John Davis

Written by John Davis

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3 Reasons You Need to Add Down Weeks into Your Training

Stress and recovery: these are the basic units of training.

Everybody knows this; preserving the balance between stress and recovery is why you take an easy day after a long run or a hard workout.

But what about recovery in terms of your training plan as a whole? Do you need to build in periods of “rest” in between hard weeks of training?

Yes! And we call these periods of “rest” down weeks.

In the past, we explained why down weeks are important, and gave it as an option for safely increasing your mileage to prevent injury, but you may still be confused as to when and why you should be using them.

Why Are Down Weeks Good For Runners?

If you don’t recover after tough training, you can’t get any faster.

Runners usually apply this logic to their day-to-day training, but taking a broader view and applying the stress-recovery philosophy to your long-term training is important too.

Down weeks are useful for boosting recovery both from a mechanical and from a physiological perspective.

Reducing your training volume for a week can help you stave off injury by allowing your body to repair damaged tissue, and it can also help stave off staleness and overtraining by letting you absorb the metabolic stress of hard training sessions.

The dangers of those first weeks of training

On the mechanical front, the findings of a 1998 article by Belinda Beck at Stanford University School of Medicine suggest that taking a down week every three or four weeks can reduce your risk of a stress fracture.1

Down weeks are particularly suited for preventing this type of injury because of how the biology of bone growth works.

As any good medical student knows, bone responds to mechanical stress by getting stronger—that’s why weight-bearing activities like running and weight lifting are important for preventing osteoporosis—but Beck highlights a lesser-known fact about bone strengthening: during the initial weeks of the bone remodeling process, your bones temporarily become weaker.

Just like remodeling your home, the first step in remodeling your bones involves tearing out old cell walls.  Special cells called osteoclasts eat away at your bone, clearing the way for new bone cells to grow and fill in the gaps.

Here’s the deal:

This process ultimately creates a matrix of bone cells that is stronger than before, but the timing is irregular.

The osteoclasts start eating away at old bone cells almost immediately after your skeleton is exposed to a new stress (like, say, starting a couch-to-5k program), but the new bone cells don’t start growing until a month later.

This leaves a window of vulnerability about three to five weeks after the initial stress where your bone is actually weaker than when it started!

When are runners most at risk for a stress fracture?

Beck cites research which shows that stress fractures rates for military recruits peak about a month into basic training, which coincides almost exactly with what cell biology predicts.

Because of this, it makes sense to take a down week every three or four weeks when you’re pushing your mileage up, especially if you’ve had a stress fracture or shin splints in the past.

How does a down week help with recovery?

As for recovery from the metabolic stress of hard training, a paper published in 1990 by Joseph Houmard and coworkers at Ball State University indicates that a period of reduced volume can help your muscles recover from difficult training.2

In their experiment, the researchers monitored levels of various hormones and proteins in the blood of ten well-trained distance runners during four weeks of normal training and a three-week “down period” where the runners dropped their volume by 70%.

Houmard et al. found that levels of creatine kinase, a protein that indicates muscle damage and inflammation, decreased by almost 60% during the down period.

What’s the bottom line?

Down weeks could be useful when you’re trying to recover from a training session, race, or series of workouts that take a heavy toll on your leg muscles, especially in those intense and monotonous weeks of marathon training.

This would include long, fast runs, hill workouts, and long races like a ten-miler or a half marathon.  After taking a beating, your leg muscles will be able to heal more effectively during a down week than they would otherwise.

How Much Should I Decrease my Training During a Down Week?

A 2012 study suggests that the first detectable changes in injury rates start to appear when weekly mileage increases by around twenty-five or thirty percent, so that’s a good place to start.3

A small drop of only ten or fifteen percent might not be big enough to make a difference.

Down weeks can be a great device in your training toolkit.  When used properly, they can help you dodge injury and speed recovery after tough workouts and races. 

If you’re increasing your mileage into new territory, take a down week every three to four weeks by dropping your weekly mileage by about thirty percent.  This is particularly important if you’ve a stress fracture before.

A down week will also be beneficial when you’re coming off a leg-drubbing workout or race, especially if it was on a hilly course.

Starting a marathon training segment? Be sure to check out our free ultimate marathon training schedule and 9 part guide, where we discuss down weeks in further detail. We also share three options for training plans, depending on your level, experience, and goals.

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References

Beck, B. R., Tibial Stress Injuires-An Aetiological Review for the Purposes of Guiding Management. Sports Medicine 1998, 26 (4), 265-279.
Houmard, J. A.; Costill, D. L.; Mitchell, J. B.; Park, S. H.; Fink, W. J.; Burns, J. M., Testosterone, cortisol, and creatine kinase levels in male distance runners during reduced training. International Journal of Sports Medicine 1990, 11 (1), 41-45.
Nielsen, R. O.; Cederholm, P.; Buist, I.; Sørensen, H.; Lind, M.; Rasmussen, S., Can GPS be used to detect deleterious progression in training volume among runners? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2012, 1.

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