Shortly after the 2012 London Olympics, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal outlining how some elite marathoners were planning to take an extended complete break from any kind of training after the race. (A complete break...really?). In that article, one of the world's fastest runners, Bernard Lagat, was quoted as believing that "inactivity was one of the reasons for his success." He said he always "takes the time to be lazy."
That doesn't sound like the kind of relentless intensity and focus we would expect from a world class runner, does it?
Does Bernard know something we don't, or is the fact that he is an elite the reason he feels a break is justified?
What is the right approach for the average age-group athlete who has a job and many other demanding responsibilities on top of training?
My initial response when an athlete asks me if they should take a break is usually the same: It depends.
Yes, I know that sounds like the classic "side-step," but honestly, there are a lot of factors that each of us need to consider as we decide how to approach this time of year. We really are all an experiment of one, and the consequences of our choices will have a huge impact on what's to come.
Be honest: did you drill yourself into exhaustion or are you truly feeling good?
Recovery and rejuvenation come in many forms and is different for each of us. Stress comes in many forms, too, and depending on our lifestyle, work, and training goals, it can take a huge toll. Some of that stress is good, and some of it isn't so good.
The serious consequences of week-in, week-out, 3 (or 4) sport training for months on end, combined with busy, high stress lifestyles (and too little sleep) is a deep level of fatigue that for many borders on exhaustion, and in some cases, can paradoxically become addictive.
Even though Bernard Lagat preferred a complete break, I've traditionally believed that for the majority, a simple change from the normal training routine can be a good approach. At the same time, as I've gotten older I'm reminded that there are few things as important as training consistency, especially as we age. Like many things training related, there's always many viewpoints.
- Is a "complete" break from training the best approach for short and long term mental and physical rejuvenation? If so, how "complete" is complete?
- Could a simpler primarily unstructured approach be best, where we just go "how we feel?"
- Is it better to turn to other activities that aren't typical for us in order to maintain some "fitness" while getting away from the sports we most often train in?
- If we take a break, do we risk losing hard-earned fitness gains that will be difficult to regain?
Deciding in which direction to go and discussing these aspects can often generate as many questions as answers! Here are some additional things to consider as you ponder whether a break is the right choice for you...
- If all else fails, trust your intuition. If your gut feeling is you "need" that break, you probably do!
- If you have been nursing an injury, STOP now and do what is needed to determine the root cause. NOW is the ideal time to resolve injuries once and for all.
- The harder and longer your races, the greater the likelihood you'll benefit from some extended recovery and rejuvenation.
- The older you are, the smaller the margin of error you may have for taking complete time off. To put it another way, as we age, we need more than ever to keep moving. Don't "stop" and rest just for the sake of it.
- The best "break" may simply be a change in training routine. For example, if you are usually on your tri-bike, put that away and get on your mountain bike or cruiser instead. If you're usually running on the roads, get off road and onto a trail. Ease off on the pace and re-establish your aerobic base at a conversational training intensity. If in doubt, try a relaxing hike, ski, roller-blade, or simply sleep in!
- If you're like many and could use to improve skills in some areas, now might be the perfect time. Lower intensity, and technique focused!
Whether YOU need a complete break from structured training or not depends upon you - how healthy and durable you are, what you've done over the recent past, and what your upcoming goals are.
Plan for recovery year round...
Planning regular periods for recovery throughout the year is arguably more important, especially as one training phase builds to the next.
Whether you're an elite (like Bernard), a weekend warrior, or a competitive age-grouper, if you've recently established some training consistency and feel mentally energized and motivated, AND you aren't carrying deep fatigue from a long season of racing and training, there is absolutely no reason to stop now simply because of the calender.
PS: In a series of future posts, I'm going to lay out my philosophy for how to build fitness progressively in the off season. Stay tuned.