Every year, as the end of the “summer” endurance sports season approaches (September/October/November here in the northern hemisphere), I find myself trying to explain the value of letting training go and executing a good transition period. That’s a really challenging “sell” to highly motivated athletes! It’s especially hard, when sport is a large part of what that athlete enjoys in life. What I mean is this: Age group athletes love to grow and embrace challenge via sport, but that sport is also a huge part of their/your life beyond simply training for and taking part in races. Training is something most athletes just love to do. As a result, pulling back can be extremely hard – in all areas of an athlete’s life… And that challenge is something athletes need to learn to embrace if they truly want to reach their best, and enjoy sport as a positive area of their lives for years to come!
What I hope to present here, is not a sales pitch for end of season recovery. Instead, I want to help explain why performance is about a lot more than stacking miles, tough workouts and moving weights at the gym. Hey, in order to realize your athletic potential, you have to train. You have to diligently and consistently put energy into executing great workouts which match your needs / goals. So why do we need a period where we step away from organized training and allow some detraining to occur via a “transition” phase in our annual training plan? Because, no person, can push forward constantly, and expect to sustain motivation, nor physical ability. For example, when we become mentally fatigued there is a decrease in performance independent of the status of our cardiovascular, neuromuscular or bioenergetics systems (Marcora, Staiano, & Manning, 2009). When we become mentally fatigued, we typically are burning the proverbial candle at both ends. When this occurs, multiple areas of life will become impacted to greater and greater degrees. For example, perhaps the attempt to train for an ironman, ultramarathon or cycling stage race results in the shunting of other life responsibilities and increases the stress you perceive to be experiencing. Typically in this case, we are going to skirt our basic needs to “make things happen”, and this shift, will result in lower performance and possibly burn out (Holmberg & Sheridan, 2013).
Building on the impact of mindset on performance, let’s look at how self determination theory may further indicate why a recovery period is vital to performance. Whether coached or self-coached, when we train, there is a level of control that has taken over our processes and actions. The control, can result in a lack of autonomy and thus, lower ability to sustain an intrinsic motivation base (Gagne & Deci 2005). Certainly the potential “reward” of better performance is a gift that is motivating to chase. The snag, comes when a lack of autonomy in ones drive towards that goal starts to negatively impact the experience had during the process. That shift, can reduce motivation, and thus, reduce potential time to fatigue and overall endurance performance. Vlachopoulos, Karageorghis, & Terry, (2000), show that in fact, when we start to lose the ability to apply the same effort in training, persistence and commitment solidly drop.
If psychological stress is starting to create a lack in motivation, we are not going to be able to train or race our best, and we are not going to be able to perform workouts which build our future performances. In fact, there is no doubt that a negative motivation change trends all of us towards burnout – not something that fosters long term enjoyment in endurance sport (Gould, 1996). A challenge here though, comes in the flow of how we perceive our situation. If we are becoming demotivated/burned out due to excessive stress (combined training/lifestyle or long duration high focus on a goal (race)) our ability to see a potential motivator (goal in a race for example) as sustaining the value we had originally placed on it begins to dissolve (Boksem, Meijman, Lorist, 2006). Put a different way, when the total stress load we are experiencing starts to eclipse our ability to effectively deal with it, what once seemed valuable, important and doable, now seems low value, less important, and not that worth doing. Can someone really go execute a good workout when in that situation? Could someone race their best when doing so feels less important and less valuable? No chance!
In particular, the longer we have a focus or task driving us, the greater the likelihood that our motivation will falter, and that the decisions we make will be less effective/beneficial (Boksem, Meijman, Lorist, 2006). Clearly if we stay on the throttle and just keep pushing ourselves, at some point, our ability to sustain motivation will fail (Gould, 1996). When that occurs, we will be forced to take the rest we should have taken prior to fatigue causing us to shut down. In this scenario, the rest will be forced either by burnout and a lack of desire to participate in sport any longer, or via an injury that occurred due to anatomical / physiological disruptions. Hey, we all want to drive on to our goals. The catch, is that recovery IS growing to your goals. Rebooting the system IS getting you back on track. Transition/down time during the year is as vital to reaching your goals as doing the work. You could argue, that our desire to achieve, clouds our ability to read our body and to accept that patience is integral to action. Being an athlete is only a portion of who and what you are. Know this – taking a balanced approach to your athletic development which includes rest, is not a sign of weakness or of quitting on a goal. In fact, it’s a sign of maturity and a sign that you understand performance is a gradual and long process. That, is a fantastic outlook!
