Thems the breaks, kid – The case for planned breaks from training
Consistency is the single most important factor when it comes to continued development as an endurance athlete. So why would we ever intentionally step away from training? That would be self-defeating if we want to get better, right? Not necessarily.
Eventually, if we’re training hard, we’re going to make a mistake or not do some aspect of our recovery homework and something is going to start to give. Repetitive motion is something we do a lot of, and no one is perfect. The more perfect we are, the more reps we can do before something gives. But eventually we will all break if we don’t take steps to avoid it. And if we top off a hard training block with a long hard race like a marathon or an Ironman, the odds of us being in perfect shape to keep training the next week are pretty stinkin’ low. Chances are we’ll end up getting hurt eventually as the little things start accumulating and become big things. When this happens, we get an “unplanned” break.
A path to an unplanned break normally looks something like this:
1) We notice a little niggle, but fail to address it or the root cause of it.
2) The little niggle gets even more grouchy, but we train through it because we’re stubborn endurance athletes who don’t let little things keep us from completing the workouts we have scheduled.
3) As the “little niggle” gets progressively worse, we alter our biomechanics to reduce the discomfort, resulting in overloading some other tissue.
4) We end up with some kind of real overuse injury that should prevent us from training effectively or at all. But we keep going because we’re smart like that.
5) We refuse to go see a doctor or physical therapist, because we know they’re just going to tell us to take some time off and let it heal up. But if we do that, we’ll lose all of the hard earned fitness gains we’ve made over the training block and we won’t be ready on race day!
6) Finally something happens that prevents us from getting out the door to get the workout in (i.e. we can’t walk). So we finally go see a physical therapist or a doctor who tells us what we knew they were going to say: we’re really hurt and need to not train for a bit so the injury can heal. But we get the bonus experience of getting to experience medieval torture methods!
7) The physical therapist give us some exercises to do on our own, which we faithfully do for about a week or until it starts feeling a little better.
8) We start training again just as if we’d not taken the last several weeks “off”, and we go back to step 2.
9) Eventually we either get REALLY hurt, or we finally get convinced to take an actual break from training to heal.
Needless to say, this unplanned break process can take a while. Months or years even, during which time we don’t actually get a lot better because we’re not actually completing the workouts we need to really make forward progress. A planned break on the other hand, helps avoid this whole string of events to begin with. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather intentionally prevent injury instead of reactively treating it.
A planned break can do a lot of things for us. Having a week or two at the end of the season, or after the long hard race with a long training block, allows us to heal up any small niggles that have started creeping up on us. Because let’s be honest, very few of us are great at getting in all of our biomechanical work, cross training, recovery treatments, and getting enough sleep paired with high quality nutrition while also trying to fulfill our work and family obligations. Something ends up getting cut, and it’s normally the on recovery side of things. By allowing ourselves a week or two every now and again to not be beating our bodies into submission can be one of the best ways to prevent an overuse injury.
Along the same vein, over-training (which normally involves getting our endocrine system out of whack) requires some actual downtime to recover from. The fictional Bruce Denton may have called it “breakdown training” but we know that we’ll make more progress over the long term if we don’t put ourselves in that situation to begin with. And this dovetails with preventing burn out. If we love the sport(s) that we do, then we should be highly motivated to make sure we keep enjoying them. But burnout is a real thing for endurance athletes because of the grind of training. It’s long. It’s hard. It can be monotonous. And it’s mentally tough to stay that focused for that long. Taking a short planned break at the end of a season is one of the best ways to ensure you don’t get into that mental funk half way through the next season. Because we need all the help we can get on some of those long slog weeks, putting ourselves in the hole when we start probably isn’t the best way to be successful. It can be done, but why are we doing it if it’s not fun?
Now just because we’re taking a planned break doesn’t necessarily mean we have to sit on the couch and eat cheesy poofs. There may be times when we need to do this for a couple of days, like if we got really beat up in the race we just finished, but generally we can still do some lighter exercises as long as we’re not going too crazy. It’s also a great time to reintroduce some of the things that should be a part of our normal routine, but we unintentionally cut during the season. This means we can spend some time in the gym or in the pool, maybe doing some drills, or simply just running/cycling/swimming for fun.
I actually used to work with a guy who’s college coach would make them show up to practice for 1-2 weeks after their last meet of the season, and the “workout” was to chill in the grass as a team. That’s it. Just hang out, soak up some rays, listen to some tunes, maybe read a bit. But this coach knew what he was doing. His athletes would start the next season rested up, refreshed, and ready to work. Planned recovery is an important aspect of successful training, allowing us to reach even greater heights in the next training block.
The most useful times to take a planned break is at the end of a long training block or race season. For those of us who race shorter races on a frequent basis, those races normally come in loosely defined seasons. In some places the “off-season” is during the summer because it’s just too hot to safely and effectively train. In others it’s in the winter because conditions keep us from being able to do the really high intensity workouts required for fast road/track racing. For those of us who like to focus on the longer races, the training blocks tend to be long enough that the week or two after the race are the best time to take a break. But the end result should be the same: a week or two that allows us to recover from any little niggles that managed to crop up along the way before we dive back into training and get mentally refreshed for the coming grind of the next season.
The best part of intentionally planning your breaks means that you can place the at times when you know other parts of your life have to take priority of training. It also means that we end up taking less time off from real training over the course of any given year, translating into more quality workouts being accomplished.
If you get hurt today, you can’t train tomorrow. You can pretend that this isn’t reality, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Consistency in training really is the most important aspect to improving as an endurance athlete. Planned breaks lead to lower injury rates, which means more time spent training over any given year. Thems the breaks.