-exercise panic, enough that we can start. Maybe then, from there, we’ll find that we’re ready to go a little further.

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Chelsea Ratcliff

Chelsea Ratcliff

Writer and expert

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