The simple reality, is that if you are developing mental fatigue due to the effort of trying to stay “on” over time; or due to increases in life stress, you are not going to get the most out of your physical abilities on race day (Marcora, Staiano, & Manning, 2009).
It’s clear, that when we train during the year, there are disturbances in our physiology. Most of these changes are helpful towards our goal. We adapt to training by positively changing our psychology, chemistry and our structure from the micro to the macro levels. Improving our sense of fatigue, the number of mitochondria in our muscle cells, improving the capillary density throughout our muscles and actually decreasing the size of slow twitch muscle fibers are great examples of positive changes. On the other hand, even at the end of a training period that was well executed, there is typically pretty clear chemistry change showing things (immune system, endocrine system, autonomic nervous system for example) are starting to weaken (Reinke, Karhausen, Doehner, Taylor & Hottenrott, 2009).
Certainly, seasonal variations like those are related to both the training challenges endurance athletes experience and the adaptations which occur as a result of those training experiences (Broadbent, 2011; Losnegard, Myklebust, Spencer & Halle 2013; Isaev & Ehrlich 2015). As athletes, we need to recognize, that changes like these can really impact our short and longer term practice of endurance sport.
Because these impacts related to fatigue development over the season exist, the practice of periodized training has evolved. Periodization has many forms and has developed from a very task focused and single direction model to, a highly adaptive model. Issurin (2010) expands on historical and modern periodization fantastically in his research, and text (Issurin, 2015). A key component of periodization built upon by Issurin’s modern review of the subject and the late Mel Siff’s (2000) historical review through the late 90’s is the application of transition periods. The use of transition is presented as a time where athletes perform rejuvenation focused activity for a brief period; a brief period between larger training phases allowing the athlete to rejuvenate or; a longer duration time frame at the end of the competitive period which allows the athlete to recover.
The roots of periodization can be found in the work of endocrinologist Hans Selye (1976) investigating organismic response to stress. Selye’s work on stress response, that he labeled GAS or General Adaptation Syndrome, suggested that when encountering a stress, we would have a series of events occur. Alarm at first, due to the shock the stress puts on the organism. The alarm stage could last weeks or even a few months. During this time, there is a decrease in function or minimal change in function. Next is the resistance stage where the body adapts to the stress via specific adaptations dependent on the type of stress experienced. IE, this is when you get stronger from the gym or more enduring from doing endurance workouts. This phase is often called supercompensation in training literature, and its amplitude depends on several things – including the general wellness and health of the athlete and the psychologic readiness of the athlete to handle the stress they are under (Baechle & Earle, 2000). Finally, if the stress is too great for adaptation to occur, the athlete reaches the exhaustion or maladaption phase of the GAS. In this scenario, rather than improving, there is dissipation of performance and wellness. One easy example of this is excessive weight gain due to the stress of too much food and too little activity. In sport, it’s seen as the reduction in performance from non-functional over reaching, to functional overreaching, to over training and burnout. In essence, when this occurs we likely have tissue trauma and other physical and mental challenges due to high training loads which leads to the exhaustion phase of the GAS (Smith, 2000; Halson, 2014).
The scientific and coaching communities understanding of how we respond to stress has certainly evolved over the years (Schulkin 2004). It’s clear that seasonal training load variation is essential both to create positive changes in performance and to maximize the wellness of each individual. Think back to the impact of continued task focus on motivation. Think about how our motivation level devolves when a constant state of load is sustained for long periods. Now consider that training theory evolved heavily due to the study of stress response – and that these strategies were not just based on physical, but psychological and wellness factors (Siff, 2000) as well. It’s simply not feasible to be at our best constantly, nor to grow when we experience high load all the time. We need dissociation and release such that our body has a chance to adapt. That’s something hundreds of studies, and century’s worth of coaching, training, and researching consistently shows.
