There has been a debate going on in running for some time now between planning down weeks into your training program versus following a sustained training plan. There are plenty of coaches and runners lined up on each side of this debate and the discussion is often heated and thought provoking. As most of you who are regular readers of my blog are aware, I am not afraid to share where I stand on hot button topics such as this, and explain to you why I believe that way.
So in today's blog I will weigh in on this topic:
Planned Down Weeks vs. Sustained Program
Now the planned down weeks I am talking about is when coaches or runners plan to train hard for 2-3 weeks (“up weeks”) and then plan an easier week of lower mileage and/or intensity (“down week”). From what I have seen “2 up and 1 down” or “3 up and 1 down” seem to be the most common variation of this training philosophy. Often the stated purpose of this is to give the body a chance to recover and “absorb” the hard training and to avoid over training. All those things are noble goals.
But I have a problem with this concept and let me explain why.
The basic principle behind all physical training (including running) is based on is the principle of stress and recover. This principle states that if we stress the body in a certain way (such as running) and then allow that body to recover from that stress, it will be better adapted to that particular stress. This is illustrated in the figure below, where we stress the body (break it down) and then let it recover and during that recovery a super-compensation occurs which raises our level of adaptation (fitness).
What is important for our discussion today, is to note that if we cut the recovery short we aren't getting the super-compensation or at least not the full benefit of it. For this reason proper recovery after our stresses (workouts) is critically important to making progress in our training.
I call 1 full stress and recover cycle a “base unit” and it usually involves a stress day followed by 1 or 2 easy recovery days. Mastering this base unit is very important to our training. We need to know how hard we can push on our stress days and then how much time do we need to recover (and what we can do during that recovery) before stressing again.
Then once we have mastered this base unit, the most efficient way to progress our fitness is by simply stacking one base unit on top of another and properly balancing and sequencing our types of stress workouts in such a way as improve the areas of fitness we are targeting.
But a planned down week philosophy works against that by “planning” to work too hard (i.e. not sustainable) for 2 or 3 weeks so that you will need a “down week”. Basically they are admitting that they are not mastering the base unit and rather than focusing on mastering the base unit, they are compensating by adding in extra rest after a few weeks. I don’t think this is an efficient or very effective way to train. Over train for 2-3 weeks and then try and recover so you can do it again???
If you need to a break (down week) after 2 or 3 weeks of training, than you have not been sufficiently recovering from stress workouts during that 2 or 3 training. This could be because you have either worked too hard on your stress days or because you didn't take enough recovery time (or ran your recovery too hard). In this scenario, you are not getting the full super-compensation for each of those workouts and taking extra recover after multiple weeks is ineffective at getting you the full super-compensation you missed weeks ago. The super-compensation is most effectively gained in the recovery immediately following the stress.
What is even more puzzling to me about many of the coaches who follow this “down week” philosophy is that I have heard many of them preach how the “#1 problem runners have is not properly recovering from their workouts”. Well if they believe that really is the case, why not work with them on mastering the base unit so they don’t need those down weeks, instead of implement a strategy to repeatedly deal with bad base unit execution.
I believe that “down weeks” during the training portion of a cycle should be something you take only if and when you determine you have not been recovering from your workouts sufficiently and need to take one to avoid or remedy a state of over training. It should not be a condition you plan to be in on such a regular basis that you have to plan it into your program. If it is, then you need to spend time on restructuring your base unit to fix the cause, and not on planning in down weeks as a band-aid.
I believe the most effective way to progress in running fitness during a training cycle is to master your base unit first and foremost and then train in a sustainable manner so you can stack those base units one on top of each efficiently for a prolonged period of time during your training phase of your cycle. In other words, take continual measured steps forward toward your goal, not embrace a strategy of taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back over and over again in training.