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Why do you need a rest week?

Imagine a three week training plan during which you see some of the best progress you’ve made in years. There’s momentum in your progress and you’re right on the edge of breaking all your personal bests. Now imagine you are told to stop what you’re doing and halve everything you do and do it at a painfully slow pace. You must do this for a week. The frustration that comes with this is simply unbearable to many diligent, hard working athletes. What I’ve described is what would be considered the standard deload week. In many cases athletes cannot process the reality of a deload week let alone commit to it. For many the fear of losing progress is the main issue, others are reluctant to back off when every session is getting them closer to an all time best.

What is a deload or rest week?

As the name implies deload and rest weeks are simply breaks in training during which we significantly reduce training loads, allowing our bodies some time to recover. Typically they last a week if planned throughout periods of training. In some cases, like at the end of a season, we may recommend several consecutive weeks of reduced training. It all depends on goals, training loads and where you are in your season. Typically the standard recommendation for a rest week is at minimum a 40% reduction in both training volume and intensity. This will vary for most people and it’s usually something a coach can be very helpful with.

Why should you take a rest week?

Training is simply a process of applying stress and adapting. We cycle this process over and over to progress our abilities. There are two general forms of stress; acute and chronic. Acute stress can be considered short term; it’s what you apply during a single session and you can recover relatively quickly from it. Chronic stress is the type that occurs over time. It can last weeks, months and even years. Your body can tolerate acute and chronic stress quite well. When allowed to adapt, the body will respond positively to these. If the body cannot adapt positively, it will engage survival mechanisms. This may lead to a reduction in training ability or intensity as the body tries to prevent further stress. You may also see certain body functions struggle as they become overwhelmed.

Gradually accumulating stress and fatigue can be effective when a rest week is planned. It allows for a response to this chronic build up. If stress is reduced significantly during this time the body has more energy availability and time to adapt. This allows for a bigger response than daily recovery to acute stress. This is referred to as supercompensation in many textbooks. Taking deload weeks at regular intervals ensures you get this response.

Elite athletes will always take time off to allow their bodies to restore and prepare for training to come.

What happens if you skip a deload?

Many athletes get into a routine of training and it can be very difficult for them to break their routine. In many cases an athlete won’t necessarily feel tired or worn out and so they may not feel like they need the rest. In some cases this may be true and in others they may be at breaking point without realising. Most coaches will plan in these weeks so they do not come as a surprise. If they’ve been on the plan from the start then most athletes will buy into them.

When an athlete skips a deload they often don’t notice any major loss in performance initially. They may not even feel particularly fatigued. This gives a false sense of them not needing a deload. In reality when you come back from a deload you should be fresh and capable of more intensity as you have had that supercompensation. This is what athletes might miss. There may be stagnation of progress which is hard to detect until several weeks have passed. This is best case scenario. In many cases athletes will become progressively run down and run the risk of illness or injury.

When to take a deload?

Timing a deload is variable. Most athletes respond well to 3 weeks of progressive training followed by a deload on the fourth week. In some cases this can be extended or shortened to fit with competition schedules or travel. They must not be neglected though and they must be as integral a part of the plan as the sessions themselves.

Things to look out for:

  • Boredom

When  a deload is performed well many athletes will complain about a sense of restlessness and boredom. This is quite a good sign as it means they are noticing the reduction in volume and the body will too. It is important to be aware of these feelings as they can often derail a deload week. Athletes sometimes can’t stand either the boredom or extra time they have on their hands. It is good practice to plan some alternate activities during this period. Some can be restorative but it is a good time to look at social and recreational activity and the extra time can be taken advantage of.

Boredom can be a problem during rest weeks and staying busy but relaxed is important
  • Diet

In addition, diet needs to be given attention. While some athletes may use this time to allow weight to come back where they have possibly had losses through training, others may need to maintain a certain weight. The sudden reduction in training will require less energy intake. Appetite will not adjust that quickly so it may important to scale back energy intake appropriately.

Rest weeks can be hard to plan and manage. Don’t be afraid to contact us if you need help organising your training strategy and calendar.

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