For me, this concept was known, but has steadily become better understood with experience and continued learning. Early on in my coaching career, I knew from my experience in sport and my education that a transition was important and that emphasizing rest was vital to positive performance change. But it’s really the last third of my coaching career that this has hit home most. I’ve been hugely fortunate to coach a wide range of athletes. I’ve coached age group athletes who won national and world championships in a number of disciplines and distances. I’ve coached complete new comers to sport. And I’ve coached folks who just want to stay healthy, perform well and enjoy the process. This wide cross section both offers data that affirms the various data points and concepts described above – but does so in a very practical way to the age group athlete. It’s shown me how huge the impact of “life” stress and health are on the ability to adapt to training, and the ability to perform on race day. An area that’s really augmented this experience, is enhanced athlete monitoring tools via power meters, downloadable heart rate and gps, HRV, resting heart rate, psychological readiness and experience as well as other factors. Below, you can see how performance (gold star) improved strongly after life stress was strongly reduced, which can be seen in the increase of HRV and decrease in resting heart rate. We knew this athlete was suffering from life stress, but until we could work to change that, his performance was below where it could be.
It’s not perfect, and it does not apply or work for every athlete. But something that has been interesting to me as I’ve applied more of this information is the simple reality that:
Very few athletes train less than they should, and almost all will default to doing more than they need to. Seeing better how athletes respond to training, has really helped clarify, that while consistent, challenging training is vital… The old adage that “you’re better undertrained and fresh than even 1% tired” is true. I’ve heard other coaches say this as well, some-times it’s surprising to see how little training needs to happen to stimulate ideal performance!
For me, Lucille Lakier-Smith’s 2000’ paper “The Cytokine Hypothesis of Overtraining” really got me thinking. It took fatigue from an amorphous physical event, a loss in motivation and it turned the physical side into something bigger – a change in body chemistry highly related to autonomous function of the central nervous system. Taken further, García-Pallarés, Carrasco, Díaz & Sánchez-Medina, (2009) show how a reduced training load at the end of the competitive season, allowed a very large (30%) decrease in cortisol (stress hormone) at the end of the competitive period. Clearly, excess biopsychological load is going to be a problem, and is not just going to knock down motivation. Instead, it’s going to simultaneously reduce motivation, with a reduction in physical capacity (Boksem, et al. 2006), and it’s going to clearly result in a host of chemical and anatomical changes as well (Coutts, Wallace, & Slattery, (2007); Gustofson, Holmberg, & Hassme, (2008); MacKinnon, (2000); Broadbent, (2011)).
How about detraining? Often athletes want to understand why their coach would suggest letting some fitness go. Isn’t it a bad thing to let go of what you have worked so hard for? The easy answer is no, it’s not. To be clear, detraining is the “Partial or complete loss of training induced anatomical, physiological and performance adaptations, as a consequence of training reduction or cessation.” (Mujika, 2012. Pp101). Performance decline is related both to athlete development level (how long have you been training historically) and your current training status. For example, an athlete with years of consistent training and who had been on the cusp of over training may appear to detrain more slowly. The reality is that they detrain at the same rate, but were fitter and more tired at the start of the detraining process, thus as they recuperate, the freshness that starts to shine makes them appear to detrain more slowly. With about 30% of the total training volume and intensity maintained, athletes will sustain performance for extended periods (months) (Mujika, 2014). Thus, during a transition period, due to general activity, the rate of detraining is largely minimized when compared to situations including training cessation (Mujika, 2012. Pp 105). So what will happen? You will detrain a little during a good transition. You will see a reduction in VO2max, stroke volume (blood volume moved per heart beat), negative changes in aerobic enzyme levels, after 3-4 weeks of training cessation, a 4-25% decrease in performance is likely. If that training cessation is beyond 3-4 weeks, structural changes may occur (changes in tissue resilience/durability for example). Taken further, Dr Michael Ross presents a nice summation of the impact of detraining in his book “Maximum Performance for Cyclists”.
The key point here, is that while you will start to see physiological change happen within a few days of stopping training, it takes weeks to see significant decreases in your actual physiology, and with a very small amount of endurance work, you will generally maintain the majority of the adaptations you have worked hard to build.
