Why Planned Down Weeks are Important
I like using analogies. They help me explain complicated physiological processes to runners in a way that not only helps them understand the science behind what they’re doing, but also makes it practical. So, I think the best way for me to explain why adding planned down weeks into your training schedule is important – without referring to physiological terms such as cytokine levels (ck), troponin levels, and cardiac output – is to use a metaphor.
Let’s do the dishes
I like to visualize the body like a sponge, and your training like the water coming from a faucet. When you start training from scratch, you are a like a dry sponge; you’re ready to absorb all the training (water) that you can handle. So, you open up the faucet and let the training flow into your body and you soak it all up. However, just like when doing dishes, too much water too fast can saturate the sponge. Therefore, you need to turn on the faucet gently for best results (read: start slow and gradual with your training).
Over time, if you keep filling up the sponge (your body) with water (training) soon it won’t be able to absorb anymore no matter how careful you are with the rate of water flow. Actually, you could turn the faucet on full blast and not much would happen. This is when you need a down week in your plan. Now, I know taking a week off from hard training is one of the hardest things for a runner to do – ask my girlfriend, I hate doing the dishes (this is coming from a guy who averaged a 145 miles per week for 3 months while training for the marathon – oops)
So, what does a down week do exactly?
A down week is like squeezing the sponge into a bucket next to the sink. The bucket in this case represents the store of fitness you want to have available on race day to throw at your competition. After quickly ringing out the sponge (taking a down week) you can go back to training and you’re once again able to absorb all the training you put in.
Now, all you have to do is repeat and take a down week of training whenever your body isn’t responding to training (please note that it is important to always be changing your training stimulus as well. This is another topic entirely and will be covered soon).
When should I take down weeks?
The better you get to know yourself or your coach gets to know you, the more accurately you can predict when a down week is needed and should be scheduled. The exact frequency will be different for all runners and can be affected by things such as training history, age, sleep, and your life outside running. Furthermore, sometimes down weeks aren’t planned. If your coach notices a decrease in performance or a greater than normal level of fatigue, they may add an impromptu down week to get you back on track.
What about down weeks in-between seasons or training segments
Going back to the sponge analogy, imagine you’ve now done the dishes every day with the same sponge for 2 months. Picture how beat-up, nasty, and less absorbent that sponge would be. After training for a long time without a mental or physical break, your body might actually feel the same. So, you need to schedule some time off in-between training segments, especially between marathon training cycles (this is by far one of the biggest mistakes I see novice runners making – and elites too, since we can often get greedy for the next big marathon payday). In addition, if you take a longer break between training cycles your sponge will be bigger and more absorbent when you come back now that you’ve had a solid block of training behind you. This means you’ll be able to absorb more training faster and squeeze more juice out of your running.
Granted, this is a simplified conceptualization of training and the planned super compensation process, but I have found it works pretty well to describe the complicated physiological processes at work.