Taking a Down Week

Taking a down week helps your body recover and build on fitness gained within running cycles.

By Alex Nichols on January 4, 2022 | Leave a reply

It’s the start of a new year! This is the time when many runners are eyeing their calendars, solidifying goals, and signing up for races. If you are anything like me, then planning for races during the year is an effective way to increase motivation and get excited about the next training cycle. Big races and goals can also be used to give your yearly training plan some helpful structure.

After I finish the first step of planning out my primary goals and races for the year, the second step is to break down the demands of the races and the training cycles. I try to break down the different focuses of my training cycles to make sure I can get to the line prepared and healthy. This setup of my training calendar is based on the principle of periodization.

As I explained in this previous article about microcycles, periodization breaks training down into:

  • Macrocycles: Last several months to a year;
  • Mesocycles: Last between two to six weeks; and
  • Microcycles: Are typically several days to two weeks (1).

I like to use my goal events to give structure and purpose to each of the cycles within the year.

Different mesocycles should have specific goals such as base building, introduction to race-specific needs, and the competition phase. A periodized approach to training is non-linear; it involves a step-like approach that maximizes stress and recovery to promote supercompensation.

Training Cycles

An analysis of the different stages of a training cycle. Image: Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics (1).

To optimize the benefit of each cycle, and jump-start the recovery process, I utilize a down week between one mesocycle and the next. Every four to six weeks, depending on the upcoming goal and the time within a macrocycle, I will intentionally decrease my training load.

During this down week, I like to lower my weekly volume by about 30% and decrease my intensity significantly. The decrease in intensity typically comes from less vertical change throughout the week and fewer specific interval or lactate threshold effort workouts.

The purpose of the down week is to improve recovery before the next cycle and give myself a mental reset. I have found that the demands of a structured training schedule are not only physical but mentally stressful as well. Instead of worrying about recovering in time for my next higher-intensity run, I can take a more flexible approach to the week and make running a bit less of a priority.

It can be helpful to give yourself something else to focus on during a down week. I often schedule down weeks for myself and for the athletes I coach to coincide with other life events that might be especially time-consuming. These can be events like travel, a holiday, or even an extra busy week at work or school.

The primary focus of the week can be on something other than running. Having a focus outside of running during a down week leaves me feeling more physically and mentally refreshed as I head into the next training cycle. In this way, down weeks can be an effective way to start the supercompensation process and avoid overtraining that could develop from a linear approach to increased training efforts and volumes.

The author, Alex Nichols, looking calm while on his way to successfully setting then Nolan’s 14 supported fastest known time in 2018. Photo: David Hedges

After a down week, I make sure to not jump right back into the training level I was at before. I will normally shoot for the training level I was able to handle two weeks prior to the down week. Then I proceed to increase at a normal level that I was able to handle prior to the down week. This gives me a chance to readjust to my running focus and transition into a new cycle of training.

Down weeks are similar to the adage, “Two steps forward and one step back.” It is a slight backtrack in training but it can set you up to push the next cycle harder than you could have without the extra recovery time.

Improvement in running is never going to be linear, and training schedules should not be either. One of the biggest mistakes I see younger runners make is thinking that more is always better. They will consistently add volume over time and feel like they are making big improvements with their training.

Week after week of constant increases with no down weeks scheduled between cycles is not sustainable. Eventually, some sort of recovery time is needed. That can either come from multiple weeks off because of an overuse injury, or a preprogrammed down week that allows you to recover and get back to training. I prefer the latter.

As you start to plan your 2022 schedule, take some time to identify your mesocycles within the year, and where some down weeks could fit in naturally. If you haven’t tried them before, now would be a great time to start. Down weeks can lead to a healthier, faster, and happier 2022.

Call for Comments

  • Does your body respond well to time off and down weeks, or do you get too antsy?
  • What do you do to keep your training load in check?

References

  1. Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well as at Trails and Tarmac. He has a Master of Arts in Sport Coaching and a USATF Level 2 Endurance coaching certification. On the trails, Alex has finished second at the Western States 100 Mile and won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. He's supported by SCOTT Running.