Which Is Better
To rest or to train? If I take a break, for how long? If I keep training, how hard? Should I continue racing like on the mountain bike or in cyclo-cross? Which will benefit me more? Help!!!
What I’ve come to find is that things come full circle. Training hypotheses and theories come into favor and then fall out of favor before coming back into favor. And when they come back into favor, they are touted as the next-greatest-super-secret-do-this-or-perish-at-your-own-risk approach to training. It’s all marketing rubbish.
Common practices used to espouse taking a protracted break from sport-specific training and instead focusing on general fitness. A cyclist might race cyclo-cross in Europe, but better still would be running or cross-country skiing. Some cyclists are even reverting to swimming as a great lung buster. Triathletes might sub-in some hiking instead of running and blow the dust off the mountain bike to avoid training by numbers. And, typically, the off-season would begin with a long period of time completely in sloth mode.
I’m not going to tell you taking time completely off is a “must”. What I will say is that your body and mind will send you very distinct and clear signals, letting you know that a break is needed and how long it should be. I’ve hit the end of a racing season on a huge uptick and not wanting to stop for anything, and I’ve also hit the end wishing it had come a month earlier and, thus, took a long break of over a month. There’s no right or wrong answer, and the approach can easily change one season to the next.
What I will say is that while the days are getting shorter, the Fall is arguably the most gorgeous time to get outside and be in nature. I’ve got the urge to start trail running again, so this weekend I laced up the shoes and started hoofing it – albeit for 15 and 25 minutes on Saturday and today. I’m not as young and spry as I used to be! That said, I can’t wait to be completing run/hikes of 2-2.5 hours up on the mountain trails. I’ll be getting in plenty of cycling so I’m more than happy to forego a long ride and replace it with a run/hike through the Fall and Winter.
Effects of Detraining
So, you’re taking some sort of “rest” – whether it be time completely off or time away from your primary sport. But, we all get a little skittish at the notion of “time off”. I remember being a year-round swimmer and even as a nationally ranked 10-year old, fretting about the 1-2 weeks of downtime between the end of one season and the beginning of the next season. How long should we rest and what are the effects of that rest on our fitness? Luckily, Bryan Bergman at the CU Medical Center has looked at 50+ studies on the subject and written a comprehensive summary on the effects of detraining.
Among all the findings, probably one of the most important is that VO2max can drop by as much as 14% in as few as 4 weeks. In the first 3 weeks, there’s a decrease in cardiac output; in the fourth week, there’s a drop in mitochondria density. Even with these drops, after 8 weeks of no working out, a high-performing athlete still will stabilize about 50% above consistently sedentary people. So, while the extended period of laziness might feel good and refreshing, it will also lead to a quite uncomfortable return to training as the body fights to regain its efficiencies. And, regain them, it will; just slowly. Similarly, after 1-2 weeks of sedentary living, muscle glycogen stores start to dissipate because you’re sending the signal that those stores are not required anymore. So the body adapts and adjusts.
Blood volume also starts dropping after several days off and can drop as much as 10-15% in a month. Most of this volume loss is in the form of plasma (water), but up to 2-4% can be due to the loss of O2-carrying red blood cells. What is interesting is that capillary volume – the number of capillaries in the muscles themselves – does not decrease in elite athletes when they stop training.
All of this means that in roughly a month, aerobic fitness takes a big hit and can drop by as much as 25%. Bergman believes that some of this is due to an increased use of carbohydrates as a fuel source because the less efficient the body is, the less it relies on fat the more it relies on sugar as fuel. Athletes also find a rise in lactate production when compared to RPE (rate of perceived effort), again pointing to decreased aerobic efficiency.
And while there is a decrease in lactate threshold due to decreased aerobic efficiency and the body’s ability to process lactate quickly, this decreased efficiency tends to level off after about 3 months of inactivity. As Bergman summarizes, “High lactate threshold is one of the most important predictors of endurance performance. It takes a lot of time, even years, to increase lactate threshold to an athlete’s genetic potential, so it is vital to prevent a large drop during the off-season. Only by building upon the current season’s gains in LT, will LT increase from year to year to an elite level.”
Minimizing the Losses
There are ways to minimize the losses without continuing to train full bore. Working out 3-4 days a week is plenty, for starters. And, a focus on intensity rather than volume is a great way to mitigate the drops in both VO2max and aerobic capacity. Interval training twice a week with the other 1-2 days being aerobic in nature is a perfect mix. The other days can be devoted to strength sessions, yoga, days off, what have you. The goal is to avoid returning to “the grind”. This reminds me of when I stopped racing triathlon as a pro. I took a few years off and simply exercised. I did whatever I felt like whenever I felt like it, but also didn’t do anything when I didn’t want to. After about 5 years, I returned to racing in the amateur ranks, on a diet of 6-9 hours per week. Even at that little volume, I was able to regain about 96% of my pro-level fitness and speed.
Many studies have shown that the biggest increase in fitness comes from jumping from 3 days to 4 days a week of training. There is another but smaller increase from 4 to 5 days, but a negligible increase from 5 to 6 days. So, my suggestion is to shoot for 4 days to keep things fresh. Other studies show that if frequency and intensity are largely kept up, that volume can drop by as much as 75% -- just like during taper time. Now, don’t take this to mean that you can drop that much volume year round. There is a lot of benefit to long, aerobic-based workouts. It’s just not required that they be done year round. Keep yourself fast and fresh, and then worry about going long later come Springtime.
After a long year of racing and training the idea of taking an extended break is attractive for sure, but the reality is that doing so will cut into the gains you just worked so hard to make, and could do so deeply if you take an extended break. Physiological measures like lactate tolerance, blood volume, mitochondrial density, and VO2max all drop, and do so significantly after the first weeks of stoppage. To maintain most of the gains but still afford yourself some downtime, it is a simple as reducing your training volume by 70-80%, your training frequency by 20-30%, while maintaining your training intensity at 70-80% of your typical in-season interval volume.
It’s pretty straightforward. The off-season does not equate to “lazy” or “easy” or “LSD training”. Rather, it equates to focused, hard training in shortened sessions with plenty of R&R between these hard sessions so that you retain a feeling of freshness despite the hard work. You want to be looking forward to the interval sessions, and you want both the body and mind to feel fresh for them. Accomplish this, and when you do start ramping up your volume come the Spring, you will be faster and better prepared for the season ahead. And faster, too.