If you're training for your first marathon, like me, or any race or competition, you're probably getting yourself to the gym and pushing yourself six days a week.
You're thinking if you take a break, you'll lose your mojo. You'll worry your muscles will atrophy and your body will have no memory.
I mention this because for us type-A folks we generally think the more you do the better you get.
Not so here.
In order for us to progress and increase our performance, our muscles need to adapt to the stress we place on them when we exercise vigorously, and scientific studies show they do not adapt during hard training.
"Rest is when your muscles adapt," said Carwyn Sharp, chief science officer at the Colorado Springs based National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). I recently joined the NSCA so I could get its journal delivered to my doorstep. After an injury, I was reading about deloading but still had a ton of questions. I gave Carwyn a call.
"If you continue to train hard when does your body adapt? Get stronger? All that happens during recovery," Carwyn told me.
In truth I'm not hearing this for the first time. Because I don't come from a sports background, it's taken me longer than might be usual to think any of this makes sense. It was personal trainer Reuel Tizabi of Silver Spring, Maryland, who first advised me that it was vital for me to start to incorporate recovery days into my workout routines on a regular basis.
He told me if I didn't let my muscles recover, I would not be able to provide my muscles/body with an opportunity to fully develop and would not be able to continue to progress. And I'd be more likely to suffer an injury.
I'd essentially hit a plateau and not know why.
What Is Deloading?
"Sounds like getting a divorce and cleaning out the garage," my runner friend texted me when I asked him about it.
The idea behind deloading is to incorporate a systematic approach to exercise that allows you to place an appropriate amount of stress on your body and then recover. The idea is for your body to adapt to the change so that you can increase the amount of stress with each new program.
For example, when you start resistance training, or use heavier weights than usual, you experience a normal period of soreness that reduces your performance the next time you try to lift the same load. Or lift a bag of peaches. Carwyn said this is your body's alarm, or reaction, phase. If you incorporate a period of recovery, then your body's tissues and systems can adapt in various physiological ways that can lead to an increase in performance.
These adaptations occur during our body's supercompensation phase. But if we prolong the stress, or if the stress becomes overly intense, instead of supercompensating, we'll reach our body's exhaustion phase. I knew I hit this because I was fatigued, I had prolonged and excessive soreness, and, duh, reduced performance.
Active vs. Passive Recovery
There are multiple approaches to deloading, Carwyn told me, including both active and passive recovery. You can reduce your frequency or number of workouts, your volume or number of sets or repetitions, or intensity, which could mean resistance if you're in the weight room or effort or mileage if you're on the track, or all three.
A common approach is to alternate hard and easy days, but you could also break up your training into progressive blocks. In my marathon training, I'm training hard for a week, alternating a moderate day with a hard day. Then for my second week I'm training harder but still incorporating moderate days. Then the third week I'm reducing both the volume and the frequency of my workouts to allow my body to recover.
It's active recovery when you continue to train but at a lower volume and frequency.
If you're on the edge of an injury or coming down with a bug then you may need passive recovery. This could mean taking a day or two off completely or walking or even standing still in between intervals instead of running at a comfortable pace.
How much recovery you need, or what type, depends on your goals.
I'm a first time marathon runner (FMR) and would like to finish as fast as is possible for my level of training and capability while enjoying the experience.
That means my goal isn't to finish but to finish the race fast. So an FMR's training might need to include speed and power work along with endurance and this is where planned deloading becomes crucial. I need sufficient rest for my muscles to adapt, and I need time to evaluate what's working and what's not.
Use Your Deload to Check In
You should come out of your programmed recovery feeling refreshed both physically and mentally, said Kevin McGuinness, a physical therapist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who practices in Washington, D.C. Full disclosure, Kevin is my physical therapist, and we talk about this stuff a lot.
"A good deload should make you feel like you can get to a higher intensity than you were at during the previous week," Kevin said.
This is critical for my marathon training, because I'm planning my deloading weeks and incorporating them into shorter races so I can evaluate my training and the effectiveness of my recovery periods.
Most people schedule their recovery periods just before a race or competition where they might drop their training volume by 20 to even 40 percent. Yet how a person decides what to cut depends on the person. If your legs need extra rest, you might cut the bike but increase your swim.
Because you aren't adjusting everything at once, you can use the race to see how you are responding to changes. You can evaluate strength by looking at how you responded to a hill; you can evaluate endurance by how well you sustained your level of effort over multiple hills.
Is Deloading for Everyone?
Even non-athletes who exercise daily but not training for a race or a competition can benefit from deloading, Kevin said.
"It's hard to put the same effort into something that's become routine," Kevin told me. By taking a break you can put in a little more effort after you back away from it.
And avoid injury, including tendonitis as well as strains or sprains that may occur from an over-taxed neuromuscular system, Kevin reminded me.
So even if I'm still wrapping my head around the idea of backing off in the gym, since I've needed a sports medicine doc and Kevin to patch me up more than once, I'm deloading like it's my religion but counting on science rather than a leap of faith to get me across the finish.