Last point on detraining. Why should we assume that an ideal performance state can be attained and held at all times, and that we can constantly just adapt and adapt to training? Nothing in our lives works that way! Think about it, even in the most successful area of your life, it’s not been a linear process to reach that level of success has it? You have had big challenges, you have had lows and highs. You have had periods you stepped back – by design or not – and you have had times when you were set to drill it forward. Life – all areas of it – is not linear! Training is no different. As an athlete and as a coach, we have to be able to accept that the best way forward is to include some time going backward. Or perhaps better said, time in a neutral gear, allowing all of our systems to catch up, equilibrate, and find the same start page before pressing forward and into new challenges.
And now, we cycle back to the question that stimulated this article: “Why should we have a transition or recovery period at the end of the competitive year?” Because, without it, we will see negative changes in performance ((physical*mental readiness)+health = performance) and enjoyment! With it, we won’t see a level of detraining that hurts our long term progress. With it, we will sustain the highest level of satisfaction and motivation through-out our sporting careers – and that translates to a general sense of vigor and fullness in our lives overall. Not because we can’t be “whole” without sport, but because it’s a portion of our life that we love and enjoy! Finally, with a transition period, we are able to reduce the odds that we develop health problems, be they mechanical injuries or physiological injuries or illness or emotional dysfunction related to sport.
Those points help clarify the value of a transition or unloading period at the end of the competitive year. But as an endurance athlete, how do you figure out how long this period should be? There are several options. They range from simply going with your gut and resting until you are really antsy to train, then taking 1 more week… All the way out to using a simple equation based on peak race duration and training duration. For example, weeks trained*a factor = estimated transition period days. Divide day’s by 7 and there are the weeks you should use for your transition period. We have coached using this system and I’ve seen other coaches use similar formulas.
That said, a sense of self determination is massive to maximizing your success long term. In an athlete-coach relationship, or, point blank, in a self-coached relationship, having some control in the process – not just executing a number – is huge for long term success. Because of that, I have a fairly “gray” answer for you when it comes to determining transition period duration.
For almost any athlete, 2 weeks is as short as it should be. So, a good rule of thumb to implement is this: Take two weeks where week one is off – no training at all. If you feel mentally or physically down as week 2 arrives, repeat week one. Once you start to feel like doing some physical activity would be enjoyable, so long as you have at least 1 total off week, you can begin doing some random recreational activity based on what feels fun to you. Nothing that feels challenging, and nothing that’s specifically related to your sport. So, you’re a triathlete, no riding the TT bike, road runs or swims. Instead, ride a mountain bike for fun with buddies, do some hikes, try paddling or see if you can try water polo. Active, but not “tri training”. If you are a cyclist, go mountain biking, try some light running or mess around with a few cycling friends shooting hoops at the gym. For a runner, try hiking or go for a few bike rides. The key here, is that on week two, you can do some light activity, but it’s not “training” nor specific to your sport. It should leave you wanting more!
Here’s the trick to the whole thing. As you approach week 3+, are you getting really itchy to train? Do you WANT to get in the gym and get to work building strength for next year? Do you want to start doing workouts specific to your sport. I mean really want it? If yes, great ease into things. If you have ANY hesitation, repeat week two on week three. Repeat this process weekly until you are excited to train. To make sure you are not fooling yourself, if you are self-coached, ask a friend, or pay a coach for a one time consultation to have an independent voice. Are you ready or not? If you are, great.
Having a sense of autonomy control, it’s huge to your long term progress, and to your satisfaction in the process of training. So, although this simple approach may not “sound” as cool as a slick equation or questionnaire you can take to assess readiness… This strategy absolutely will set you up to be both physically AND mentally ready for next season.
Enjoy the year, enjoy your training. It’s an amazing gift to experience and a huge opportunity for positive influence in your life. Don’t negate that, by letting the desire to hit a goal, cloud the best map needed for you to reach that goal. It’s the end of the season, step back, take your foot off the throttle for a few weeks, it’s time for a reboot… You will be stronger, and enjoy the coming season more, for having done it!
Be well - Will
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